Playing Through A Pandemic

In a sign of the times, running back Devyn Ford rushed for a touchdown in an empty stadium during Penn State’s 23-7 win at Rutgers last Saturday. It was the first game back for Ford since he missed a game after a death in his family, the latest example of how many players and coaches have made sacrifices and overcome adversity this season. (Photo by Penn State Athletics)

Everyone involved with Penn State football has made sacrifices to ensure this season could be played. Having that opportunity was (and is) critically important to all the players, especially the seniors.

After the fall season was postponed, and then restarted, defensive coordinator Brent Pry was asked if he could tell whether or not the uncertainty was taking an emotional toll on the players.

“Shoot, man, it was wearing on everyone,” he said, laughing a bit, perhaps out of relief that there’d be games. And there have been games. Penn State, in fact, is one of a handful of teams in the Big Ten that has played its entire abbreviated schedule, a testament to how well everyone in the program has adapted and adhered to the COVID-19 restrictions.

Beyond all the challenges that the team is dealing with that are somewhat typical across the country — and believe me, I know using the word “typical” in reference to 2020 sounds bizarre — the Nittany Lions have also dealt with players facing false positive tests during the week, not having all coaches available at each practice, and not enjoying the usual Senior Day recognitions.

At Penn State, families are allowed to be in the stadium but can’t be on the field to share the usual hugs with their sons before the game. It’s a moment that moms, dads, brothers, and sisters have looked forward to for four or five years, and now it’s not going to happen in the way they were hoping.

There has also been heartbreak, as emerging sophomore running back Devyn Ford missed the game against Michigan because of a death in his family. He returned last weekend to help Penn State earn a 23-7 victory at Rutgers, rushing for 65 yards and a touchdown.

“I mean, it’s just like family,” Ford said Saturday after the game, describing what it was like returning to the Penn State football program and receiving feedback from his teammates and coaches.

“They were around me, just consoling me, giving me that love, and I definitely needed it at that time. Everyone faces adversity, so you’ve just got to keep pushing. But it was definitely helpful for them to put their arm around me and be the brothers that they are and be the coaches and the men that they are, actually care for somebody else. It was good.”

Other players have seen COVID-19 hit their families, with running back Noah Cain sharing earlier this fall that multiple family members contracted and overcame the virus. James Franklin said there are other examples of players and people in the program going through adversity behind the scenes. He’s understandably reluctant about sharing details, deferring instead to the players themselves to share what they’re comfortable with. The main point being that what happens on the field each Saturday is usually the result of a lot of unseen work and overcoming challenges that don’t always become common knowledge.

Add in Journey Brown medically retiring for a health-related issue separate from COVID, Cain and Pat Freiermuth suffering season-ending injuries, other players getting hurt, knowing every week that your game might be canceled, and it’s been a lot. And it’s been a lot to endure under once-in-a-lifetime circumstances, faced now with the rest of the student body having already returned home in time for the Thanksgiving holiday and upcoming winter break.

James Franklin has coached this season without the in-person support of his wife, Fumi, and their two daughters, Shola and Addison, as his family is staying out of town because Addison has sickle cell disease, which has her more susceptible to COVID-19. This week, Franklin said: “I can’t tell you what I would do for a hug from my wife and daughters.” (Photo by Steve Manuel)

“A lot of these families and a lot of these young men are having to do this on their own without the normal support that they normally would be able to get or provide,” Franklin said Tuesday during his weekly press conference. “The team’s been really good about it. All the way back to the beginning of the season with us losing players, there’s been a lot of emotional swings that the team has had to handle, and in a lot of ways, I’m really proud of them.”

Later on, Franklin was asked if all the sacrifices made by everyone have been worth it to play this season. It was a simple and straight-forward inquiry. And also complicated. And ultimately, perhaps impossible to answer.

“That’s a good question,” Franklin said, hesitating a bit before beginning his response.

Sometimes, a moment or two of silence says a lot.

“Right now, in the heat of it all, it’s hard to answer that,” Franklin said. “Because to me, I’m not just looking at football, I’m looking at the whole picture. When all these decisions were made, it was hard to predict on how this was going to play out. I mean, you look at the Big Ten in general, you look at the records in the Big Ten, there’s been a few programs who have been able to do it, but I don’t know if there’s ever been a year like this in the Big Ten from a competitive standpoint, pretty much across the board.”

“It’s hard to predict, and to be honest with you, I think we’re still in a position where it’s hard to predict what the future holds, when this is going to end, when is this going to change, when are we going to get back to normal. … It’s been tough, I will tell you this, I can’t tell you what I would do for a hug from my wife and daughters.”

Franklin’s wife, Fumi, and their two daughters, Shola and Addison, are staying out of town during the season because Addison has sickle cell disease, a blood disorder that has her more susceptible to COVID-19. Franklin would love to find a way to have his family visit him in State College, though as he said, that’s especially difficult because there isn’t a nearby medical center that can handle sickle cell.

That’s Franklin’s personal story, he said, and there are as many as 150 others in the program. His message was it’s not about him, it’s about the team. Sometimes fans hear about some of those other stories. Sometimes they don’t. Either way, the stories are still there. And they matter.

“Although we haven’t had the success on the field this year that we want … I also think there’s been some really good examples as well of this team sticking together, of this team battling back at a time when other programs aren’t; with guys opting out and those types of things and our guys haven’t done that, they’ve continued to battle,” Franklin said.

“There’s been some cracks that have been exposed through this pandemic, but there’s also been tremendous resiliency. I know this sounds strange, and I don’t want this to be misinterpreted, but I’m also proud of that. I’m also proud of how we have battled a lot of adversity and a lot of challenges.”

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Giving Thanks

James Franklin takes a pregame lap before every game at Beaver Stadium, when he thanks stadium personnel and fans for their support. (Photo by Penn State Athletics, taken in 2018)

The game day atmosphere at Beaver Stadium for the team arrival is truly incredible. Thousands of fans, many of whom rose early and have been tailgating for hours, line Curtin Road and the adjacent areas to welcome James Franklin and the Nittany Lions to the stadium.

The team exits the Blue Buses outside Medlar Field at Lubrano Park and walk toward the tunnel, with fans facing them on both sides of Curtin. It’s similar to team arrival across the SEC, a new tradition that Franklin brought with him from Vanderbilt. It’s been a smash hit.

Music is booming. The Nittany Lion, Penn State Cheerleaders, and Lionettes preform. A stage is set up near the tunnel, and fans cover every inch of grass and pavement on the south size of the stadium.

But then the environment changes once Franklin walks through the tunnel and makes his way onto the field, where he embarks on one of his lesser-known traditions: He takes a pregame lap around Beaver Stadium, and along the way, he thanks stadium personnel and fans for their support. He’ll shake hands, share fist bumps, and give hugs. Occasionally, someone asks for an autograph, and Franklin usually obliges.

This hospitality also extends to the TV crews who are there prepping for the telecast, the Penn State Cheerleaders, and really anyone else he sees. Before last year’s game against Michigan, Franklin even welcomed two Wolverine fans dressed in maize and blue who somehow found their way into the stadium early.

His daughters, Shola and Addison, typically accompany their dad and join him in sharing thanks and gratitude. For the folks in the upper deck, the young girls will shout “We Are.”

Compared to outside, which sounded like a rock concert a few minutes before, the atmosphere on the field is markedly different. The stadium is nearly entirely empty. The PA system is silent. Once he arrives at the stadium, this might be the last few moments of anything resembling solitary and quiet for the head football coach on game day.

It’d be easy (and maybe even understandable) for Franklin to bypass everyone he sees. After all, there are only a certain number of game days each year, each a looming report card that assesses the team’s progress. There are probably hundreds of thoughts going through his mind on one of the biggest days of the year for his team, though taking the time to give a simple “thank you” is a point of emphasis for Franklin because of his upbringing, he said.

Franklin was raised by a single mother, who worked as both a hall aid and as a janitor at his high school in the suburbs of Philadelphia. And in recent weeks, as the team struggled through an 0-5 start, Franklin talked about recognizing the blessings that he has in his life.

In a way, Franklin was saying this: During a year when nothing is typical and everything has been unexpected, it’s important to remember who you are, what you’ve accomplished, and where you’ve come from.

Just this week, he said that this team is still the Cotton Bowl champs, Fiesta Bowl champs, and Big Ten champs.

This year doesn’t change any of that.

And while his pregame lap isn’t the same, either, that foundational belief in recognizing teamwork hasn’t changed, either.

“I think it was really, pretty much, how I was raised. I’ve just always been taught to treat people the way you would want to be treated and thank people and show appreciation and have manners and say, ‘Yes sir and no sir, and thank you and you’re welcome,’” Franklin said. “Whether it’s Penn State football or any other industry, it takes a lot of people to make the machine go, it takes a lot of people. So, when I walk around Beaver Stadium and I see all those people working there so that we can have a great game day environment and that the people can be safe and orderly and all those types of things, it’s an opportunity for me to do that. It’s an opportunity for me to thank them.”

“I’ve always taken a lap; it’s usually been with my daughters. Obviously, right now, that’s not an option, and it’s somewhat strange and somewhat surreal, walking around the stadium each week and there’s nobody in there. But again, this is what 2020 is, and (I) try to stick to my normal routine and still try to find some times to think about the blessings that we do have and thinking about the people in our lives and the impact that hopefully we’re making.”

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‘Powerful’ Adam Taliaferro Special to Air on BTN

In one of the most inspiring moments in Beaver Stadium history, Adam Taliaferro walked onto the field prior to the team’s season opener in 2001. (Photo by Penn State)

An inspiring member of the Penn State football family will be featured tonight on The Big Ten Network.

The station will air a one-hour special titled, “The B1G Moment: Adam Taliaferro” this evening at 7. BTN will re-air the special multiple times, including 1 p.m. on Wednesday, 6 p.m. on Thursday and 3 p.m. on Friday. Fans can find more listings at btn.com/shows.

Many fans are familiar with Taliaferro’s incredible journey. As a true freshman, he suffered a life-threatening spinal cord injury at Ohio State in 2000, absorbing a hit that left him with no movement in his extremities from his neck down.

He was given a 3 percent chance to ever walk again.

That 3 percent came through in a big way, as Taliaferro jogged onto the Beaver Stadium field less than a year later, before Penn State’s home opener against Miami (Fla.).

Chuck Kimball was the Nittany Lion mascot that game, and Kimball talked about that experience earlier this season on The Football Letter Live. He even has the jersey that Taliaferro wore that evening. You can watch the episode online, with Kimball talking about Taliaferro beginning around the 30-minute mark.

We also spoke with letterman Justin Kurpeikis last year. Kurpeikis talked about the game following the Ohio State contest in 2000, an emotionally charged home victory over a Purdue team led by future Hall-of-Famer Drew Brees.

Today, James Franklin talked about Taliaferro’s impact during his weekly news conference. The head coach had an opportunity to see the video ahead of time, leading him to call Taliaferro and share how much he enjoyed watching the special.

“As you guys know, I’m an emotional guy,” Franklin said. “Actually, Michael Hazel (senior director of football operations) and Nacho (Jim Natchman, assistant AD, media and video production) sent that to me last week before it was public. I got the hot peek at it and got emotional watching it. I called Adam and Adam hadn’t seen it yet, and I just told him, I said, ‘You’re going to love this thing. It is powerful.’”

Franklin continued:

“I think Adam represents everything that Penn State is all about. It’s interesting, the other thing that kind of hit home for me watching that is the challenges that that team had that season and the timing of it all (Taliaferro ran onto the Beaver Stadium field 10 days before 9/11). So, I had a really good conversation with Adam. He’s been phenomenal, not only with his time as an undergraduate student here, and how the Penn State community rallied around him and behind him is special. I know that at a point, Adam was on the board of trustees here, and he’s very successful back in New Jersey. I’m a big Adam fan and we couldn’t be more proud of him, and I think everybody’s going to love the show. And I strongly recommend, again, everybody take an hour and watch that and get away from your frustrations with other things right now.”

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Facing an Unfamiliar Fall

Beaver Stadium

Fans will have to wait until at least the spring to see their Nittany Lions play at Beaver Stadium, as Penn State prepares for a fall unlike any other in history. Photo by John Patishnock 

I’m incredibly spoiled.

That probably sounds like a strange way to start a column, though it’s something that I think of constantly. I’m also reminded of this on my daily run around the University Park campus. I grew up in the area, graduated from Penn State, and have plenty of memories of Beaver Stadium, both as a fan while growing up and also covering the team.

Since moving back to State College, I’ve spent the last seven years living in College Heights, right next to campus.

I’ve been a runner for a long time now, going back to my undergraduate days, and my current routine takes me up a few blocks along Atherton Street, where I cross at Park Avenue, and then run the entire length of Curtain Road.

I pass by the Nittany Lion Shrine, University Libraries (Pattee-Paterno), Palmer Museum of Art, and the Berkey Creamery. I keep going until I hit the T-intersection where Beaver Stadium intersects with Medlar Field at Lubrano Park, head to University Drive along Park, and then double back.

Many Penn Staters are able to return to campus only a few times a year. Usually during highly popular events such as the Blue-White Game, Arts Fest, Homecoming, and the seven home football games.

In many ways, this is a lost year for alumni and friends, though I don’t see it entirely that way. Of course, it’s easy for me to say that. Again, I’m spoiled. I have the opportunity to work for my alma mater and see the aforementioned legendary campus landmarks nearly every day.

With the Big Ten football season (and all fall sports) now officially canceled — the conference will regroup and see if the teams can pull off a spring season — Penn State faces a fall unlike anything we’ve ever experienced before.

Chances are pretty good the next four-plus months will go by slowly. Campus will probably have something of an eerie feeling at times. As a runner, sometimes it’s nice to feel like I have campus to myself, though I undoubtably miss the buzz that students and visitors create when they swarm back to Happy Valley.

While looking ahead, there are already a few things I believe I’ll remember from this year. And perhaps future generations will benefit, too. Anytime something seismic comes along that fundamentally shifts the way people live and work, and I think a global pandemic counts, changes are bound to happen.

  • Many Penn State football student-athletes speaking up and further realizing the influence they have, and how to positively wield that influence beyond the field. Among other leaders on the squad, team captain Sean Clifford posted a thoughtful message once the cancellation was announced. This followed up similar posts featuring hashtags #IWantToPlay and #IWantASeason, and also imploring fans to wear masks. You can scroll through the Twitter feeds of many of his teammates to find additional examples.
  • James Franklin continuing to be a strong advocate for student-athletes and further cement his status as one of the best coaches in the country, and one who’s not afraid to comment on important issues facing our society. Here’s a message he posted the day before the official cancellation announcement came out. When not saying anything is sometimes the easiest thing to do, it’s heartening to see our on-field leaders speak up.
  • Had the 2020 season continued in the fall, I strongly believe Penn State would’ve made the playoffs. I had this projection in place heading into 2019, and I saw last season unfolding like 1993, which led to the all-time great season of 1994. Just like 1993, the Nittany Lions had a few regular-season losses, though enjoyed a strong finish with an impressive bowl win. There was so much talent on the roster, and over the years, Franklin talks with more and more confidence about how this program is where he wants it to be. One example is agreeing to be highlighted on HBO’s 24/7 College Football program last season. The team had been approached with the request in previous years, though it wasn’t until last year’s campaign that Franklin said he felt comfortable enough to agree to it. How this year’s Penn State team would’ve fared probably will be a lively conversation topic among fans in the coming years.

One last thing I’ll remember: Never take anything for granted. Before this year, I knew I could always count on covering Penn State football in the fall, seeing hundreds of thousands of alumni and fans return to their collegiate home, and see campus come alive again after a laid-back summer.

I knew it. It would always happen. Until 2020.

So when Penn State football returns in 2021, I’ll savor it even more. Until then, I’ll settle for the welcoming views on my daily runs.

Timeless Collectibles

Coke bottles

Like many Penn Staters, I’m spending a lot more time at home lately. I’m fortunate to be able to work remotely, though there’s also been plenty of cooking, baking, and organizing around the house.

Which leads us to this past weekend.

I was helping my parents with some spring cleaning, when I uncovered three collectible Coca-Cola bottles from the 1980s, commemorating the team’s national championship in 1982.

I remember seeing them in my childhood home, and then understandably, I forgot about them. I always thought they were cool, in a sentimental type of way before so many aspects of sports became commercialized.

My parents thought the bottles were worth bringing to their State College home about 20 years ago, and I’m glad they did. We found them in a side closet in the walk-in pantry, behind cans of paint, various cleaning supplies, clothes, and even an old pair of shoes.

But the bottles were there, still unsealed and looking just as cool as ever.

I snapped a photo of the keepsakes on the kitchen counter and posted it to our Twitter account, asking if anyone else still had these bottles in their collection (similar bottles were also produced in 1986). I figured there’d be a handful of replies, maybe even a few dozen.

Instead, we received nearly 100 responses, and the post generated about 8,000 engagements.

Pretty good for a couple of old Coke bottles.

Many of the responses were detailed, with alumni and fans sharing photos of how and where their championship bottles are displayed in their homes. Just the latest example of Penn State fans displaying their passion.

So, that got us thinking: What other cherished items do Penn State fans have in their memorabilia collections?

Visit us on Facebook and Twitter and reply to our posts at the top of the page. We’re looking forward to seeing your responses, and maybe we’ll even see something new.

Of course, the classics are always good. And timeless.

The Significance of Sports

In the grand scheme of life, sports might be pretty insignificant. Then again, they’re very significant. 

In challenging times, sports have always been there to provide a sense of hope for me. A sense that however bad things might be in “the real world,” at least I’ve got a sport to play or a sport to watch. I’d imagine that’s the way it is for a lot of people around the country. 

As the difficult circumstances surrounding the COVID-19 virus continue and more sports leagues — professional and amateur — continue to suspend, postpone or cancel their season, it’s hard to fathom that sports, at least for a little while, won’t be there to help us get through the tough times. 

When news broke yesterday that the NCAA was canceling all of its remaining winter and spring sports — including the men’s and women’s basketball tournaments — I couldn’t help but feel an overwhelming sadness.

It was a tough decision, but probably the right decision. The seriousness of this pandemic, obviously, takes precedent. The health of the public is always going to be the top priority. 

That doesn’t make the pause on sports easier to stomach. 

I’m sad, above all, for the players, particularly senior student-athletes who will miss out on a proper conclusion to their college careers — for many of them, their athletic careers as a whole. 

As someone who was an athlete in high school, the end of my playing days were tough to take, but at the very least I got to end it on the basketball court and in the locker room with my teammates. 

It’s unfortunate, unfair really, that players like Lamar Stevens won’t get the ending they deserve. 

“I was really hurt,” Stevens said on a podcast earlier today with college basketball analyst, Jeff Goodman. “Being a senior, being a guy who hasn’t made the tournament in the previous three years and knowing that it was going to be a reality this year.”

Stevens ends his time in Happy Valley just seven points shy of passing Talor Battle to become the program’s all-time leading scorer, a feat he would have undoubtedly passed in the team’s scheduled Big Ten Tournament game against Indiana. 

“Not having any control over it was tough,” Stevens continued on Goodman’s podcast. “Being seven points away from becoming the school’s all-time leading scorer, my heart broke, honestly. I felt like I gave everything I had for this program and this school to get to that point.”

“I wanted to experience that with my teammates and our coaches. Have the Penn State community rally around us for something we haven’t done for nine years. I had a lot of excitement for that. It was something I was really proud of. To see it all end this way, it really hurts.”

As Stevens alluded to, he and the rest of the team miss out on hearing Penn State’s name pop up on CBS on Selection Sunday. The signal that the program’s near decade-long NCAA Tournament drought would be over. 

I think about senior members of the Penn State Wrestling team — the moments that Vincenzo Joseph and Mark Hall delivered on the mat in Rec Hall or at the Big Ten Championships or at the NCAA Championships. 

Joseph leaves a two-time NCAA Champion and three-time NCAA finalist. His thrilling upset as a freshman over No. 1 ranked Isaiah Martinez in 2017 ( he pinned the heavily favored Illini wrestler) is a signature moment in the already storied history of Penn State Wrestling. 

Hall ends his career a three-time Big Ten Champion, three-time NCAA finalist and the 2017 NCAA National Champion at 174 pounds. 

They both miss out on their shots to become national champions once more in 2020. 

There are senior members of the Penn State Men’s Hockey team, who have helped turn the program from Division I upstart to a Big Ten contender. 

Senior Liam Folkes delivered perhaps the greatest moment in the team’s young history. In 2017, he scored the game-winning breakaway goal against Wisconsin in double overtime of the Big Ten Tournament title game. 

The 10-man senior class of Brandon Biro, Folkes, Blake Gober, James Gobetz, Will Holtfoster, Peyton Jones, Kris Myllari, Nikita Pavylchev, Denis Smirnov and Nate Sucese, at the very least ended their college careers by capturing the Big Ten regular season title. 

But they won’t get the chance to capture another tournament crown or compete for Penn State’s first Frozen Four appearance. 

Despite a few early losses, the Men’s Lacrosse team had the talent and firepower to get back to the Final Four and win a national championship. Seniors like Grant Ament, Dylan Foulds and Mac O’Keefe are robbed of that opportunity. 

There are names I didn’t mention from the other Penn State winter and spring sports. For the sake of time, I can’t highlight them all specifically here, but there’s no diminishing their impact. They all made their mark in Penn State history. 

We will go on. Sports at Penn State and across the globe will resume sometime in the future. 

For the time being, though, we must get through all of this without sports to provide us that joy, provide us the hope.

We won’t have the power of Stevens driving to the hoop for a basket or the energy of Hall driving his opponent to the mat for a fall to take us away from the struggles. 

More importantly, the players themselves won’t ever get those kinds of experiences again in a Penn State uniform. 

The grind of the countless hours, days and even years that they’ve put in for their sport. For many of them, the chance to compete for a conference or national championship is the culmination of all of that hard work. The reward for the effort. 

It didn’t end on their terms. 

That’s the hardest part to swallow. The abrupt finality of it all. A tough way to be reminded of the significance of sports in difficult times.

Hot Ticket

Penn State-Pitt ticket

Penn State

There’s plenty of nostalgia that’s conjured up anytime Penn State plays Pitt.

We’ll leave the merits of whether or not this remains a true rivalry game for another time, though we got a chuckle out of uncovering this image of a Penn State-Pitt ticket from the 1967 game at Beaver Stadium.

Five bucks got you a seat. Even adjusting for inflation, that was below the current market rate. We also wouldn’t mind seeing those end zone graphics return, though we’ll leave that decision to the experts who ensure Beaver Stadium’s field is the best in the nation.

If you’ve got any cool Penn State-Pitt swag, post your images to Twitter and tag The Football Letter, or share on Facebook and tag the Alumni Association.

muddy struggle

1900 Buffalo

University at Buffalo University Libraries/1900 Buffalo football team

Pop Golden figured Penn State would’ve won on a dry field.

If that name doesn’t sound familiar to Nittany Lion football fans, it’s understandable. After all, William “Pop” Golden coached Penn State more than a century ago, and for only three seasons (1900–02).

However, if the 1900 contest against Buffalo is any indicator, he enjoyed an eventful tenure as head coach.

The details of this game are thankfully preserved by the University at Buffalo’s University Archives. We say “thankfully” even though Penn State was tagged with a 10-0 defeat, because the circumstances surrounding the contest are part comical, part impressive, and entirely worth remembering, if only to recognize how far college football has come since its beginning 150 years ago.

So, about the playing conditions:

The game was played on Thanksgiving, with the Buffalo Athletic Field featuring “the worst bog imaginable,” according to the Buffalo Evening News. The outlet also described the season-ending win coming amid “a hard and muddy struggle” in its headline. The New York Times, meanwhile, declared that the gridiron was more fit for water polo than football.

The reason for the undesirable field was that when the Buffalo Railway Company’s scrapers cleared off the snow, they took the turf, too.

Visibility was so bad that players on both sides couldn’t tell who was who. Often, a player would pull who they thought was a teammate from the mud, only to discover they were staring at their opponent.

Pop Golden

William “Pop” Golden

Making matters worse for the Nittany Lions, they were placed in a cold room at halftime, resulting in the players coming out stiff in the second half, according to Golden.

He also said: “I think that Penn State would defeat Buffalo on a dry field.”

Golden hoped Penn State-Buffalo would turn into an annual series, though it was another 107 years before the two squads played again — a 45-24 victory for Penn State at Beaver Stadium in 2007.

You can read the full recap from the 1900 classic — including plenty of other fascinating details — at University at Buffalo’s University Libraries’ website

­For the Glory,

— John Patishnock ’05

From the Archives: Penn State V. Arizona (1999)

Arizona Daily Star

Arizona Daily Star/David Sanders

Chafie Fields’ energy changed on the way to the stadium.

Fields, one of Penn State’s most accomplished wide receivers, says he always tried to avoid all the pageantry that overtook campus and the community leading up to a big game for the Nittany Lions.

The 1999 season opener against Arizona certainly qualified for that category, and Fields took the same approach as the Nittany Lions prepared to host the Wildcats in a matchup of Top-5 teams at Beaver Stadium. In the first-ever (and only) battle between the squads, Penn State and Arizona each entered the game ranked either third or fourth in the two major polls at the time.

Personally, Fields began the season highly motivated, determined to prove he was an elite wideout with explosive playmaking ability. Still, even with ESPN’s College GameDay in town and the college football world centered on State College, Fields saw the contest against Arizona as “just another week for me.”

That was one of many lessons he learned from Joe Paterno: Don’t get caught up in the attention, or as Fields described, “stay out of the lights.”

Though when Saturday morning rolled around, the mood in the air shifted, and Fields noticed. He saw the outpouring of support, and he felt the energy. Sensed it. Saw it. Knew that Happy Valley was about to be rocking, perhaps had been rocking all week.

As the fleet of Blue Buses pulled away from the team hotel and motored toward Beaver Stadium, there was no longer denying that the upcoming contest against Arizona was significant.

“That’s when you realize the magnitude of things, because all the fans were already out there bright and early,” Fields recalled. “The streets were lined with people welcoming us to the stadium — I’m talking the whole way from Toftrees. The streets were lined with fans. That’s when I started to feel the energy, like ‘OK, we’re here.’”

Fields was ready.

Chafie Fields_AP

Associated Press

A senior standout for the ’99 squad, he scored two touchdowns within the game’s first six minutes in spectacular fashion. First, he caught a 37-yard scoring toss from Kevin Thompson on the game’s opening drive, “twisted away from one defender and outran the rest to the corner of the end zone,” as John Black ’62 wrote in The Football Letter.

The next time the Nittany Lions possessed the ball, Fields raced 70 yards on an inside reverse. As Black explained, Fields made a perfect cut over left tackle, and then ran down the middle of the field for the second score.

“And the rout was on,” Black summarized correctly.

At the time, the third-largest crowd in Beaver Stadium history (97,168) watched Penn State dispatch its West Coast opponent 41-7 in a game that was as much of a blowout as the score indicated: The Nittany Lions led 31-0 at halftime and 41-0 after the third quarter.

It should be noted here: Any story about Fields and 1999 needs to include that a few weeks following the blowout over Arizona, he caught one of the most memorable touchdown passes in Penn State football history: Fields corralled a 79-yard score in the waning minutes to catapult the Nittany Lions past Miami for a road victory over the eighth-ranked Hurricanes (Penn State was ranked third). The highlight prompted a memorable call from legendary play-by-play announcer Fran Fisher, who as Fields crossed the goal line, belted with enthusiasm:

Penn State touchdown! No flags! No flags! No flags! 

Fields finished the game against Miami with 177 receiving yards, seventh-best all-time in program history for a single contest. For his career, Fields totaled 88 catches for 1,437 yards, prolific enough to place Fields in the Top 20 all time at Penn State.

Rankings aside with respect to this week’s opponent, a similar situation to the 1999 opener awaits the Nittany Lions on Saturday, with Penn State hosting a first-time opponent that hails from the west.

Penn State and Idaho are set for a 3:30 p.m. kickoff at Beaver Stadium, site of what should be a picturesque backdrop for Labor Day weekend in Happy Valley.

Fields earned a B.S in 1999 from the College of Health and Human Development, and he’s now an accomplished sports agent who’s represented many Penn State lettermen. Anytime he can work with a Penn Stater, “it’s a lot more personal,” he says, and he plans to cheer on the Nittany Lions this season.

That’ll always be true for Fields, a self-described “Penn State loyalist” who hopes to see the Nittany Lions win out and compete in the College Football Playoff. Either way, he’s standing by and ready if he’s ever called upon to serve the team.

“Anything that I can do to support the program, I’ll do,” Fields said. “I’ll be one of the biggest fans. I’ll be rooting for Penn State all year, I’m always going to.”

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College Football Heaven

Penn State v. Michigan(Photo by Steve Manuel)

The Football Letter/Steve Manuel

This weekend, tens of thousands of alumni and fans will return to State College, rekindling a lifelong love affair with Penn State. If you’re among the many who are embarking upon the annual fall pilgrimage to Happy Valley, chances are you’ll notice some changes upon arrival.

Construction is ongoing at Willard Building for the state-of-the-art Donald P. Bellisario Media Center, and you can check out picturesque views of Sparks and West Halls from the newly renovated Collaboration Commons in Pattee Library. These remodeled areas have the aim to enhance the student experience, an admirable goal that’s always at the forefront of University administrators’ minds.

The Diner is gone — quite literally — as development has already begun on its replacement, a fast-casual restaurant chain. And if you’re looking to order some wings at The Darkhorse Tavern, well, you’ll have a surprise waiting for you.

These are just a few examples.

However, there’s one thing you can always count on when you come into town for the season opener.

As you stroll across campus or head downtown, the crisp fall-like weather smacks your senses and leaves no doubt: Penn State football has returned to Happy Valley.

That’s the beauty of September (or in this case, August) in Central Pennsylvania.

Penn State v. PITT (Photo by Steve Manuel)

The Football Letter/Steve Manuel

The town takes on a life of its own and the familiar energy swirls around State College, as the season’s first kickoff awaits on the horizon.

Football, of course, is the reason for alumni and fans descending upon University Park this weekend, as the chase for another 10-win campaign and Big Ten championship begins for James Franklin and the Nittany Lions.

The on-field success is one reason for so much excitement surrounding the upcoming season. Additionally, what makes Penn State football special for so many goes way beyond what happens on the gridiron.

Tailgating. The Blue Band. Stopping by the Nittany Lion Shrine for a photo with family and friends. Each home game weekend is a throwback to your college days, an opportunity to transport yourself back to a time when Dear Old State molded you when you stood at childhood’s gate.

We understand that passion, because we feel the same way.

With The Football Letter blog, we strive to deliver stories and photos that showcase the high level of devotion that Penn State graduates have for their alma mater. If you haven’t already, subscribe to the blog (enter your email address in the box in the lower right-hand corner) and follow us on Twitter, as we’ll highlight the many reasons that distinguish Penn State as one of the premier college football programs in the country.

Or, in Bill O’Brien’s words, why Penn State is “college football heaven.”

Penn State v. Ohio State (Photo by Steve Manuel)

The Football Letter/Steve Manuel

Throughout the season, we’ll feature lettermen, speak with players and coaches, and dig into our extensive archives. We’ll also talk with Steve Manuel ’84, ’92g, longtime distinguished photographer for The Football Letter, as he looks back on some of his most memorable photos.

There’s a lot to savor, and we’re looking forward to sharing another season with our readers.

So, if you’re in town this weekend, we invite you to take your time and soak up all the sights, sounds, and smells that elevate State College into the quintessential college town in America.

There really is no place in the world like Happy Valley in the fall.

For the Glory,

— John Patishnock ’05

 

For more on the The Football Letter, including online archives (requires Alumni Association member log-in), click here.

Not yet an Alumni Association member? Click here.