Tragedy has a way of galvanizing families and communities.
This is the way John Black eloquently started the Oct. 2, 2000 edition of The Football Letter.
Penn State upended a Drew Brees-led Purdue squad 22-20 a few days earlier at Beaver Stadium, one of five victories the team earned during one of the rare losing campaigns in Joe Paterno’s tenure as Nittany Lion head coach.
The score, though, really wasn’t the point. That’s why it wasn’t until the eighth paragraph that Black mentioned anything that happened in the game.
The week leading up to the contest? That’s what set this game apart from your typical fall Saturday in Happy Valley. The events that transpired on campus and at the Ohio State University Hospital are what alumni and fans wanted to hear, read, and learn more about.
Many Penn Staters are familiar with what happened the previous week, when defensive back Adam Taliaferro suffered a catastrophic injury against the Buckeyes. Tragic, and possibly life-altering, Penn State football had never seen one of its players suffer such an injury before, Black summarized.
And while Taliaferro’s inspiring story has been on display for many years — he fully recovered physically and is now successful in several career fields — back in 2000, his future was very much in doubt.
Coaches, teammates, and fans knew this, which made the following week unavoidably surreal.
Justin Kurpeikis, a senior defensive end on the 2000 squad who also played in the NFL, said the days leading up to the Purdue game were different from anything he had ever experienced in the sport.
“From the moment he got injured, I think there was this feel of how serious it was,” Kurpeikis said. “The news we got the following week — just a lot of raw emotion.”
Taliaferro spent four days in the hospital, undergoing cervical spinal decompression surgery, and Paterno and Athletic Director Tim Curley flew back to Columbus to visit Taliaferro and his family in the hospital. Paterno even cancelled practice on Monday, something that seems unheard of today, and probably back then, too.
All of which underscored the seriousness that overshadowed the team leading up to the showdown against the Boilermakers, a formidable opponent that season. Purdue finished the regular season 8-3 and tied for the Big Ten championship with Michigan and Northwestern with a 6-2 conference mark.
“Emotion wears off, preparation and focus don’t,” said Kurpeikis, who grew up near Pittsburgh and played at Central Catholic High School.
“I think what we saw different that week was it provided a way for that team — and we weren’t particularly good that year, we ended up 5-7 — but because of him and what he meant to guys and how jarring the experience was, it forced guys all week long … If you say you’re going to play for someone, then that focus has to be there, and that’s what I think it was.”
After both teams tallied a pair of field goals in the first half, Purdue took a temporary lead (13-6) after Brees caught a touchdown pass. The Heisman Trophy hopeful had broken the Big Ten record by completing 33-of-49 passes for 409 yards against Minnesota the previous week.
Fullback Paul Jefferson and quarterback Rashard Casey each recorded a rushing score to help push Penn State to the victory over 22nd-ranked Purdue, with Black saying that “Beaver Stadium rocked Saturday like it hasn’t for several years.”
Paterno stated it was the most difficult week of his career as a coach, and defensive coordinator Tom Bradley called Taliaferro before the game to let him know the team was thinking of him. There was a group prayer on the Old Main steps that featured Paterno as a speaker, with funds collected for Taliaferro’s long-term care. At the on-campus rally, fans also signed cards for Taliaferro, in a sign of unity.
Nearly two decades later, Kurpeikis still strongly relates to that sense of belonging, mainly because Penn State has always felt like home for him.
His first memory is watching a game at Beaver Stadium, from the vantage point of his dad’s shoulders. From that moment, Penn State’s the only place where he’s wanted to be. After starring for the Nittany Lions, he played a half-dozen seasons in the NFL before returning to State College in 2007. He’s lived full time in the area since and has founded two companies.
One of his ventures is Atlas Therapy, which specializes in physical therapy clinics in State College and Altoona. He studied a pre-med curriculum at Penn State, and even had aspirations to become a doctor after his playing days. He looked at ways to stay healthy as a player, and he always liked medicine and anatomy, so the transition from NFL player to business owner became something of a natural path.
His time at Penn State served him well, and still does in many ways. While playing for Paterno, Kurpeikis learned about formulating a team, and the importance of a mission, and culture, and accomplishing something special.
All of those ideals, he said, are what drive him today to grow his companies and do things the right way.
Penn State’s still a part of that, and from the way he speaks fondly of his days as a Nittany Lion, always will be.
“There’s not a day that’s gone by since I came to school here — including every day since — that I haven’t thought on a lesson or a quote that either Coach Paterno or my other coaches have said, and that’s a very important time in a young man’s life, 18-22 years old,” Kurpeikis said.
“Every day, whether it’s my family or my business, there’s a situation where I can recall on something that either Joe or one of the other coaches said, or something that went on with my experience that relates. That’s pretty powerful to say that.”
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