The top-ranked football team in the country was coming to State College and for an outsider cruising in for the game it didn't seem as if the residents of the surrounding communities gave a hoot about showing off their Penn State pride or even that they had any.
Early Saturday afternoon, while driving to Happy Valley from Clearfield, Pa., I found it quite strange to see very few houses showing their allegiance to the Penn State Nittany Lions. By this I mean during a 30-mile or so drive, we counted a total of four Penn State flags flying or hanging from the edge of porch roofs – even including what appeared to be campus housing lining the curbs of East Park Ave just blocks away from Beaver Stadium.
Comparing this observation to a fall Saturday in Ohio is like night and day because whenever making the 120-mile drive from my house to Columbus, one knows where the OSU fans live. You'll see scarlet and gray Block O's painted on the sides of barns and more than a few of those air-filled Brutuses anchored down on front lawns. Not to mention the large number of Ohio State flags and banners proudly waving as you pass by from Sandusky to Bucyrus to Delaware and beyond.
This trip to Happy Valley was a lot nicer for me than in 2005, and while the game's outcome played a part in that enjoyment, so did the fact that my sister and I were no longer naïve to the boorish fan behavior that we encountered two years prior. The lessons learned back then went a long way in helping us to decide our course of action this time around.
For instance, once we discovered the location of a friend's tailgate, the route taken to get there from our parking spot was probably longer than it needed to be. But it was one that avoided as much as possible walking through or near the tailgate lots. There were a few inebriated Nit fans who tried to get some trash talking started us but there were just as many who were quite friendly – either that or they ignored us completely which was fine by us.
We probably didn't take in as much of the Penn State game day experience as we would have liked with our choice to steer as clear as possible from impending trouble. Normally, we'd try to catch a glimpse of the Buckeye team's arrival to the stadium and other areas of interest offered up at an away venue but that was OK. The main reason for being there was to see the Buckeyes play, so that was fine by me.
The parking lot we were in offered a shuttle service from that lot to Gate B of the stadium. Again, in our effort to avoid getting into a problem situation we elected to take the shuttle ride as opposed to walking with our Buckeye gear on through some rather rowdy tailgates that stood between us and the stadium. The shuttle was actually an open-air tram. Vicki and I were the only two passengers who were Buckeyes and at one point, a raging, screaming Lions fan spotted us, hopped on while it was moving rather slow, stood over us and began some serious taunting and name-calling. The driver immediately hit the brakes, turned around shooting him one of those "Don't make me come back there looks" on his face and ordered the guy to take a hike.
Beaver Stadium is definitely not going to win any architectural prizes as it reminded me of seeing tall buildings in larger cities that are still under construction with all the naked steel I-beams visible before being covered up with outside walls. The interior lower concourse is a total disaster area of obstructions impeding the flow for thousands of fans trying to get to their seats. It's almost as if the builders decided to stick a chunk of steel in the ground and kept adding on from there with no rhyme or reason. The railings, stairwells and ramps are set in the middle of what normally would be walkways, cutting up what could be nice, clear pathways from the gate entrances to the stands. Add the long lines strung out forever from the concession stands and the way-too-small restrooms, plus the masses of fans smashed together, immobilized, who are attempting to get through the too-narrow ramps leading to the various seating sections to the people moving in perpendicular directions, and you have human gridlock.
Being that our tickets were for seats in the very top row of one of the end zone upper levels, Vicki and I opted for a courtesy golf cart ride up which would drop us off near our section. This was a good choice for us because traversing the steep, long ramps would not have been easy, especially getting through the mass of humanity all in one piece to find the bottom of those ramps.
The golf cart driver was having an extremely difficult time maneuvering through the crowd. He let us know that we were fortunate because the carts would not be making any more trips to that section because of the problems he faced while steering through the highly congested concourse.
Just like on the parking lot shuttle, a PSU fan jumped on the golf cart as soon as he spotted the two Buckeye fans among the six passengers. He got in our faces, screaming and yelling at us until the driver realized he was there and forced him to get off. That was a bit unnerving because had he started anything physical, there was no way we would have been able to escape because the surrounding crowd by this time was also a human gantlet.
Needless to say, once we finally made it to our seats, we felt a nice sense of relief. The two fellows in the seats next to ours were immediately welcoming and gave us a heads-up on where the obnoxious Penn State fans nearby would be sitting. They also offered up protection should we need it and explained that they can't stand the guy who unfortunately had the season ticket next to them.
The warning was taken and they were right. As soon as Mr. Annoying Big Mouth arrived, he spotted our scarlet and gray and the verbal barrage began. Even though we were only about 6 feet apart, he started screaming, "You're not playing Youngstown State!!!" (Add in epithets of your choosing and you won't be far from the exact quotes). The heckling continued during the first quarter, further escalating during Penn State's first scoring drive.
We decided to ignore him which seemed to work. We never once made eye contact, looked his way or retorted to his behavior. Thankfully, the Buckeyes finally shut him up and by halftime, his profanity-laced taunts were directed toward his own team. I was laughing to myself at him as we were so far and high up from the field we might as well have been gazing down from the NASA's space station. And guys like that think the coaches and players on the field can hear their criticisms. Oh well, he left before the mid-point of the third quarter anyway leaving behind a lineup of empty beer bottles.
There was a lady who was sitting on the other side of us, there with her husband and two daughters. The four of them arrived in their seats shortly before kickoff and she was somewhat upset at having two Buckeye fans seated next to her. We overheard her complaining to her husband that there's no way we were supposed to be in those seats and she was trying to get him to ask to see our tickets. I bought the pair of ducats from a Penn State season ticket holder so I wasn't concerned at all. My only thought was that if they did ask, I would have refused to show them to anyone but an usher because there was absolutely no reason for her to believe that we weren't supposed to be there other than the fact that we were Ohio State fans.
That lady didn't say much to us during the game, other than a few snotty comments now and then. They, too, left pretty early.
There was one other incident with a fan and it was also the scariest. Returning from a trip to the concession stand and walking up the steps, an older man sitting on an aisle seat leaned out, blocking my way and with his face about 2 inches from mine, started yelling that I (again, profanity excluded here) was in the wrong section and in so many words suggested I leave. As he aggressively leaned toward me, for an instant I thought he was going to bump me, sending me flying backward down the steps. I just froze, grabbed the handrail and stared him down for a couple of seconds. Hopefully he could read my thoughts but I didn't say a word. Our two seat mates could see that something happened but they weren't able to hear what was said, but after asking me and hearing my explanation they offered to go "take care" of the guy for me but I told them to let it go.
Before the Nittany Lion band took the field, the public address announcer welcomed everybody to the "World's Greatest College Football Show." Then the volume was cranked up and the Black Eyed Peas song "Let's Get it Started" devoured the stadium. It was loud – very loud. By kickoff, the whited-out students had Beaver Stadium completely rocking, including us. Literally, we were being bounced around and swaying while trying to stand still. The upper deck of Beaver Stadium is not a solid structure by any means as the floor sways and bounces whenever the crowd goes wild. It's definitely not a good place for someone prone to motion sickness.
That hostile environment, along with the strong, gusting winds, made Ryan Pretorius' 50-yard field goal even more impressive because he was kicking right in front of those 20,000-plus screaming students. Because of the manner in which Ohio State's offense handled their initial drive, I was left without any concerns whatsoever when Penn State answered back with a touchdown drive of their own. I knew the Bucks would turn around and answer right back. What that score did was get the blue and white crowd to grow louder and somewhat overconfident from the comments being yelled out around us. But I could "feel" that our defense would adjust and quite possibly those seven points would be all Penn State could garner the rest of the night.
By halftime, the "White Out" was turning blue and for the start of the third quarter, the noise decibels declined by over half of what they were at the opening kickoff. The Buckeyes methodically muted the crowd and that was fun to witness first-hand. I noticed with about 10 minutes left in the third quarter that the opposite end zone upper deck stands were about one-third empty. The obnoxious noisemaker near us left early, too, and not surprisingly another guy took up the slack.
This guy was a few rows in front of us and we hadn't heard a peep out of him until somewhere near the middle of the third quarter. Vicki and I work hard to avoid confrontations when we're visiting opposing venues and surrounded by their fans. We pretty much quietly cheer to ourselves and keep our excited emotions in check so as not to instigate trouble. But there was point in the third quarter when Mo Wells ran for a nice chunk of yardage and I couldn't help myself and just went "WOW!! I can't believe I'm seeing this team manhandle a Penn State defense like they are!"
Not yelling, mind you, but it must've been loud enough for Mr. Gator User to turn around, clapping his hands at me in gator chomp fashion. He had me laughing so hard at how ridiculously stupid he looked so I broke my "away" venue rules and said to him, "Are you bailing off the Paterno train and hopping on the Gator bandwagon? Maybe you haven't heard, the Gators lost today, too." His response was something about how I should be ashamed to be a Buckeye fan while his gator chomp kept chomping away. So I said, "At least we were in the national championship game." His reply: "Yeah, and lost!"
It was one of those deals where you're trying to figure out how to have a battle of wits with an unarmed person, so I said, "I'd rather play in the national title game and lose than to not ever be there at all."
He turned around, shoved his gator chompers into his pockets and left within two minutes. However, he didn't leave in the direction one would expect, by walking down his nearly empty row to the stair-stepped aisle and descend, but rather he climbed up over the two bleachers separating us, (I was standing against the wall behind my seat) pushed up against me without saying a word and walked out from the top row. After he got about four steps away, he turned around and said, "I'll be laughing when Akron beats you next year!"
This guy was asking for it and after a quick pre-apology to the nice fellows next to me, I said, "Go ahead and laugh. I'll be laughing, too, when Florida International and Buffalo beats you next year." He stormed off in a huff and never looked back.
Pretty much for the entire fourth quarter, we were able to admire and cheer our Buckeyes in total and complete awe without feeling afraid to do so because the two of us were pretty much alone all the way up there in section NAU, row 95. The Ohio State section, which was in the same end zone but across the way, was having a great time, doing the "O-H-I-O" chants back and forth from lower deck to upper deck. The wind had switched and we felt it for the first time since the start of the game. The concrete wall behind us was a great wind break all night and was great because we didn't feel the chilling breeze at all until near the end of the game.
When the fumble happened right in front of the Ohio State bench, I don't think anyone from either team on the field realized it, even after the Buckeye bench was jumping up and down, pointing and yelling for Donald Washington to go get it. The rest of the gang had already headed back to huddle back up when Washington, who was a good 20 yards from the football, ran up and scooped it up. Too bad he stumbled and fell because there was no one anywhere around who would have stopped him from scoring.
How the game played out was a surprise, especially Todd Boeckman and his supporting cast. The entire night was so much fun after having sat through the horror of Happy Valley two years prior. Watching the Buckeyes make mincemeat out of Joe Paterno's troops was just outright terrific. To see the jubilant Buckeyes running toward their families, friends and fans after the final tick was a wonderful sight to behold. Then they gathered together and even without the Ohio State Marching Band in the house, the team bellowed out an a cappella rendition of "Carmen Ohio."
After finding our way out of the stadium and ending up outside opposite of where we expected to be, we had a long walk back around Beaver Stadium's perimeter ahead of us. On this trek, we came upon the area where the Buckeyes would be exiting the stadium. We could see some of the players talking with family members but they were inside the stadium gates and guards weren't allowing anyone else to re-enter. I saw Jeff Uhlenhake and talked to him a little bit before he hopped on a bus. Jeff was grinning ear to ear and very pleased with the team's effort.
After a few more minutes went by, we realized two buses were parked inside the stadium after someone partially opened an overhead door. It didn't take long to realize those were the team buses and we were confused as to why Jeff and some other football personnel boarded one of two buses that were parked elsewhere. The overhead door was only raised about 4 feet so I stooped down to look under and see what I could see. I spotted a couple of players who were boarding the buses and one of them was Ryan Pretorius. I called out to him and he crawled under the door and came out to greet us. I congratulated him on his wonderful performance and told him to stay on fire and keep it going. He said he would, thanked me and gave me a hug, when the cold hair gel holding up his spiked hair smeared all over my cheek.
A Buckeye fan standing nearby asked Ryan to autograph the jersey on his back and Ryan happily obliged before crawling back under the partially raised overhead door and before some guy dressed in a yellow jacket came over and slammed the door closed. To our disappointment, we didn't get to see or talk with any other players or coaches after that so we headed to the car, hoping the parking lot would be empty by then.
It started raining as we walked across University Drive and fortunately, not many Penn State fans were around on foot. We stayed near the roadways and lighted areas and had no problems at all getting back to our parked car. I'm happy to report after being warned by more than a few Penn State fans that we shouldn't expect to be out of the parking lot for at least two hours after the game, we left our parking spot at five minutes after midnight and we were in our hotel room 50 miles away at 1:35 am. Maybe the somewhat ease of leaving was due to the early mass exodus by their fans – I don't know and I didn't care because I was tired and not really looking forward to sitting in traffic for a couple of hours.
The next morning, I loved waking up and reading the Centre Daily Times newspaper's headline: "Fright Night – Nittany Lions' dream of upset turns to nightmare." Nice redemption for the nightmare we endured in 2005, not only during the game, but before and after. My memories of Happy Valley are now happy ones that I'll cherish forever. That 2005 trip has been erased from my mind thanks to the 2007 Ohio State Buckeyes football team!!!
Driving west on Interstate 80, fellow Buckeye fans would beep, wave and give No. 1 signals as they passed by. The fall colors on the trees were gorgeous, especially the scarlet hues and I remember thinking, "Life is good." I was pleasantly pleased to be surrounded by good vibes the entire trip since leaving Ohio early Saturday morning for the game and until we got back on Sunday afternoon, bringing with us another spectacular Ohio State victory!!!
Go Bucks!!! Beat the Badgers!!!
Susan's View From The Stands: Penn State
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