My Last Day Covering Joe

A 25-year veteran of the Penn State beat tried to stay one step ahead while covering Joe Paterno's procession through campus and State College.

Wednesday was my first time covering a procession.

So when I arrived outside the Pasquerilla Spiritual Center on the Penn State campus, I had no game plan. The funeral service for Nittany Lion football coach Joe Paterno was being held inside the center, and as the proceedings stretched to nearly two hours, I had time to think things out.

The procession honoring Paterno, which went through campus and downtown State College, followed the service. The route was straightforward — from the Spiritual Center across Curtin Road and past Beaver Stadium, then right onto Porter road and then right on to College Avenue and into downtown State College. The public part of it would end at Atherton Street. Basically a big “U.”

On a normal day with normal traffic conditions, it would take someone 10 minutes to drive the 3.5-mile route of the procession.

My goal was to videotape the procession at key points along the route, and the ones that made the most sense to me were the start (at the rear of the Spiritual Center), somewhere near Beaver Stadium and then in the heart of downtown State College (at College and Allen Street).

I wanted to do this because, for all of the people who were in Happy Valley for the procession, I knew many times that number wished they could have been. Why not try to give them a good feel for things, something they might not get from other media outlets?

So I shot the hearse coming out from behind the center and going to the front of the procession. People were quiet but the buses carrying family members had been fired up and were making a lot of noise. So was the TV helicopter overhead.

Former Penn State players Ki-Jana Carter, O.J. McDuffie, Blair Thomas and Brian O'Neil just happened to be standing right behind the hearse when I shot it. Their faces were etched with emotion. Carter was pounding his own heart. I zoomed in on McDuffie, who had his hands together as if in prayer. It was a lucky shot.

The next stop was Beaver Stadium.

Screen shot of McDuffie and Carter watching the hearse.

• I was parked in a lot near Mateer Building (not far from the Nittany Lion Inn). I hustled to my van, tossed my gear in the back and took off. After a right onto Fischer Road and a right onto Allen Road, I was stuck at a logjam at the traffic light at Allen and Park Avenue. I was 10 cars back and the folks at the front of the line were being hemmed in from pedestrians crossing Park.

A U-turn. I took Fischer back toward the Nittany Lion Inn, where there was another entrance to Park. Better still, there was a no-left-turn sign. Alas, the guy in the pickup ahead of me was still trying to turn left. I hit the horn. He made it out and I darted right onto Park. I caught every light all the way down to Porter Road.

My phone rang and a colleague said he was watching the procession on TV. The shot from the helicopter, to be exact. The procession was just crossing University Drive near the Jordan Center.

I zipped up Porter (behind Beaver Stadium) and into the parking lot for Penn State's baseball stadium, Medlar Field at Lubrano Park. I double-parked, got out of the van, and ran to the corner of Curtin and Porter. The crowd was not deep. Former Penn State football player and Uplifting Athletes founder Scott Shirley was there.

“Hey Mark, I saved a spot for you,” he said with a smile on his face.

I was in position just as the procession rounded the corner. So I had Beaver Stadium as a backdrop. It was quiet until the hearse got close, and people began clapping and yelling (positive stuff). After it passed, I saw a man on the other side of the road. He was emotional. A woman close by had a sign that said, “Thank You Joe.” She was looking at her cell phone. It ruined the shot.

OK, now how to get to College and Allen, considering the procession is taking the most obvious route?

Screen shot from the corner near Beaver Stadium.

• A jog to the van. And my mind was racing. I put my odds of making it to the next target area at about 10-1. I turned right onto Porter (the opposite direction of the procession), then left onto Park Avenue.

Then came the biggest decision. Straight on Park to try to go completely around campus and then work my way back to the center of town? Or left on University Drive, where I'd have to eventually take to the narrow residential streets to get where I needed to be.

I gambled and went left on University. I cruised past the Jordan Center and Holuba Hall, mindful of all of the fans crossing the street (they had watched the procession near Beaver Stadium). As I hit the overpass for College Avenue, I could see the procession going under me. What a great vantage point. But there was no time to stop.

As I continued on, I could take one of any side streets to my right. I settled on Hamilton (the third) because I knew it would be largely deserted. Anyone trying to get around downtown traffic usually takes Foster or Prospect. Hamilton also allowed me to avoid Fraternity Row. On this day, I was not sure what might be going on in that area.

Great decision. There was an SUV in front of me, but it moved at a decent clip. I saw the sign advising drivers of a “Speed Hump.” My juvenile sense of humor got the best of me for a second. Then I remembered I was covering something serious. I breezed straight through the residential area.

To lose the SUV, I turned right on Garner. Then a quick left on Prospect. Then a quick right on Allen. My destination was eight blocks away.

My first bad luck with a traffic light was at Beaver Avenue (one block up from College). It took forever. I thought there was no chance I'd make it down to College for the procession. But I could a see a thick crowd down there. So the procession obviously had not arrived yet.

The light finally turned. I headed down Allen, waiting for some dolt to make a U-Turn (he apparently did not see the crowd which blocked anyone from turning onto College). There was just enough room to slide into a corner spot (note I did not say space) at Calder Way (the alley between College and Beaver).

I put on the flashers, as if that would prevent me from getting a ticket. Then I grabbed my camera and monopod and headed for a spot in front of the Corner Room, right on College Avenue.

Somehow I made it well ahead of the procession. I could have stopped at Zeno's for half a beer.

This area was packed with people. There were so many it was uncomfortable. College Avenue appeared to be impassable. But a bunch of my media friends were there, too. I figured it must have been the right spot.

Luckily, I had the monopod. When the procession neared, I used the monopod to hold my camera high above the crowd in front of me. I did not realize until watching the tape later that people were putting white roses on the blue hearse. Touching.

A few people tried to get “We Are … Penn State” chants going but it didn't work. Most people were quiet as the procession passed. It struck me that in early November, after Paterno was fired, students were rioting in this very area.

Now it was a place where so many stood largely silent and respectful.

My next target stop was home. My address is technically in State College. But most folks would consider our house to be in Lemont, a few miles from the middle of town.

Screen shot of the crush (and roses) on College Avenue.

• It had been leaked to the media that the burial service would be at a cemetery far out on West College Avenue. Since the family wanted the service to be private, I was not going there.

But I was interested in seeing what the crowd was like farther down College Avenue, so I took the alley for a few blocks so I could glance over. Dumb move. People were already heading back from College Avenue toward wherever they parked, and navigating the alley was difficult.

So it was time to get to my home office.

Since Calder does not go all the way through to the next primary thoroughfare (Atherton Street), I turned left at Burrows Street, crossed Beaver, and then headed back up to Hamilton. This dumped me off on Atherton, at the top of a hill.

I made the left, heading south, and immediately saw flashing lights behind me. I wondered if I had made an illegal turn.

I checked the rearview mirror and was shocked.

I was IN FRONT of the procession. Suddenly, I was less worried about a traffic ticket than sniper fire.

I sped up a bit, took the next right turn it was safe to take, and pulled over to get out of the way. I hopped out of the van and began to tape the procession going by.

Then it occurred to me: What am I doing? The public part of the procession was supposed to end when it hit Atherton Street. I had more than enough video from before that and the Paterno family had been great while dealing with the media in a tough time. I turned the camera off and admonished myself for being an idiot.

Screen shot from Atherton Street material we opted not to use.

I let the procession and a bunch of cars following it pass.

Then I turned right onto Atherton to head home.

So I was behind the procession, but only going that way to get home. Police were stationed at every traffic light on Atherton, and they actually did a nice job of giving the procession an unobstructed path on what is usually a very crowded street. The procession — no longer crawling along — went far out of my sight, which was just as well.

I could not help but wonder where it was going. I was not going to chase it, though.

Once the police allowed traffic to flow freely, I moved easily down Atherton. My next turn would be a left onto Branch Road, which would take me toward Lemont.

As I approached Branch, I could see flashing lights up ahead. The procession had turned left onto Branch. After spending so much time trying to stay in touch with the procession, suddenly I could not get away from it.

I turned left, too — I had to get home to work, and from where I was there was no end-around — and traffic was at a crawl. By this point, I knew exactly where they were going. There is a little cemetery right off Branch near the Centre Hills Country Club. I've passed it a million times.

And sure enough, as I rounded a bend on windy Branch Road, I could see Country Club Road to my left had been blocked off. And State College police chief Tom King was one of the guys doing the blocking.

I headed straight on Branch and was home within minutes.

• It was a busy day for a lot of people. It was a sad day, too.

As I uploaded the video I had shot to my laptop, I walked to our kitchen and could see the flashing lights of the procession from my deck. Then I went to work.

Hours later, before finishing this column, I finally stepped away from the computer. I threw a few ice cubes in a glass, and then poured in the closest thing I had to bourbon. I went to the back of our house.

Beaver Stadium, lights on, was straight ahead.

The cemetery, much closer and to the left, had been enveloped by the night.

But I still looked in that direction and raised the glass. My first time covering a procession was my last time covering Joe Paterno.

I said a prayer, then took a sip, knowing the old coach was finally resting in peace.

Fight On State editor Mark Brennan has covered Penn State football for 25 years.

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