Keeping Score

Penn State and Paterno: A Declaration of Independence

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Gene J. Puskar / AP

Penn State and Nebraska players gather at mid-field for a pre-game prayer before playing in State College, Pa., Saturday, Nov. 12, 2011.

By some measures, Penn State’s home football game Saturday against the University of Nebraska was your typical Big Ten tilt. Beer chugging at the tailgates started bright and early. A group of diminutive Penn State students lugged around cases of Natural Light that outweighed them. Fans chanted “We Are Penn State!” as they walked towards the stadium.

But the signs of the surreal events that have engulfed Penn State over the past week – specifically the accusations of child sex abuse by former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky, charges that led to the ouster of both legendary football coach Joe Paterno and school president Graham Spanier – were clear. Start with the most alarming one. “Attention,” said a sign that greeted the thousands of Penn State fans streaming into Beaver Stadium. “Penn State received an anonymous bomb threat Friday night (Nov. 11).”  The warning went on to assure people that the police have investigated the stadium, and found nothing. Still,  it was not entirely assuring.

(PHOTOS: The Storied Career of Joe Paterno)

As for those “We Are Penn State!” chants? Some of them were in response to the protesters from the Westboro Baptist Church, the attention-mongering anti-gay group that pickets funerals and big events. A group of Westboro members gathered near the stadium. “God H8S JoePa” read one uninspiring sign. “You need to read the grand jury report,” one of the Westboro picketers shouted. “It’s only 23 pages!” The Penn State crowd largely ignored them. Good move.

The weirdest thing of all was that for the first time in 46 years, the little guy with the thick-glasses, the pope of State College and for some, all of Pennsylvania, wasn’t leading the Nittany Lion football team onto the field. “I never, ever, ever, ever thought it would come to this,” says Sam Komlenic, a Penn State alum who works for the school’s public broadcasting station, while tailgating outside of the stadium three hours before kickoff. “Now here we are,” he says. The crowd was more subdued at the new, still scarred Penn State. Dan Danckwerth, a freshman, noticed how a pre-game highlight reel that usually pumps up the crowd – it features many clips of Paterno – wasn’t played. “It seems to be less active,” Danckwerth said of the Penn State crowd, while walking in a stadium corridor during the third quarter. “Less  … peppy.”

The game started out on a very somber note: before kickoff, the Penn State public address announcer asked for a moment of silence to honor the alleged victims of Sandusky’s abuse. A few moments later, players from Nebraska and Penn State met at midfield for a prayer. The crowd of 107,903 people – most rooting for Penn State – finally got frenzied when Penn State mounted a fourth quarter comeback. “Throw the f—–g ball!” yelled a former Penn State football player, one of dozens of lettermen on the sideline who showed up to support the program, during one futile drive. For a Penn Stater, hearing anger at the school for something other than Sandusky is refreshing.

(LIST: The Key Players in the Abuse Case)

Penn State’s interim president, Rodney Erickson, admitted that he received messages urging him to cancel Saturday’s game. “I personally felt that this was a time to play,” Erickson says. “It was also a time we could recognize and bring national focus to the problem of sexual abuse. And to do so in a way that reflected unity, that reflected support, and that reflected the need to bring these issues out into the open.”

The game did not turn into an angry pro-Paterno rally. Sure, Paterno had his pockets of support. There was plenty of Paterno gear: “Roll Up Your Pant Legs, This is JoePa’s House,” said one shirt. “Joe Knows Football” read another. Another Penn State alum wore a sweatshirt that featured Paterno’s image, with the words “Get ‘Em Out of Here” inscribed on the navy blue. Lawrence Czerpak, a management consultant from Washington, D.C. who graduated from Penn State in 2001, said he’s was directing those words to the Board of Trustees that fired Paterno. If the president and Paterno goes, the board should go, Czerpak argues. “You’ve got to fight, for your right, for JoePa,” Czerpak sung at passers-by during a pregame tailgate. One of his buddies had a Paterno mask.

Paterno’s home, a modest ranch house near the stadium on one of those tree-lined streets where leaves pile up on the curb, was quiet before the game. (Paterno had said he would watch it on television). His house abuts a place called Sunset Park.  Most people just walked by quietly, upset that the media was even there to gauge their emotions. A few tiptoed on Paterno’s lawn to glimpse at the sign that someone put up. “Thank You, JoePa,” it said. After strolling past Paterno’s home Bill Lamont, a professor of vegetable crops at Penn State’s Department of Horticulture, described his sadness. “Joe Paterno has given so much to the University,” LaMont says. “His legacy is in the communities where the young men that he coached are productive citizens.” LaMont felt like the Penn State board was overwhelmed by the media pressure, and should have let the school say goodbye. “I’d like to say thank you to him,” says LaMont. “You need to say thank you for that commitment to the University. I’d love to give him a ticket, so we could sit together. He’s a lot more than what transpired last week.”

(PHOTOS: Riots Rock Penn State After Paterno’s Firing)

Paterno wrote his team a letter, read aloud this week at a meeting, that essentially told the Nittany Lions players to stay focused, and take care of business against Nebraska. When asked what his thoughts were while hearing Paterno’s words, Penn State tailback Stephfon Greeene said: “I can’t remember. Everything was so messed up in my mind. It’s so shocking. You don’t get to say goodbye to him. You’re not going to see him on the practice field, on the bus, on the plane. It is a big loss.”

Yet a necessary one. And after learning to cheer without Paterno, maybe the school can finally move forward. Alex Nepa, 2001 Penn State alum partying under a tailgate tent that waved the Dixie flag – Nepa was quick to point out that he didn’t put it up there – said that he loved going to Penn State football games where the coach was a living legend. Now, he’s accepting new realities. “It’s cool to see the school unite,” Nepa says “It’s almost like a Declaration of Independence from the Joe Paterno era.”

Sean Gregory is a staff writer at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @seanmgregory. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.