STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Linebacker Mike Hull finished up his spicy chicken sandwich at an off-campus fast-food joint while chatting and joking around with his roommates. They didn’t have the slightest idea on Monday that they were moments away from an announcement they had waited for two seasons to hear.
Sure, they knew the Mitchell Report was set to be released. And, yes, they were even aware of rumors -- first started by a clothing store blog -- that Penn State might gain bowl eligibility or its missing scholarships. But they didn’t expect it all to come down that afternoon; they just expected to sit at their small table, use their BOGO discount and enjoy their day off from football.
Then defensive back Jesse Della Valle checked his cell phone and told the group, wide-eyed, about what he saw. They didn’t believe him – until they checked.
Due to Penn State's progress in ensuring athletics dept functions with integrity, NCAA immediately restores football postseason eligibility.
- NCAA (@NCAA) September 8, 2014
Moments later, the four teammates received a mass group text for an instant team meeting. It was happening. And, even while recalling it all Tuesday afternoon, Hull seemed like he still couldn’t quite believe it.
“I was smiling ear to ear and a lot of the other guys were just ... we couldn’t believe everything turned around like that,” Hull said. “We were expecting the worst when those were handed down.”
Coach James Franklin opened his news conference on Tuesday with a big smile and by performing a little jig while jazz music played from the nearby phone line. He seemed reluctant at first to touch on the NCAA’s decision, in part because it took him more than eight minutes to take questions from the media, but he couldn’t stop the flood of that topic.
He wanted to focus on Rutgers, talk about Rutgers, but Penn State’s newfound potential for a bowl drove the conversation. He pledged the team wouldn’t look back to Monday’s celebratory news and let it interfere with Saturday’s game. But he also said he knew how important this was for players -- some of whom cried and most of whom looked dejected -- following the sanctions announcement in July 2012.
“This is great, now there’s nothing being held back from them in terms of opportunities,” Franklin said. “They have the ability to chase their dreams. But, we’re going to go back to our same approach: One game at a time.”
These players, especially these seniors, didn’t want to talk about this possibility two months ago. They didn’t want to think about it. At Big Ten media days in Chicago, Hull said as much. His teammate, the normally softspoken Bill Belton, snapped at a reporter who asked what a bowl game would mean to them.
“How would you react if you were on a bowl ban?” an agitated Belton asked, before some mild back and forth. “I’m just saying, like, if you were a kid in a program and you were in a bowl ban, it would be exciting. That’s what I’m saying.”
A lot of the players on this team had already resigned themselves to the NCAA’s fate. Their hopes were dashed in July 2012 and, perhaps, the only thing worse would have been to get them up once more -- only to see them dashed again.
But then Monday came.
“A lot of times, you don’t realize how much you miss something until you don’t have it,” senior safety Ryan Keiser said. “And we’re thankful we’re eligible again.”
The 49 remaining players who stuck through Penn State’s sanctions were called up to the front of the team meeting Monday afternoon. Their teammates showered them with a standing ovation; a smile was fixed to nearly everyone’s face.
It wasn’t just the seniors who were commended, it was everyone -- such as redshirt sophomore Geno Lewis, who was part of Penn State's 2012 recruiting class. He lived on campus for just weeks when the sanctions came down. But he chose to stay.
Lewis lingered outside Beaver Stadium on Tuesday afternoon. He knew, back as an 18-year-old, he might wind up graduating without ever going to a bowl. So when asked Tuesday if he ever thought, ever dreamt, of experiencing back-to-back winning seasons and then going to a bowl, he stopped walking for a moment and just paused.
“I was surprised about the bowl, but I always had faith,” he said. “That’s really all you can do. I’m just very happy and humbled.”
Added Hull: “It’s really worked out the best it possibly could.”