Penn State fans' difficult balancing act

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Inside the stadium, they were hoping for magic. They were hoping that somehow, some way, the football gods would help carry their team down the field for a game-tying field goal or, better yet, a game-winning touchdown.

"Come on State," one fan in the student section said. "We deserve this."

Outside the stadium, at the same time, the primary focus was somewhere altogether different. Some 20 mounted police lined the walkway behind the media entrance at the stadium's southwest side. A girl held up a sign that read, "Free Hugs." And two Penn State seniors sold blue bracelets for $2 to raise money for the anti-sexual assault organization RAINN.

"We want to put the focus back on the kids," said Sarah LaMack, one of the students selling bracelets. "For the kids."

It was a day unlike any other in college football history. Sure, many of the sounds were the same -- the voices of screaming fans, the boom of the marching band's bass drum. But this was anything but normal. How many college football games feature protestors? How many postgame press conferences begin with the school president talking for 15 minutes? And how many fans have ever filled a football stadium wondering what role -- if any -- the program they so dearly loved played in the alleged sexual assault of at least eight children?

"Today was not just about football. It was about this university. It was about this place coming back together again. It's about stopping child abuse," said former Penn State receiver Graham Zug, one of 317 lettermen who returned to State College to show their support for the program. "It was a chance to show how special this place is."

Blue was the color of choice for the majority of the 107,903 fans that filled Beaver Stadium, a tribute to the color of the ribbon for child abuse awareness.

It began sometime around 10:30 in the morning when two blue Penn State buses pulled up on Porter Road to a raucous ovation. The front seat of the first bus was empty, a nod to longtime coach Joe Paterno.

One by one the uniformed players stepped off the buses and walked through a sea of screaming, yelling, cheering fans. One boy wore a Joe Paterno mask. A man held a sign that read, "JoePa got screwed." And a woman carried a sign that read, "Screw the media." Another sign read, "Fire the Trustees." As the players filed past, the cheering didn't stop. The fans chanted the familiar "We Are … Penn State" refrain. A few regulars estimated the crowd was two to three times larger than normal, a testament to the fact that the players seemingly had nothing to do with the sexual abuse scandal that broke open this week.

But behind the buses, in the middle of the scrum, 2000 graduate Jon Matko held up his own sign. It read, "The kids are what this is all about. Not wins or losses. Put the kids first. Don't be fooled. They all knew. Tom Bradley and all must go."

Said Matko: "I know these people better than they know themselves. I used to be one of them. I was brainwashed, too. Ten years ago I probably would have thought somebody holding a sign like this was a fool. But I've grown up. I have a family now. I don't subscribe to this any longer."

All day long it continued, this never-ending balancing act between honoring and remembering the victims while supporting the players. The divide was everywhere. And at times it felt strange. Parents putting their children next to the Paterno statue for a family photo. Sorority sisters singing "hey yo … don't let Joe go" to the beat of Taio Cruz's hit "Dynamite." A religious group outside the stadium holding signs and barking into a megaphone, "Your sins will be found out." And a group of volunteers passing out black-and-white bookmarks with tips on what to look for if you think a child may have been sexually abused, as well as phone numbers for the national and Pennsylvania child abuse hotlines.

And yet there were moments that seemed entirely normal for a fall football Saturday. A group of boys playing a game of touch football on a hill. A college kid walking the street with a case of beer on his shoulder. The smell and smoke from freshly grilled meats permeating the air. There were moments when it seemed the only thing that mattered was whether the guys in the blue shirts kept the guys in the white shirts from gaining those three additional yards.

Yet when the fans think back about this game years from now, it's unlikely they'll remember many specifics from what happened on the field. It's unlikely they'll even remember the final score. Instead, it will be about the emotion, reflection.

It will be about moments like the raucous "We Are … Penn State" cheer that greeted the players when they took the field. The moment of silence before the game. Or the fact that players from both teams took a knee and joined hands at midfield before the game to remember the victims. Penn State senior receiver Derek Moye held hands with Nebraska's Alfonzo Dennard, who he was matched up with for most of the game.

"It was special," Moye said.

When it was finally over, when Penn State's desperation drive in the game's last minute failed to get past midfield and Nebraska was officially a 17-14 winner, the Penn State players walked off the field, again expressionless. In the stands, barely anyone moved -- especially in the student section. Instead, they began chanting. Over and over and over again.

We Are … Penn State.

We Are … Penn State.

We Are … Penn State.

Nittany Lions senior tight end Andrew Szczerba tried to take a knee in the end zone for a brief moment of introspection. But he was immediately surrounded by television cameras. So he stood, made a motion with his hand to get out of his way and then took seven steps before dropping to a knee and bowing his head again.

Then interim head coach Tom Bradley walked off the field as Tom Cochrane's "Life is a Highway" fittingly played on the stadium speakers.

When the song ended, the public address announcer said the school had raised $22,584 from fan donations to prevent child abuse.

Minutes later, everyone from university president Rodney Erickson to Bradley to team captain Moye tried to put into perspective what the day meant. There had been no magical ending, no running onto the field to celebrate a shocking come-from-behind Penn State victory. But depending on who you spoke to and where you looked, it may not have mattered.

Erickson was pleased with the decision to go ahead and play the game. Bradley was proud of his players for enduring "an unprecedented week in college football history." And the players themselves seemed relieved that the week was finally about to come to an end.

"Maybe now," Moye said, "things can start to return a little bit to normal."

Wayne Drehs is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at wayne.drehs@espn.com. You can find his story archive here. Follow him on Twitter: @espnWD.