Penn State football history has been marked by some extraordinary and emotional moments. This Saturday will rank high on the list - and be unlike any other for Penn State fans.
Emotions only go so high, a big-time ACC college basketball coach once said.
He had coached at a tiny high school when he was younger, and his point was, the emotions at the Backwoods High vs. Nowheresville Tech rivalry game were no different than a big-time Tobacco Road showdown: Maximum emotion is maximum emotion. It's just the number of people experiencing the emotion that is different.
There will be lots of maximum emotion Saturday at Beaver Stadium.
That emotional unleashing will extend to legions of Penn Staters around the globe watching the Penn State-Ohio U. season-opening game on TV or the Internet.
Have the supporters of any team or school ever experienced anything remotely like this?
No. Penn State fans stand alone.
There was no coach as iconic as Joe Paterno. No program as proud of its earned status for all-around excellence (the Holy Trinity of academic success, no cheating and winning). No scandal as grand and heinous. No coach's firing as upsetting. No coach's death as untimely. No comprehensive independent investigation as deceptive and flawed (thanks, Louis Freeh). No NCAA sanctions as egregious (thanks, Mark Emmert). No cultural condemnation as inappropriate (you again, Emmert). No mass media coverage as relentlessly shallow and misleading.
That is an emotional onslaught.
After all that, the Lions take the field Saturday.
This is Penn State's team as much as any Lions squad ever: The players stayed at PSU despite the NCAA all but paying them to leave, providing a limo to the airport and exempting them from classes. The remarkable new coach - Bill O'Brien - will lead them into the next era.
Penn State football supporters have embraced O'Brien and these players for the manner with which they've handled the adversity. There is hope that the worst finally is behind us, and everyone is anxious for future.
So, Saturday is the re-boot. Penn State football 2.0 begins at Noon on Sept. 1, 2012 before 108,000 at Beaver Stadium.
A swirl of intense emotions will grip Lions supporters in attendance and watching on television. The emotions may vary, but the intensity will be palpable and connect Penn Staters everywhere.
So, considering all that, does it even really matter what happens in the game?
Yes, it does. In fact it's very important, possibly the most important game of the season for the future of the program.
Some players, including FB Michael Zordich, say the team is looking at every game this season as a challenge to the future of the program, what with the enormous scholarship sanctions and bowl ban looming, and with their pride and sense of identity wounded by the misguided attacks on the program and culture.
But no other Penn State game is as assured of getting as much media coverage as the opener. It is the first game without Paterno on the sidelines since 1949 (sixty-three years!), it is O'Brien's first game and the first game after the sanctions. The national media will embrace this game.
(Will PSU honor Paterno's death before the game? Will any members of the Paterno family be at the game? This might be a new era of Penn State football, but the old era and what has transpired cannot be ignored, so PSU has some tricky and delicate issues to address with regard to Paterno and the past.)
Then, after Saturday, interest in PSU will wane significantly (unless of course the depleted Lions buck the odds and have a great season). After a couple of games, the national media will want to stow away Penn State football for, oh, about 5-7 years.
So this perhaps is O'Brien's best chance, Penn State football's best chance, to make a bold statement. Not only with regard to how it plays, but with regard to the conduct of the team.
Sports Illustrated upped the ante by forecasting an unbeaten 12-0 season for Ohio U. Which is good news for PSU in at least one way: If things don't go the Lions' way Saturday, a loss to a team projected to have so much success is more palatable.
Yet the football team is just one part of the Penn State product on display Saturday. Part II is the atmosphere and vibrancy about Beaver Stadium and throughout Happy Valley.
O'Brien and school administrators want high school recruits, be they football recruits or engineering recruits, as well as anyone and everyone else paying attention, to take away a positive impression: The football team is going to remain competitive; the university community remains tight-knit, enthusiastic and moving forward; and the football games will be a spectacle to behold, as enjoyable as any in America.
In other words, Saturday can be a demonstration that the Penn State culture is just fine, thank you Mr. Emmert for your concern. So much has changed (such as names on the uniforms), but the core values and identity of PSU are intact, only now with more openness and the added mission of being an international leader in the study and prevention of child sexual abuse.
Back in the early spring, when O'Brien and staff started excelling at recruiting - and amazingly no players were leaving the program despite the major coaching transition and the Sandusky scandal - this blog stated unequivocally that PSU football was not going to take one step back, not one inch, under O'Brien.
Then Freeh and Emmert hastily, recklessly and irresponsibly did their deeds, and everything changed. The sanctions are severe, and PSU football should take a step back.
But will that step be a few inches, or a few feet? As much as any single game is capable of impacting such a broad future outcome projection, Saturday's will.
So toss the future-of-the-program-at-stake pressure on top of the massive emotional mountain Penn State supporters will tap into on Saturday, when the longest, darkest 10 months concludes as the 2012 Nittany Lions take the field.
For Penn Staters, it will be like nothing ever before, or after.