The Town Defined by Penn State Football Becomes a Void

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — When Penn State traditionally kicks off its football season — almost always at home on Labor Day weekend — this small town and the surrounding hamlets buzz with life.

Fans clog the sidewalks along College Avenue, an armada of recreational vehicles invade otherwise empty fields, and the Blue Band’s percussive thumping echoes across campus. The sights, sounds and smells generate a distinct energy in the days leading up to each home game. Football permeates the air.

When game day arrives, the hulking monolith of Beaver Stadium fills with 107,000 fans — more than double the town’s resident population.

Those circadian rhythms were interrupted this holiday weekend, just as they will be all fall in many towns that are pins on the college football map: from Eugene to East Lansing and perhaps beyond, to places like Starkville, Stillwater and South Bend if the coronavirus pandemic, which is especially active at the moment on college campuses, isn’t reigned in.

Some tents with tables have been set up on Penn State’s campus to facilitate more outdoor activities.
Credit…Jeff Swensen for The New York Times

Instead, a new cadence has taken root in Happy Valley, the region encompassing State College. Tents have been erected on campus not for tailgating but for outdoor classes, dining and virus tests. The campus creamery, where the line for flavors like Peachy Paterno extends the length of a football field on game days, was closed for the holiday weekend. And in town, where businesses have shuttered or operated at a quarter of capacity, merchants spend less time tending to customers than they do poring over paperwork for the $6 million in bailout funds the county just made available.

So as the sun rose Saturday morning over this verdant valley, the unseasonably crisp air — the temperature dipped into the 50s — carried with it a cruel taunt. It was football weather.

“The rhythms of life are off now,” Jay Paterno said as he sat at one of three tables that were occupied at The Corner Room, the typically busy landmark breakfast spot where his father, Joe, used to entertain recruits and where fans typically wait an hour or longer to be seated on football weekends.

Credit…Jeff Swensen for The New York Times

Paterno — now a member of the university’s board of trustees, which fired his father nearly nine years ago in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky sexual-abuse scandal — speaks with the Penn State diaspora on Zoom calls that he describes as “football separation therapy.” He imagines similar feelings in other college football communities in the Big Ten and Pac-12, the two major conferences whose presidents voted last month not to play this fall. “There are things on each campus that are unique,” Jay Paterno said. “How do you fill that void?”

Dave Young grappled with that question last week.

Normally, he would have gone grocery shopping that Wednesday to prepare pork rolls and egg and cheese sandwiches for 20 to 30 people at what would have been the first of six home games, against Kent State on Saturday. His oldest son would have been awake at 6:30 a.m. with his Penn State jersey on, and the Blue Band’s music would have rung through the house for everyone else’s 7 a.m. wake-up call.

Instead, Young’s wife told him what he already knew: He had been grumpy all week.

So on Friday night, Young texted a friend, Ryan Jones, with whom he had attended the past dozen or so season openers, and they decided to meet late Saturday morning in a parking lot outside Beaver Stadium for a beer and to throw a football around. They were not alone. Others pulled chairs from their cars, dug into coolers and reflected on what they were missing.

“Now, we can hear the leaves blowing across the parking lot,” Young said between throws.

Attending a Penn State game usually requires an extraordinary effort.

The state’s flagship university was founded rather pragmatically in 1855: Legislators looked at a map of Pennsylvania and picked a spot that was equally inconvenient for anyone from the state’s two hubs, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. State College still might be described as being in the middle of nowhere.

Credit…Jeff Swensen for The New York Times

And yet, beginning in the 1960s, Penn State leveraged its rise as a football power under Paterno to elevate its profile nationally as a place where about 40,000 undergraduates could have a communal experience — with football at its core.

“There’s two reasons I came here — the academics, and I knew I was going to have a great time,” said Ethan Hoda, a sophomore from Scranton, Pa., as he nibbled on chicken tenders late Saturday afternoon on a park bench along College Avenue. “Football is a big part of that. When it’s game day, you’re excited to be here whether you like football or not.”

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Those shared experiences have generated such a deep loyalty — some of it disturbingly blind in the Sandusky scandal aftermath — that tens of thousands of alums return each year for football, even if it requires flights, lengthy drives, exorbitant prepaid accommodations and pricey tickets.

It’s why Sam Garland, from Reading, Pa., found himself on a nearly deserted College Avenue on Saturday morning with Steve Emery, from Fort Worth, Texas, and Vic Versino, from Detroit. They graduated nearly 40 years ago and for the last 25 have returned for a game — something to do, they joked, while laughing and drinking. They paid for rooms at a nearby Days Inn back in January, for $378 a night with a two-night minimum, which they negotiated down to $99 per night. They bought tickets through an online broker, who kept their money but gave them a 125 percent credit for their next purchase.

Still, they were not quite prepared for what they saw: so many familiar shops and restaurants that were closed or had changed hands, favorite watering holes operating at 25 percent capacity and with lines outside limited to 10 people, and very few students milling around campus on Friday.

Credit…Jeff Swensen for The New York Times

“It’s like going to a beach town in the winter,” Garland said.

It could become even more desolate. Penn State’s president, Eric Barron, said on Friday, after 172 new coronavirus cases were reported in the past week, that classes could soon be moved entirely online — at least temporarily. The new cases have turned Centre County, which had been all but untouched by the virus, into one of the state’s hottest spots — even as students and residents appear to be largely abiding by a recent ordinance that carries a $300 fine for not wearing a mask in public.

“Fall is our spring — our time of renewal,” said Pat Daugherty, who has owned The Tavern, a restaurant with wood-paneled walls and low ceilings, since 1980. On Saturday night, The Tavern served 103 meals — about a fifth of what would have been expected if there had been a home opener.

Some merchants fear that Penn State could send its students home, as it did last spring just after the pandemic hit. According to a study commissioned by the university last year, students generate more than $300 million in spending for the local economy. Fritz Smith, the president of the Happy Valley Adventure Bureau, estimates that the absence of football will mean a loss of $70 million to $80 million in consumer spending — on top of the $120 million that has been lost already.

“There’s a tremendous ripple effect,” Smith said. For example, hotels operating at 35 percent capacity mean fewer housekeeping, maintenance and front desk jobs. No football games means no concession jobs, overtime for police or extra income for people who rent their homes on football weekends. There may be a reckoning ahead for a business community that attached itself to Penn State like a barnacle to a ship’s hull.

“We’re a one-company town,” Smith said. “That feeling of security has been kicked out from under all of us. When the dust settles, there’s going to be some real soul searching about whether we’re being too reliant on one institution and whether we need to diversify.”

That could mean intensifying efforts to sell the region as a weekend getaway from New York, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh for hiking, biking and farm-to-table dining — or a place for remote workers to relocate. Of course, the best conduit for spreading the word might have been through a football team that was ranked seventh in the preseason Associated Press Top 25 poll.

Yet while football generated $100 million in revenue for the 2018 season, according to Penn State’s filings with the Department of Education, it is a relative pittance for a university with a $7 billion operating budget for the current school year.

This helps explain why, as much as people here might miss a deeply rooted ritual or even be materially hurt by its absence, there does not seem to be the type of backlash against the prospect of missed games that has occurred in other college towns.

Credit…Jeff Swensen for The New York Times

This is true even for someone as entrenched in Penn State football as Paterno.

“When you’re putting young people’s lives as risk, you have to err on the side of caution,” said Paterno, who said that Adam Taliaferro’s spinal cord injury 20 years ago “still haunts us,” though it had an inspirational outcome. (Taliaferro, who was given a 3 percent chance of walking again, led Penn State onto the field for the home opener the next season and is now a New Jersey state legislator.)

Playing football, Paterno added, makes no more sense than allowing 70 students at Iowa to travel to Penn State to attend a class. And countering the argument that football is an inherently risky sport, he said: “A blown-out knee isn’t contagious.”

But having grown up cutting neighbors’ lawns for $8 a week, money he would spend at the candy store, and later joining his father on a ritual 15-minute walk home after games, Paterno understands the circumstances of those who can’t rely on a billion-dollar endowment and deep lines of credit, and how much football would help.

But it won’t be returning anytime soon.

Until it does, in the spring or next fall, there may only be memories to hold on to — ones he knows are shared by many others. There are certain notes the Blue Band hits that stir the soul. There is the sight of a leaf-covered Mount Nittany turning yellow and orange, and the chill that is carried along by the autumn winds. Then November arrives, and it is time to say goodbye to people encountered only at a football game.

“And you say, ‘See you next year,’” Paterno said.

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