STATE COLLEGE — These Penn State seniors were thrust into a different sort of leadership role than any before them.
So forgive first-year coach Bill O’Brien if he sounds redundant, because he doesn’t care. His first group of senior football players were something special, and they kept proving it to him every day.
“I feel great for these kids, especially the seniors,” O’Brien said after the Nittany Lions finished off their first year of postseason bans with an 8-4 record and a 6-2 mark in the Big Ten – good enough for a second-place finish in the Leaders Division – with a 24-21 overtime win over Wisconsin Saturday.
“They’ve put in a lot of work. You go all the way back to when we came here, started the 5:30 (a.m.) workouts then all the things that came up in the offseason off the field. You just can’t say it enough. It might be a little redundant, but I’ve been around some special teams, and this is a very special football team because of the players, and especially the seniors.”
The 2012 seniors showed just how special they were in ways big and small ever since news of the child abuse scandal that rocked Penn State began to surface just over a year ago.
From uniting as a group to affirm their commitment when players were allowed to freely transfer in the offseason, to leading the team through plenty of on-field adversity as well, those 31 players helped keep a team together when it would have been easily understandable to see it fall apart.
For that, it is a group and a team that will be remembered for a long time by the fans who were eager to get back to cheering for their team rather than hearing about it in the same lines as trials and police investigations.
To make sure no one forgets any time soon, the university unveiled a not-so-subtle reminder before Saturday’s game, putting the year 2012 alongside those representing undefeated and championship seasons that grace the facade of the suites above the east stands.
That brought out a loud roar from the 90,000-plus in attendance, but that didn’t even come close to the cheering that followed the final senior to be introduced.
When Michael Mauti – the vocal and emotional leader of the team – made his way through the tunnel, it was a fitting end to the pregame celebration, and the appreciation that everyone in the stadium felt toward the injured linebacker was clear with a simple look around.
There were No. 42s everywhere. Not just in the stands, but on the sides of the Penn State helmets that went unadorned for nearly 40 years.
It was also on the back of another linebacker, as fellow senior Gerald Hodges shed his familiar No. 6 to honor his teammate.
As O’Brien said after the game, it would have been terrible to not win the game after a pregame ceremony like that.
It was a show that was fit for the people it was celebrating, and you won’t stop hearing about them anytime soon.