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Column: Culture aids recovery

Bill O'Brien is the Big Ten Coach of the Year. His players are racking up the individual accolades the way they racked up sacks and receptions during the past three months. The Maxwell Football Club honored the entire senior class for "commitment, character and effort" in the face of challenging circumstances the past year, said club president Ron Jaworski.

Michael Mauti was a leader for a team and a school that desperately needed one this past year.

In short, people around the nation are acknowledging -- and embracing -- what Penn State fans have known for years: The Nittany Lions are, by and large, a great bunch of kids who conduct themselves well on the field and in the classroom (28 players received academic all-Big Ten recognition while John Urschel and Pete Massaro were named first-team Academic All-Americans).

Maybe, as Matt McGloin (one of those academic all-Big Ten honorees) said, Penn State was never going to get certain calls on the field, and maybe that's a conspiracy that exists only in the minds of the quarterback and a decent chunk of the fan base, but either way, those who thought the Nittany Lions would be snubbed because of the things that transpired over the course of the last year were mistaken.

Life has gone on here, and football has gone on. A program that many predicted would crumble under the sanctions has done no such thing. There are still choppy seas ahead but O'Brien has a firm hand on the wheel and a galvanized group of players behind him.

During the next few seasons, the Nittany Lions might win seven games instead of eight. There might be 85,000 in the seats instead of 95 or 100. But in many ways, nothing has changed.

Is that a good thing?

Last year, as the Jerry Sandusky scandal was brought out into the light a horrifying piece at a time, the world looked at Penn State and saw … what? A university and a community too engrossed and entangled with its football team to see things clearly. Administrators unable to act on signs that a monster might be in their midst for fear of upsetting the massive, money-making apple cart. They saw an environment in which a skilled predator was able to operate with the ease of a burglar lifting valuables from an empty, unlocked house. Football had gotten too big, the rest of the world said. The culture needed to be fixed, Mark Emmert said.

But did it? That culture produced young men like Michael Mauti and Michael Zordich, produced a full offense and defense of academic all-conference players, produced a group of seniors that showed the world that commitment and character Jaworski talked about. And football was the vehicle. Football and the unifying bonds that come with it -- signs on billboards and in the windows of local businesses and the cheers of the crowd on game days -- were what helped this community put the pieces back together after Sandusky shattered it.

Penn State and its community will forever be wary of predators, of all kinds, in its midst. That fear is important, because it will produce vigilance. Penn State will continue to look at its administrative structure, and constantly wonder if too much power lies in the hands of too few men. That, too, is important. Sandusky used his prestige and his status -- created on the football field -- to manipulate and terrorize his victims. But that was no different than a priest or a teacher using his position to manipulate. The environment is not to blame. It is the monsters that operate within that environment and the all-too-frequent inability of those in positions of authority to see or stop those monsters until it is too late.

Sandusky brought to light a problem, a problem that is uncomfortable to speak or even think about. It is a problem that has few solutions, other than for a community to unite and try to do whatever possible to eliminate that problem, to demand more from its leaders -- as a group.

The Penn State community did not forget about the problem, or Sandusky's victims, as it watched the Nittany Lions prove the critics and doubters wrong this season. It simply reunited as it cheered a group of young men who, by their actions and attitudes, create the sort of culture that strengthens communities --- whether they are recognized for that or not.

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