One of the best parts of covering college athletics is being able to see the transformations that athletes make from the time they arrive on campus to the time when they leave.
Penn State's seniors stepped forward to take control of the program at every crucial juncture this past year.
Eighteen-year-old freshmen are wide-eyed, smiley, filled with healthy confidence in their own abilities but not quite knowing what the stakes are -- how tough the competition really is, what the coaches, not to mention their professors, truly expect from them -- just yet.
When they're 22 or 23 and about to play their last game, it's hard to remember that they were once those 18-year-old freshmen. They now have an ease about them. The brashness has become a quieter kind of confidence, a sense of self-assuredness. They answer questions a little more thoughtfully. They grin at their younger teammates and when talking about their younger selves.
Some of these seniors get to the point where they've clearly out-grown the pond. They know the games they're playing almost as well as the coaches do. They don't need to be told what to do or how to act; just tell them what time the game starts and they'll be there, ready to go. They are itching to prove themselves on a bigger stage and are, at the same time, reluctant to leave.
When you cover college sports, you watch this process every year. And understanding that process makes you appreciate some senior classes, like the Penn State football group that will take the field Saturday, just a bit more.
Think for just a split second what the past year has done to the Penn State community. Take another split second to think of how you would have responded if you had been a student at the time (maybe you were and are now). Now take one more split second to imagine, if that's even possible, what you would have thought and felt if you had been a member of the football program during that time.
Think it might be a little misty before the game?
"You know, these are young guys that have been through a lot," Bill O'Brien said this week. "They have been through a lot off the field. They have been through the death of their former head coach, legendary coach. They have been through the things that went on off the field that don't need to be repeated, we just all know."
In one sense, exactly what these seniors have "been through" seems a bit overblown. Did they lose a couple of teammates? Yes. Was it annoying and inappropriate to have other teams recruiting them during the summer? Yes. Were some of them disappointed about not being able to play in a postseason game? Undoubtedly. Are any of those things serious hardships? On a grand scale, probably not.
In another sense, though, what the NCAA sanctions, a decent section of the national media and the never-shy court of public opinion did to these seniors was question everything that they were made of and everything they were about. If Penn State did, indeed, have a "culture problem," were these young men not at the very center of that culture? Had the work they had put in on the field and in the classroom not meant anything? Had the bonds they had formed with their teammates not meant anything to those who were leaving?
All of the Nittany Lions were confronted with these questions, but it was the seniors who took them the most personally, because they had taken ownership in the program. When you give four or five years of your life to something, chances are you won't take it very well when someone says it isn't good enough or it involves "misplaced priorities." Chances are even better you'll fight like hell to defend it, as Michael Mauti and Michael Zordich and Gerald Hodges and all of the seniors did for the last several months.
Watching that fight, and the battles that the seniors waged behind the microphones and behind closed doors and, most especially, on game Saturdays, was watching a different kind of transformation. The group that will be honored on Senior Day went from freshmen to seniors, then from seniors to symbols. They willingly shouldered the punishments for crimes that others had committed. They listened to the world say that they would fall apart. Then they took all the anger and resentment and frustration and turned it into inspiration.
These seniors will leave Penn State with a confidence that can only come from knowing you achieved a task you never thought you would have to undertake. As Mauti said so memorably, one man did not build the program. One man would not destroy it.
Thirty young men made sure of that this fall.
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