Tuesday, September 7, 2010
On Penn State vs. Alabama
It's not my first memory, but in some ways, it might as well be. New Year's Day, 1978: I'm five years old, and Penn State is playing Alabama for the national championship. I recall the room and its fireplace and its unsightly brown carpet, and I recall the faltering RCA television, and I recall the tumult among the adults inside when Penn State fails to convert on four downs from the goal line, and Alabama wins the game. I recall the retreat to the backyard of our house on Devonshire Drive, to construct a revisionist history of the scene with my friend Scott Holderman.*
There's a telling story in Joe Paterno's autobiography in which he discusses one of his first meetings with Bear Bryant. It takes place at a football banquet, and Bear urges Paterno to demand an outrageous sum of money, to demand a five-year contract with a rollover clause, to demand a car and a golf club membership and to demand two hundred tickets for each game, which he could then dole out as he saw fit, thereby turning those tickets in a power proposition. This was the how the Bear worked; for better or worse, he was a southern politician, leveraging favors for power. And Paterno was a completely different animal. It was, Paterno said, not a difference in scruples, but a difference in style.
I bring this up because Penn State plays Alabama again this Saturday, in a game weighted with history. Back in the 1970s and on into the 1980s, the Penn State-Alabama rivalry was epic. It was Red versus Blue before Red versus Blue existed. For years, Eastern football was considered a second-class product--and Penn State was the Boise State of its era--until Paterno began defeating schools like Alabama. Even now, it feels like something of a metaphor for American regionalism; even now, it feels like Penn State represents the progressive culture of the Northeast, and Alabama represents the reactionary politics of the South, and those four downs at the goal line in '78 were something of a last stand for the old ways of American politics.
That's a gross oversimplification, I know, and probably riddled with holes, but that's how my brain works. I remember things the way I want to remember them. At some level, all history is revisionist. In my mind, Paterno calls the play-action pass he actually wanted to call on fourth down before losing his nerve, and Penn State pulls off a miraculous victory, the same kind of victory the kid in me somehow hopes, against all hope, they can muster this Saturday.
*For this occasionally irrational fealty to college athletics, it seems, Jeff Pearlman would declare me a loser. To which I say: Doesn't this argument in fact negate your well-documented hatred of Chuck Fusina? After all, if college sports should largely be reserved for the students who play them and the students who watch...and if your larger point is that we've lost our perspective on the games themselves...then shouldn't we in fact appreciate athletes like Chuck Fusina--athletes whose careers just so happen to peak in their late teens, or early twenties, athletes who have legendary college careers but aren't meant to play professional sports--far more than we actually do?