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At Penn State, a September Saturday without football leaves a void for nearly everyone

FRANK FITZPATRICK
The Philadelphia Inquirer (TNS)
Penn State's Beaver Stadium is seen here without fans in a file photo. The Nittany Lions' stadium will remain empty for the foreseeable future.

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – Penn State’s 2020 football schedule had promised football on September’s opening Saturday. But by early morning, when the wispy remnants of a waning moon were still visible in a cloudless, blue sky, it was clear this day would be different.

At 9 a.m., the only visible gathering was along Route 322, where several motorists had pulled over to photograph a field of waving sunflowers. The campers and RVs that on game days swarm here like ants to picnic crumbs were nowhere in sight. Interstate 80 was virtually traffic-free. Restaurants along Atherton Street were near-empty, as were the parking lots at the Spring Hill Suites and the Ramada Inn, where room rates were a third of what they typically are this time of year.

If, as a lot of merchandise that went unsold in College Avenue shops proclaimed, God really is a Penn State fan, then he or she must have a cruel streak.

After all, the deity created a football Saturday so perfect – crystalline skies and San Diego-like temperatures lightened by a trace of autumn crispness – that you could almost hear the Blue Band echoing through the lush-green Appalachian foothills.

“What a gorgeous day for football,” WiIl Bishop said, as he and his son sat in folding chairs in a lot outside Beaver Stadium.

All that was missing was football.

A season is shut down: Since the five-year break that followed its second season in 1891, Penn State football has been played for 124 consecutive years, through two world wars, national emergencies, and a homegrown scandal that forever altered the Happy Valley mythology.

But, to the dismay of its passionate fan base, concerns about the COVID-19 outbreak have shut down Penn State football, along with all other Big Ten sports, at least for the foreseeable future.

Isolated by geography, Centre County has escaped the worst of the pandemic, with slightly more than 600 COVID cases and 11 deaths reported. But now that a limited student population has returned to Penn State, many here are expecting those numbers to grow. If that happens, they know, any hopes of starting and completing a football season could be extinguished.

“That’s my fear,” said Bishop, a 55-year-old transit worker from nearby Pine Grove Mills. “For me and an awful lot of people up here, Penn State football is an important part of our lives. So I just felt like I had to come. There’s not going to be a game, but I felt like I had to do something.”

The sight of Bishop and his 25-year-old son, Ben, who normally checks credentials at the stadium’s media entrance, sitting alone in the vast stadium lot was just one indication of how the absence of football has disturbed this area’s equilibrium.

Drawn to eerily empty stadium: The metallic frame of eerily empty Beaver Stadium, which fills with 100,000-plus fans six or seven times a year, loomed over the horizon like some abandoned spacecraft. Occasionally, a car would stop outside, and someone in a blue-and-white jersey would emerge to stare at the structure for a moment or to wander its perimeter.

“We got up this morning and we didn’t know what else to do,” said JoAnne Huber who showed at about 9:30 with husband Bob. “We’re season-ticket holders, and once September comes, Penn State football takes over our lives. I guess we’ll just roam around, take some photos, then head back to Altoona to do God knows what.”

Others did the same. Many were drawn like pilgrims to the Nittany Lion Shrine, nestled in a green grotto adjacent to Rec Hall.

Tom Schwartz, 69, from Elizabethtown, brought his wife, daughter, sister-in-law, and brother-in-law — all in PSU gear — to pose for photos at the statue. They’d been to the stadium and planned to tour Penn State’s Arboretum. A longtime season-ticket holder, Schwartz had booked two nights at the Penn Stater.

“They reduced the rate, and I decided to come anyway,” he said.

Asked how he felt on this atypical Saturday, Schwartz said he could sum it up in four words.

“I want to cry,” he said.

Waiting behind him at the statue were Lyndie Lobdell and Annie Spring, two freshman members of Penn State’s women’s ice-hockey team who, with no football game to attend, were walking around campus.

“This would have been our first game,” Lobdell said as she draped herself across the statue, “so we’re really disappointed.”

Scheduled to play Kent State: James Franklin’s Nittany Lions, ranked No. 7 in one preseason poll, were originally due to host Kent State on this day. After the pandemic forced the Big Ten to switch to an all-conference schedule, Northwestern became the opponent. Then the season was delayed indefinitely.

The foot traffic along commercial College Avenue picked up later in the day, as late-rising students, virtually all wearing masks, emerged from dormitories.

“We were hoping to see a game,” said Jordan LoVerde, a freshman from Rochester, N.Y., who was showing her mother, Cristina, around campus. “Now, we’ll just take in the other sights.”

At restaurants and sports bars, masked Penn State fans barely seemed to notice televised football games such as the Eastern Kentucky-Marshall game that ESPN broadcast.

“Who’s playing?” asked a young man in a John Cappelletti jersey at Home D Pizzeria. “Eastern who? I didn’t even know they had a football team. They probably stink.”

“They might stink,” his companion said, “but at least they’re playing.”