The Hangover, Penn State Style

Posted by By at 13 November, at 13 : 56 PM Print

Hangovers feel the same no matter which university you attend, but we Nittany Lions are experiencing a unique hangover, as a result of the Jerry Sandusky scandal.  This seemingly ever-unfolding scandal is at complete odds with the vision we PSU alumni have had of our beloved school, and of ourselves.  It’s not who we are.

Disgusted and pained by more bad news on top of already bad news from State College, and hoping to escape the subject altogether in a distant and different place, I left home last Thursday at 2:30 in the morning and drove to the shore to fish for striped bass and bluefish, now migrating south along the coast.

On late-night drives the radio is often your best friend, and I was dialed in from the moment I backed out of the driveway.  By the time I hit the Pennsylvania Turnpike ten minutes later, I had already scanned the airwaves several times, both FM and AM.  Penn State was the subject on every radio show.

All the way to the shore, almost three hours away, the Sandusky scandal was the subject on every radio station not dedicated to full time music.  Talk show hosts and sports radio shows were discussing it, taking calls from across the country.  Specialists in child welfare, law enforcement, psychology, sports management, university administration….everyone who could authoritatively say something professional about the scandal and the circumstances surrounding it was on the air, live, and contributing to what has turned out to be a very public discussion about otherwise remote Happy Valley.

When I stepped onto the boat at 6:45 am, the other men bringing their fishing gear aboard were talking about Penn State.  Adding to the morning’s all-Penn State-all-the-time atmosphere were the fresh newspapers piled onto the cabin tables.  The New York Post, New York Times, and other newspapers from around the east coast that had accompanied various fishermen now on the boat, all had the scandal on their front page.

Not only was the scandal I was running away from big news, it was the only news.  And there was no getting away from the story out on the ocean, either.  As we motored out to sea I listened to the passion in the fishermen’s voices as they covered all the angles I had already heard at home and on the radio.  Despite having grown up in State College in the 1970s and 1980s and graduating from Penn State, I kept quiet and contributed nothing to their discussion.

Out on the water the fishing action was hot, and we were excited as we met and then exceeded our once-a-year dream.  Big fish were coming over the gunnels left and right, and no matter what your real-life concerns, like the out-of-work guy from Michigan who intended to feed his family with the fresh fish he hoped to catch (and everyone on board made sure he went home with a huge load of fresh filets), you quickly forgot them.

Hours later, still fishing but also glutted with our success, our heels were kicked up and people had time to chat more with each other.  Eventually I confessed to being a Nittany Lion on the run from the unhappiness back home.  Sure enough, I cried.  From the pain you feel when a big part of your identity is turned upside down.  Pain for those little boys.  Pain at feeling deceived by one of the few men I still looked up to (Paterno).  Pain at seeing a great university undermined by such weak characters in such highly paid leadership positions there.  What surprised me was the outpouring of sympathy from the other guys, all of whom said they shared the pain being felt by the Nittany Lions.

Penn State stands for a lot, they said, and seeing such a great institution, including the institution of Joe Paterno, fall down hard affects everyone.

Driving back home, the adrenalin wore off.  Exhaustion from not sleeping in two days began to take its toll.  An hour later in heavy traffic, the headache and muscle cramps from having sipped only a bit of water and nibbled a few crackers all day began to feel like a true hangover.  And once again, every radio show on the way home was all about Penn State all over again.  Pulling off into a rest stop to nap, I checked the news headlines on my iPhone.  Unbelievably, the Sandusky scandal even made international news, probably best summed up by this headline, “Football Related Scandal Traumatizes the United States,” (

Then it dawned on me. The reason why the scandal is so painful to so many people and felt so widely is that Penn State’s noble culture actually matters and has been taken seriously across the world.  Its squeaky clean image and academic excellence, which Paterno cultivated, matters.  While we Nittany Lions were often grousing about not being in the Top Ten NCAA Division I football rankings, the rest of the world was quietly appreciating and valuing the Penn State Way, quietly steadied by that rock.

It’s that classic lesson that you don’t appreciate something until you lose it, and in this case it was PSU’s innocence.  Not until the scandal hit did it become apparent just what an institution Joe was and that Penn State’s culture is.  Now we suffer the hangover, but it’s a uniquely Penn State kind of hangover.  It’s from having something of great value to begin with.  Now it’s time to pick up the pieces, and put them back together into a recognizable form that the rest of the world can relate to once again.  It’s our job.  It’s about being a Nittany Lion.

Paterno’s ideal was always that character comes first before winning, and so it felt appropriate that the players would make their proudest stand on the character hill, during the noble Nebraska pre-game group prayer, not down in the trenches of the game itself.  Suffering a tough loss is part of putting the pieces back together.  A time for winning will return, but this moment is about more important things, and the Nittany Lions demonstrated that.  Thanks, men.

Photo by sean.flynn


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A product of rural Central Pennsylvania, Josh First enjoys hunting, fishing, trapping, hiking, canoeing and saltwater fishing. He is a graduate of Westtown School in Chester County, Penn State University, where he majored in political science and minored in history, Middle East Studies, and Spanish, and Vanderbilt University, where he obtained a Masters Degree in Government with emphases on economics and statistics. Josh's work experience includes the U.S. EPA in Washington DC, the PA Department of Conservation & Natural Resources, the first Pennsylvania Director for the Conservation Fund, a national non-profit conservation group based in Arlington, VA, where Josh helped protect about 50,000 acres, including the Flight 93 crash site, and the acquisition of the last piece of Pickett's Charge in Gettysburg Park. Josh now runs, a full-service real estate company in Harrisburg, with clients and investors in the natural resource, timber, natural gas, mining, and construction industries. Josh is a serial political campaign volunteer, and ran in the 2009-2010 Republican primary for the PA-17th Congressional District ( He served on the Tom Corbett for Governor Environment, Energy and Sportsmen committees, and was a member of the Corbett-Cawley Administration Transition Team for Environment and Natural Resources. Josh is a board member of several state-wide and regional organizations. He is married with three children, and lives in Harrisburg. - Email Josh First

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