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November 22, 2013

Column: No greater honor

Arguing a hypothetical in the face of adversity is often a fruitless endeavor.

More than two years since the revelation of Jerry Sandusky's crimes, the firing of iconic Penn State head coach Joe Paterno, and the countless iterations of upheaval that arrived upon the football program as a result, context and perspective continue to constantly change.

Yet, beyond the peripheral battles still seeking their real-life conclusions, the living embodiment of a hypothetical will come to fruition as a senior class of Nittany Lions takes its final bow at Beaver Stadium on Saturday afternoon.

For as much praise and adoration as Penn State's senior class of 2012 received - earning an incredible amount of positive publicity, respect and gratitude for "saving" not only a football program, but by extension, an entire community - couldn't an argument be made that this and next year's classes of seniors were equally important to the cause?

At his weekly radio show in State College on Thursday night, Penn State head coach Bill O'Brien weighed in his own thoughts on the matter.

"It's hard. Last year's class obviously will go down as one of the most special classes in Penn State history," he started, noting that group's fortitude and perseverance in the face of relatively-extreme circumstances.

Continuing, O'Brien revealed that, in his mind at least, the mantel is not limited to that singular group of seniors.

"This year's class is just as special. This is a class that had real decisions to make, that stuck with us, and they're the real reason I came back here for the 2013 season… this senior class," O'Brien said. "They're just a special group of guys. They work extremely hard. These kids have laid it on the line every week and I just can't say enough about them."

In print or otherwise, this isn't the first (and certainly won't be the last) time I relay the now-infamous "meeting" recounted to me just days after Penn State's 2012 seniors collectively decided to make a stand against the NCAA sanctions that had been leveled against them the morning of July 23, 2012.

Linebacker Mike Mauti and his best friend Mike Zordich, along with a host of other seniors, truly thought they might not have a team to play for last season, not because of their own indecision, but because of the juniors, sophomores and freshmen blankly staring back as they stood pleading their cases at the front of the Lasch Building auditorium.

The story itself is riveting - a tight-knit group of seniors and a new head coach banding together to convince its teammates not to abandon ship - but its ongoing, uplifting outcome is nothing without those blank faces staring back.

Difficult choices needed to be made by each and every Nittany Lion with two-or-more years of eligibility remaining in his college football career.

The losses incurred by those who decided to leave were not insignificant. (And, likely could have played a part in propelling Penn State's success the past two seasons, as improbable as any of it may have seemed during those fateful weeks in July and August.)

In retrospect, however, the impact of those who stayed is nothing short of monumental.

Regardless of their individual on-the-field impact, on Saturday afternoon, as each of their 17 names are read aloud under the steely skies at Beaver Stadium - Kyle Baublitz, Kevin Blanchard, Alex Butterworth, Glenn Carson, Bryan Davie, Brandon Felder, Garry Gilliam, Adam Gress, Ty Howle, DaQuan Jones, Alex Kenney, Matt Lehman, Stephen Obeng-Agyapong, Eric Shrive, John Urschel, Malcolm Willis, and Pat Zerbe - they will proudly wear the physical and emotional scars formed through the maelstrom of the past 24 months, and even more important, the unbreakable bonds of friendship that go with them.

Rather than wondering where they rank in the pantheon of important Nittany Lions, or, in the case of those who opted out, wondering what might have been, this group can instead feel immense pride and satisfaction, not for "saving" Penn State football but simply, for leaving nothing to doubt.

At an institution as storied as Penn State football - erected from decades of dedication to the very same principles - for this group of Nittany Lions, no greater honor could exist.

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