Sanctions don't change in-state dreams

For years, players in Pennsylvania have dreamed of running through the Beaver Stadium tunnel. They still do, even now, even with NCAA sanctions and all of the negative news that has hit Penn State in the last year. Josh Moyer/ESPN.com

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- The players carry their shoulder pads like briefcases, marching to work two-by-two as the morning dew licks the grass.

Here, the high school players are awake at sunrise, wiping the crust from their eyes before their short commute down the concrete steps of Memorial Field, three blocks from the Penn State campus.

Hours later, after the drills and the dates with the tackling dummies, many of these State College Area High School players will fall asleep to thoughts of Beaver Stadium, a hulking concrete-and-steel symbol of this community’s best days and, more recently, its worst.

For decades, players at the high school here have dreamed of running through the Beaver Stadium tunnel, stepping onto the lush green grass and looking up at a sea of blue and white in the stands. They still do, even now -- even after a tumultuous month of NCAA sanctions and the release of the Freeh Report.

"This is still the best thing we have in this area to play for. Pitt and Temple aren't even close to this level," State College senior lineman Evan Galimberti said. "I don't think that really changed anything."

High school coaches across the state echoed Galimberti's sentiment, and a recent Quinnipiac University/CBS News/New York Times poll found nearly half (44 percent) of Pennsylvania residents opposed the harsh sanctions. Mike Zmijanac, the head coach at perennial state football power Aliquippa (Pa.), thinks the sanctions will eliminate just 2 percent of in-state recruits the Nittany Lions might have otherwise snagged.

"I can understand the thinking," Zmijanac said. "They want a fresh start and don't want to be tainted by this whole thing, but I'm sure they'll still go to Penn State or not based on what they've always felt."

Nowhere is Penn State's image more important than inside the commonwealth. In-state athletes account for 48 percent of the Nittany Lions' roster, and if Penn State loses State College, it loses the state. If Penn State loses the state, it loses the nation.

But for now, the majority of Pennsylvania continues to revere Dear Old State. None of the nine players who have transferred out of Penn State since the sanctions were announced came from the Keystone State. And although two in-state Class of 2013 recruits flipped, at least half of the current commitments once lived there.

"I don't get it," said State College tailback/defensive end Taylor Baird, who grew up in Texas with parents from Alabama. "I don't know what to say. I don't know why it's like this."

Galimberti understands. A lifelong Pennsylvania resident, he's missed just two PSU home games since he stopped wearing diapers. He remembers racing around the tailgate in a No. 12 jersey -- quarterback Rashard Casey at the time -- and pretending he was a member of the Blue and White.

He passes Beaver Stadium, going to and from school, every day. Seven Penn State posters -- with mantras like "All In!" and "Greatest Show" -- plaster his bedroom walls. And his prized possession remains a signed 1983 team football.

"The prestige is still there, so I don't think anything's changed," Galimberti said. "I've gone through camps all throughout the Northeast region, and everybody still respects Penn State just as much as they did before."

Fans in the heart of Penn State country, in central and northeastern Pennsylvania, seem to separate the Jerry Sandusky scandal from the football team. High school coaches and local players say they see the scandal less as a cultural problem and more as a group of men whose leadership failed.

Even in-state coaches from as far north as Erie and as far west as Pittsburgh -- both longer than three-hour drives to Happy Valley -- believe the impact of the sanctions and the scandal will be minimal there.

Penn State still has a presence in those areas, in part, because of its 19 satellite campuses.

"Will it have an effect on major recruits? Yeah, probably," Cathedral Prep (Erie, Pa.) coach Mike Mischler said. "But I have kids who want to go there regardless of the situation. That isn't going to change their minds."

And for most State College high schoolers -- and high school students across the state -- their dreams won't change, either.