Black Shoes, Basic Blues

Black Shoes, Basic Blues

“It’s the name on the front of the jersey that matters most, not the one on the back.” --Joe Paterno

Yep, here it is. My true confession about the nagging topic of our football uniforms. I’ve been thinking about it for two years and now is as good a time as any.

When I was a kid, I easily recognized that it was Penn State we were watching by the plain blue or plain white uniforms. In my memory, uniform in general were much simpler back then and it was tough for me to understand who was who. My mental checklist included blue/white and no name.

As I got older, it was a mark of pride to know the names of the players by their numbers. There was always a game program floating around our house, our dorm, our apartment, the stadium. I think I actually remembered the names of players better when I had to spend a little time studying them. I’d test myself when I saw people wearing jerseys. 11 was LaVar Arrington. 22? That’s Cappalletti, and later, Royster. (Don’t get me started on the topic of retiring that number.) 12, Kerry Collins. 33, Jack Ham. 5, Larry Johnson. 24, O.J. McDuffie, Bryant Johnson, Jordan Norwood.

I always thought Coach Paterno’s quote was odd considering we never had names on either side of our jerseys. But, now we do.

Coach O’Brien said he wouldn’t make changes to the uniforms, then he said he reserved the right to change his mind on that. He said he is “deeply committed to honoring Penn State’s traditions.” He said he “felt it was important for the people out there to really know who these kids were that stuck with this program.” And so, the names.

With this one decision, this one change that would barely raise an eyebrow in other programs, O’Brien divided us into two camps. One side fiercely defending his choice, and the other outraged by it. I saw an online poll that put only 5% of voters in the undecided category. 48% for the names, 47% against.

I get it. We want to honor the players who stayed. It is a big deal that in the midst of everything they remained loyal to us. I get how easy it was to leave. I get that Penn State never looked worse and there were literally coaches from other schools crawling on our campus, poaching our players. Ultimately, it’s Coach O’Brien’s decision. Not mine or yours or the Letterman’s Club’s.

And I agree. Putting their names on the jerseys does honor them. They should be honored. It does make it much, much easier for their names to be recognized.

Although it was kind of funny to watch the names all falling off that first game, wasn’t it? Like a sign from the universe that they weren’t supposed to be there. I can’t help but think these two years of names was just a gateway to keeping the them on in the future. Will they quietly remain? Will the rationale change? Will O’Brien claim coach’s prerogative?

With a history like ours, they aren’t just names. It represents something. Some think that the names mean honoring those who stayed. I think the lack of names means more.

Ohio State v Penn StateI’ll admit that it’s a little bit about honoring Joe Paterno. Though there were no names on the jerseys before his time either, the lack of names continued intentionally by his design for a team above individuals approach. Keeping the names off the jerseys might have been a more fitting tribute than the statue. (Don’t get me started on that topic either.)

No names was a clear, visible symbol of how we’ve never been like everybody else. Our past is rich with stories of team unity. In 1946, the football team voted unanimously to cancel a game, rather than play without its two black players: we play all or we play none. In 1948, our famous stadium cheer was born when it was rumored that our Cotton Bowl opponents wanted to meet to discuss not playing black players: we are Penn State; there will be no meetings.

We’ve already seen, especially this season and last, the qualities that set Penn Staters apart: heart, passion, resilience, perseverance, loyalty. You could argue that names haven’t changed that. I would argue that no names would make it much, much easier to be recognized as different from today’s sports norm.

No names meant all were part of the team. Yes, he may be the quarterback but he’s no more important than you, the lineman, you, the third string player, you, the cheering fan. That’s the heart of the matter for me.

In short, the names have got to go.

Black shoes, basic blues, no names, all game. We Are Penn State. OneTeam.

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