When the cheering stops: What it's like to be inside a quiet, empty Beaver Stadium on a fall Saturday
STATE COLLEGE — Your laptop shakes, soda sloshes, and the press box starts to sway.
Am I even safe? I’m just a writer. I don’t remember signing a liability waiver before riding the rickety elevator to my seat with the media.
These are the thoughts that flood a journalist’s mind with Zombie Nation blaring through the dated sound system of Beaver Stadium as some 110,000 fans, most at least slightly inebriated, roar, “WE ARE” to a response of “PENN STATE.”
Our view from the booth last night as both teams take the field. pic.twitter.com/Q83nQQ8GtP
— Kirk Herbstreit (@KirkHerbstreit) October 22, 2017
With the exception of one small section, it’s a sea of white. You couldn’t squeeze another fan in if you tried. Hundreds of recruits stalk the sidelines. All have made the pilgrimage to a stadium tucked away in acres of cow pastures. If the wind hits just right, you can smell the aroma of manure mixing with charcoal grills in the air. For half a dozen Saturdays every year, it’s the Mecca of college football, the 2nd-largest college football stadium in America. As Penn State puts it, the experience is “Unrivaled.”
That is until 2020, however. Not even the hostile atmosphere created by an army of Nittany Lion fans can stem the crippling force with which COVID-19 has struck the world.
On Thursday, Penn State Vice President of Intercollegiate Athletics Sandy Barbour wrote in a letter to season-ticket holders what all had been expecting: a season without fans.
“Under the current conditions and current state orders, our fall sports events would be conducted without fans in the general seating areas of our facilities. We continue to work with the Governor’s office to discuss, and possibly be prepared for the opportunity to have spectators at our fall Penn State sporting events,” the letter read.
For a fan, the concept of an empty Beaver Stadium is an abstract idea. For a writer on the beat, it’s an all too familiar experience, an eerie one at that.
As the final seconds tick of the clock and tens of thousands of fans make their way to the exits, writers run the Beaver Stadium gauntlet, a race to the media room as we fight counter-flow against the crowd. It’s as close as we get to being a punt returner.
But after we emerge from the hour-long availability, our quotes all recorded on our phones, it’s like you’ve been whisked away to a completely different place.
The chants and music are gone, replaced instead by a lone lawn mower and the footsteps of a few dozen stadium workers. Napkins and chicken tender baskets blow by like tumbleweeds in the wind. If you hurry, you can get a live shot before the crew shuts off the lights.
For the first time in 5 hours, you truly feel alone. Beaver Stadium becomes just a giant, spooky Erector Set, nothing more than a pile of metal beams and concrete.
As an introverted writer, it’s an eerie and peaceful serenity, an ideal condition for cranking out a few thousand words.
For a player, though, it’s a reality that I can’t even begin to fathom having to play a football game in a quiet, empty stadium. Unfortunately, it’s a reality that will have to be grappled with this year as Penn State looks to punch its ticket for the first time ever to the College Football Playoff.
From walking off the buses hours before kickoff being treated like The Beatles of State College to posing with front-row fans for selfies minutes after singing the Penn State Alma Mater, that’s all gone now.
The reason many of these student-athletes chose Penn State, it’s gone.
But in a year with so many unknowns, the mission has become in many ways simpler. Just win.
If they keep winning, the sounds will be back in 2021, louder and more passionate than ever. Happy Valley and all of its glory will return.
And at the end of the day, if you listen closely enough, fans may still be treated to one familiar sound emerging from the vacuum of silence: the wringing of the victory bell as each player walks off the field.
Penn State rings the victory bell for the second time this season after a 45-13 victory over Buffalo pic.twitter.com/zaDeOY9M4w
— Ben Ferree (@BFerree_) September 8, 2019