INDIANAPOLIS — They emerged out of the tunnel hand-in-hand for their contest against Nebraska, a team devastated by scandal but unbroken in the face of tremendous adversity.
It was fitting that senior DT Devon Still, who has faced significant struggles himself in the form of injuries, led Penn State onto the field in the first game after legendary head coach Joe Paterno was fired after 46 years at the helm.
"When I got the news of Coach Paterno being fired, I heard a lot of speculation about how the team was going to fall apart, that we weren't going to play like the unit we were before," Still said. "I felt as though I had to do something to show the team that we were going to stick together through this and we had to show everybody else that we were going to stick together."
So, the team literally stuck together, hand-in-hand, and clung to an old tradition that marked Paterno's tenure at Penn State. The season didn't end very well for the Nittany Lions, with losses in three of their last four games, but a positive legacy continued in Indianapolis, where members of a terrific Penn State defense gathered at the Scouting Combine, once again united, this time in their pursuit of the NFL.
While Paterno passed away a little more than one month ago, his former players kept his memory alive in Indianapolis, and the pipeline that he created between State College, Pa. and the NFL remains in working order.
"I would like to think so," Still said. "Coach Paterno really groomed us into fine young men. He let us understand what life is all about. That puts us at an advantage over a lot of people because a lot of universities focus just on football whereas Penn State focuses on football, academics, just grooming you as men."
Never were those life lessons more important than in the days following allegations that former Nittany Lions assistant Jerry Sandusky engaged in inappropriate activities with children. It came to light that Paterno had been informed of one alleged incident by then-graduate assistant Mike McQueary, and while Paterno told his superiors of the alleged heinous crime, he never told the police. In the aftermath, Paterno lost his job.
While scandal rocked Penn State's campus, the team had to play on, with or without Paterno.
"It was very hard but when we signed up to go to Penn State, we signed up to play football," Still said. "We'd let the off-field issues handle themselves and we would just focus on Saturdays."
Controversy off the field obscured what had been a marvelous season for Penn State, particularly for the Nittany Lions' defense. After surrendering 23.7 points per game in 2010, which ranked sixth in the conference, the Nittany Lions rose to the top of the Big Ten, as they surrendered just 16.8 points per game last season. They surrendered 10 points or fewer in six of their 13 games in 2011.
"We were such a tight-knit group," Penn State LB Nate Stupar said. "When we bonded together in preseason, playing games, everything just felt natural and right and just flowed together. You could just tell through the tape and everything that everyone played their parts, knew their position and just did what they were supposed to."
That came as a marked change from previous years, according to Stupar.
"My feeling was previous years, everyone had an individual (mindset) of worry about themselves and not really the team," Stupar said. "The captains did a great job of just bonding us together and really connecting us as players."
The scandal also took away from a tremendous season by Still. It's safe to say that no one took the Nittany Lions' disappointing 2010 campaign more personally than the defensive tackle did.
"I had a very average year my junior year and I never strive for being mediocre," Still said. "I try to be the best that I can be. I put in a lot of overtime during the offseason just to prepare myself to be one of the best in the country for my senior year and make my mark at Penn State."
Still was one of the keys to the Nittany Lions' defensive improvement. Hobbled by injuries during his first two seasons at Penn State, he recorded 55 tackles (which nearly equaled his total from his previous three seasons), 17 tackles for loss (which exceeded his previous career total at Penn State) and 4½ sacks during his final campaign.
"Hands down, I'm the best defensive tackle in this draft just because I want it more," Still said. "I was able to take over a lot of games this season. … I was able to disrupt plays even if I wasn't making tackles or sacks."
Still credited Penn State DL coach Larry Johnson for sticking with him, even after he sat out his entire freshman year with a torn right ACL, and then missed the majority of his redshirt freshman season with a fractured left ankle.
"When you see players get injured, coaches tend to forget about them and just move on to the next person," Still said. "I was injured two years back-to-back, which gave Coach Johnson every reason to go find the next DT out there and move on, but he stood by my side the whole time and I think he pushed me harder than he did any other player there, just because he wanted me to prove all my critics wrong."
Still certainly did prove his critics wrong. His fine efforts on the field earned him the Big Ten's Nagurski-Woodson Defensive Player of the Year Award, as well as the praise of his teammates.
"The best of the best are here and Devon Still, he's a monster," Stupar said. "I played behind him. I played with him, and he's easily one of the best players at defensive tackle that I know. It takes teams to double-team him and even that, he can get still get through them, mostly. When he has a goal in his head, there's nothing that can stop him."
Stupar wasn't expected to start in 2011, but he suddenly was called into duty when star LB Michael Mauti went down with a season-ending ACL injury, and he took advantage of the opportunity, finishing with 80 tackles, including 12 tackles in Penn State's TicketCity Bowl loss to Houston. Stupar also recorded 5½ tackles for loss, two sacks and two interceptions.
Stupar is part of a proud fraternity of Nittany Lions linebackers, many of whom have gone on to prestigious careers in the NFL.
"It definitely helps me because (49ers LB) NaVorro Bowman and (Cowboys LB) Sean Lee are doing a heck of a job," Stupar said, "and honestly, just showing that Penn State linebackers are successful in the NFL and if you want that type of linebacker, you know where to go and that's Penn State."
The scandal also took away from a tremendous season by DE Jack Crawford, who notched 40 tackles and 6½ sacks. One of the Combine's best stories and most affable athletes, Crawford immigrated from London as a high school sophomore to play basketball, but as he settled into his new hometown of Longport, N.J., he found a new love.
"I would've never thought I would be here but life's funny," Crawford said. "I fell in love with football. That's the only thing I can watch on TV anymore."
Interestingly, Crawford believes that his late start on the gridiron might have helped him develop.
"I kind of learned from scratch which a lot of people look at as I haven't been playing that long, but I think it helped me in a lot of ways," Crawford said. "I played so many sports growing up that it wasn't hard to pick up. With the right coaches throughout high school and college, I didn't have many bad habits."
For Crawford, part of the reason football won out over basketball was because of the sport's physicality. A former boxer, Crawford loved having the chance to utilize those talents on the gridiron.
"I always loved physical games, that's what kind of drew me into football," Crawford said. "Every sport, but especially boxing, it just helps you with your footwork. One of my strengths is my speed and my footwork for being the size that I am today."
Perhaps the greatest thing one can learn from the sport of boxing is how to get up after suffering a tough blow, and that's exactly what Crawford and his teammates had to do as the infrastructure around them fell apart.
"Well, we had each other, we were a team, and even when Joe got fired, got let go, we knew what he wanted," Crawford said. "It was sad. The whole program suffered, but at the end of the day, we could only play football. That's our job. We had to go out there and play the best game that we could and that's what we did."
As stunning as Paterno's sudden departure was for his team, Stupar said that he was fortunate just to be in Paterno's presence for five years.
"When I went to Penn State, I never would have thought that I would have him for all five years and I feel blessed to have him as my coach," Stupar said. "He taught me a lot of valuable lessons about becoming a man, and being a guy of morals and obligations."
While Joe Paterno's legacy might never be entirely clear following the scandal that ended his coaching career, the legacy of his final team is far easier to understand, according to Stupar.
"We will probably be remembered for the year JoePa passed away, the year that he got fired, his last year, the Jerry Sandusky scandal," Stupar said, "but also (as) the team that fought through adversity and proved to the nation that we still stuck together and was a team."
That's one thing that Paterno would be proud to hear.