It was Saturday, September 19, 1999, and the Penn State Nittany Lion football team was playing in Miami, Florida, in a battle of top-ten teams. It was quite a game, featuring a dominating start, a tremendous comeback, and a brilliant rally, leading to a close Penn State victory.
This is not a story about this game or about what happened in Miami. Rather, it is a story about what happened on campus after Penn State won the game. I went with the crowd and saw just exactly how some of these self-proclaimed "fans" celebrated. Iím still stunned.
During the game, there was all manner of shouts and cheers and so on, both in the dorm and across the campus. When Penn State stopped Miami on fourth-and-two and then promptly completed a 79-yard TD pass to take the lead, a roar went up that I found unbelievable. I muted the TV and listened to what sounded like a stadium full of people cheering, only the sound was coming from off-campus, in the general vicinity of the apartment buildings on Beaver Avenue. When the game was over, and the cheering was even louder, I decided that I was going to follow the sounds of the screaming and find out what exactly was going on.
It wasnít hard to find the crowd, which I think is worth noting was a good 95% men. I arrived on Beaver Ave. along with a few people Iíd struck up a conversation with on the way over. "Celebrate a victory by your home team by vandalizing the campus, getting drunk, and throwing up in a toilet," I commented. Later, I added, "State College: Fourteen months without a riot and counting." They laughed at both comments. At the time I thought I was joking.
Both sides of Beaver Avenueóa one-way streetówere lined with people. The apartments on one side had balconies, and the balconies were full of people. The apartments on the other side didnít have balconies, but people were in most of the windows. Everyone was shouting, screaming, breaking into all the typical chants ("Weíre number one," "Joe Pa," "We are Penn State," "Miami sucks," "Fuck Miami," "Sugar Bowl," etc; no one, to my knowledge, chanted "We donít know the goddamn words."), and so on. People were banging pots and pans together. People driving down the street were similarly cheering, sticking their hands out the window and brushing fingers with the pedestrians or standing up through the sunroof and cheering or whatever. Some of them were, anyway; I donít doubt that some of the drivers had no clue about football and were wondering just what the hell was going on. Amidst all of this, I saw a grand total of five police officers trying to maintain order.
As the chanting went on and more people showed up, the crowd advanced from the sidewalks to just off the curb to just out of the actual traffic lanes. The officers worked to keep people back, and they seemed to be succeeding for a little while. Then, about fifty feet to my left, two people jumped out in the street and started jumping up and down in front of some cars, which had to stop. Next thing you know, the street is full and the drivers are trapped. Right in front of me was the very first car that ended up unable to get through. It was a blue taxi cab, and the driver looked both mystified and a little bit scared. I canít say I blame him. He said something into his CB, and I can just imagine what ("Hey, Earl, Iím gonna be a little bit late."). People kept running across the hood of his car. I looked around for the police officers but didnít see them. Perhaps they had chosen to run for their lives.
This continued until the inevitable cry went up: "Goalposts! Goalposts!" And the next thing I knew, thousands of students were sprinting for the stadium, which is on the order of a mile away. I wasnít up to a sprint, but I ended up among the large crowd that tailed behind. My theory was that I wanted to be close enough to see what was going on, but far enough from the front not to get arrested. It seemed a sensible plan to me. Well, admittedly it would have been more sensible to go back to my room and read about what had happened in the papers, but I wanted to see for myself. In any case, traffic was brought to a standstill as the swarm of students sprinted down the streets, looking like marathon runners on a closed course. As I was crossing the street, someone climbed onto the trunk of a stopped car, jumped up and down a bit, and then ran as the driver opened the door to step out after him.
The walk was punctuated by the sounds of trashcans being tipped, people pounding on street signs, and a few comments about the stadium being "too damned far away." One or two people commented, "Why are we trashing our own campus?" I had to admit I wasnít sure. I suppose it had a lot to do with the varying degrees of drunkenness exhibited by some of the people present. Penn State is one of the top drinking colleges in the nation, after all, though strangely enough the Penn State website doesnít play this fact up.
By the time I reached the stadium the front of the crowd had been there for quite some time. Iím told that there were three officers present out front, and the leaders of the pack came to a stop, but when the rest of the crowd arrived, they started shoving, and the momentary semblance of order quickly broke down.
As glad as I was that the crowd didnít successfully get into the stadium, I had to admit that I was a little disappointed. Thousands of screaming football fans couldnít get through a single chain link fence? In Europe they rip entire stadiums out of the ground over sporting events, and Americans were stopped by a single fence? How pathetic is that? I wasnít planning on going in, anyway; outside we were an unruly mob of people, but inside we would be guilty of breaking and entering, and trespassing, and several other things that probably arenít all that major but nonetheless could lead to arrests and the like. Heck, if they had gotten through the gates and swarmed in, all the police would have to do is block the gates behind them and arrest everyone inside. So, I had resolved that the farthest I would go would be to stand near the open gates and shake hands with people as they passed and maybe let them know how much I truly hoped they had a good attorney.
Not that there werenít people who gave an honest effort at getting in. The fences took a beating but heldóapparently, no one wanted to get into the stadium badly enough that they thought to bring wire cutters. Someone took a bicycle rack, leaned it sideways against one of the concession stands, climbed it like a ladder, and got on the roof of the stand. Everybody cheered as he ran back and forth, and a second guy followed him up. I think they were going to jump down into the stadium, but they got caught in the glare of flashlights from inside and thought better of it. Though two people were visible at the top of the stadium and one or two others were at ground level, I donít doubt the stadium was absolutely swarming with policemen just out of sight. Watching the insanity, I commented to someone near me, "You know, thereís team spirit... and then thereís this." Also, remembering that PSU was third in the polls (with the #1 team having won big and the #2 team not having played yet), I couldnít help but wonder how much more excited everyone would have been if there had been any reason to believe that Penn State was going to move up in the polls.
As police cars arrived outside the stadium and it sunk in that there would be no stealing of the goalpostsóThatís another point, actually. Iím told that at least once the goalposts were stolen, whether from the stadium or the practice field Iím not sure. The people took the goalposts and deposited them right on Joe Paternoís front lawn. Now, when he stepped out his front door and saw the goalposts dumped there, which of these do you think better exemplifies his thoughts at that moment: "The football fans around here have a tremendous amount of team spirit," or "The football fans around here have the brains of a trout"? Yeah, thatíd be my guess, too.
So anyway, everyone started wandering away from the stadium, which I was okay with. I read later that there were dozens of police officers inside in full riot gear. The police were prepared for a mob and in full riot gear by the time the game ended. How pathetic a commentary is that? Anyway, it looked like things were going to calm down at this point when some genius noticed another sporting event taking place, and suddenly everyone is running across the fields outside of Beaver Stadium, making their way towards an in-progress game of the menís soccer team. On the way down, a handful of people celebrated the football teamís victory by tipping over port-a-potties. Theyíd shove, and the thing would tip over, and blue fluid would start pouring out. One can only hope none that were tipped were occupied at the time.
The first people to reach the soccer field didnít waste any time. They just climbed right over the fences and onto the field. There was eventually a brief delay of game while the football fans realized that, hey, they didnít really want to be on the field. Hundreds of fans poured into the stands and started making all kinds of noise the likes of which the soccer team is not likely to hear again anytime in the near future. It was the surreal sort of twist that I hadnít at all been expecting: Penn State had suddenly become the site of a soccer riot. I stayed outside, watching from the side of University Drive.
Actually, things werenít as bad as that, as far as I could tell. There was a brief delay, but things settled down a little bit, and the game was able to continue. I liked the PA announcer saying, "Weíd like to welcome all the fans who are celebrating the victory by the Nittany Lion football team. We request that all spectators remain in the stands and off the playing field," etc. It turned out that the menís soccer team, #2 in the nation, was playing the #17 team, Akron. Since the football team had beaten Akronís football team 70-24 just two weeks earlier, the football fans werenít too impressed with this. They booed. They briefly chanted "Akron sucks." They responded to a kick to put the ball in play by making that noise football fans make before a kickoff. They started the "We Are!" "Penn State!" chant. They started The Wave. They cheered every PSU kick that got the ball toward the goal. They booed when a PSU player got knocked down. They let out a tremendous roar when PSU took a 2-0 lead. They likely made more noise in the six minutes of game time they were present than all the other fans at every other soccer game all season made, combined. It was one of the most comical things I think Iíve ever seen.
At the end of the first period, the players filed off the field, and the football fans filed out in a relatively orderly fashion, other than the few who grabbed a goal off the practice soccer field and ran off with it. The bicycle cop who had been watching all of this disappeared about this time. There were a lot of bicycle cops around, and I had to wonder what they were hoping to accomplish. If things got dangerously out of hand, one guy on a bicycle clearly would not be enough to help matters any. What would he do, arrest a half dozen people, throw them in the back seat of his bicycle, and take them down the jail? If I was one guy on a bicycle, Iíd be afraid to try to restore order. Iíd call the police station, fake an injury, and head home. I recalled a line from The Simpsons: "Responding quickly to the developing situation, Mayor Quimby was quick to declare mob rule."
On the way back across campus, a new chant started, "Campus Loop! Campus Loop!" The Campus Loop is a free bus service that leads to most everywhere on campus, and many students who are too damned lazy to walk take them. I tried to imagine thousands of cheering football fans piling onto a bus. It made my head hurt. Then, upon hearing another comment about how it didnít make sense that we were damaging our own campus, I suggested to the people near meóIím still not sure what made me voice this, considering what I had seen alreadyóthat we steal a Loop bus and take it down to Miami. That got a lot of laughter and started another brief chantó"Hijack the Loop, take it to Miami!"óbut fortunately no one around was that drunk. Besides, the local public transportation buses are fueled by natural gas, so getting that thing all the way to Miami would be hell.
Not long after this, people reached the swimming pool. It was fenced in, of course, but that wasnít about to stop these people. Some climbed the fences, some tossed over a lacrosse net they had found somewhere, some even went off the high dive, which struck me as being a little more dangerous than usual considering ropes were strung out along the surface to divide the pool into lanes (or whatever theyíre called in swimming competitions). Someone ran off with what I think was the lifeguardís chair. A bicycle cop witnessed all this, too. He did nothing to intervene. Goodness only knows what was going through his head.
After the swimming pool, I realized that somehow I had ended up near the front of the crowd. I guess I had left the soccer game earlier than most. The people at the front looked a little lost, and eventually one of them asked where everyone wanted to go next. They discussed it, and then, as the bulk of the crowd caught up, continued to lead without any idea where exactly they were going. Iím sure thereís a brilliant political metaphor in there somewhere.
At this point, a bus driver for the Loop had the terrible misfortune of making a scheduled stop right in front of us. There was an instant crush to get on the bus. I and some other person I had never met before were actually close to getting on when we considered, "This is dangerous," "This bus is going to get tipped," "The driverís going to head right for the police station," "When the arrest list is published on Monday, itís going to be the people on this bus," and we stepped aside and let others on. At least fifty people, probably more, piled on, yelling and screaming and jumping up and down and sticking their arms out the windows. The driver looked just thrilled beyond words. I was starting to become thrilled that the National Championship Game is played between semesters.
At the corner near McLanahanís, people started to wander off the sidewalk into the street a little bit to see if any cars were coming before trying to cross. I was one of them. Then, out of nowhere, a police officer yelled at me, and others, to get back on the sidewalk. I did. Someone in the crowd yelled, "Fuck you!" He responded by shouting, "Any of you have the balls to come down here and say that to my face?" There was a long silence, and then he said, "Thatís what I thought." I was tempted to tell him that what he was seeing was nothing, and that he was really needed at the intersection of weekday afternoons, when people would just walk right out in front of cars and force them to stop on green to avoid running people over. But, he seemed more than a little irritated, and the timing struck me as less than opportune, so I kept my mouth shut.
At this point things had been going on for a good two and a half hours, and enthusiasm was finally giving way to apathy, plus the sun had set and the temperature had fallen a good ten degrees. As everyone worked their way back down toward Beaver Avenue, where all this had started, the crowd began to dwindle rapidly around me, and I ended up heading back to my dorm rather than try to find another group of fans. Truth to tell, I was a bit tired of the whole thing myself.
That wasnít the end of it, of course. As expected, the noise outside started again at about 2 AM, as all the bars closed. At 3:30 there was still noise outside. I decided that having seen what went on earlier that evening, I had no intention of going through something similar again with a bunch of people who this time would almost certainly be roaring drunk. Perhaps something interesting happened, but Iíll have to read about it in the papers, like everybody else.
The most important thing I got out of all of this, Iíd have to say, is my first real first-hand experience with mob mentality. I gotta admit, it was exciting, and exhilarating, and frightening, all at once. I can hardly imagine what it would be like if it had gone beyond minor property damage and into the realm of riot. (Some called it a riot, but when I think riot I think Los Angeles burning down, not several hundred college students pushing at a chain link fence.) Iím sure that the vast majority of people who were involved never would have headed up to the stadium, or tried to break in, or any of the other things that happened, if the group had consisted of five or a dozen or even a hundred people. Iím told that some sociologists actually specialize in mob mentality and what leads people to do the things they do in that sort of situation. I can finally understand why.
What helped me the most was that, as crazy as things got, I never let myself get swept away in it. I donít think many did. I think that like me, most were there just to see what was going to happen, and we all got quite a show. Strangely enough, if those who wanted to see what was going to happen had chosen not to bother, odds are there would have been so few people there that nothing at all would have happened. The many provided adequate smokescreen for the few.
So, thatís my experience with mobs. Well, not entirely. I also was part of the mob after the Purdue game, but got out of there much quicker because the tone was much uglier. I think the major difference was that the Purdue game started much later, so people had the time to get far more drunk. Things moved at a faster pace, there was much more damage at the stadium, and I decided it was time to leave when some people leading the chants stepped it up to "I say ĎFuck you,í you say ĎCops!í" Several police officers were standing around the concession stand which the guy saying this was standing on. Thatís never a good sign.
And frankly, Iíve seen enough. Itís not so much a celebration of victory as it is a convenient excuse to go around and cause property damage and give the people who live around here and hate college students that much more ammunition to use against us. Further participation isnít going to show me anything new, or at least nothing new that I care to see, and it likely increases the chances of me getting arrested, which, as you might imagine, is a prospect Iíd prefer to avoid.
Next time Penn State wins a big game on the road, Iíll cheer, Iíll make as much noise as the next guy, and Iíll exchange high fives with the guys on the floor in a celebration intense enough to make people think we personally were responsible for the game-winning touchdown. But when they put on their coats and run for the elevator to go storm the stadium to celebrate via vandalism, Iíll stay happily in the dorm room and worry that in thirty years these people will be running the nation. I myself plan to be dead.