STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — In the middle of Curtin Road, John Matko held one handwritten sign in his right hand and rested another against his jeans. Two inches of black tape obscured Penn State’s logo on the 34-year-old father’s hat, as he tried to ignore the jeers, slaps and beer hurled at him.
“Put abused kids first,” one of Matko’s signs read. “Don’t be fooled, they all knew. Tom Bradley, everyone must go.”
Penn State’s Beaver Stadium loomed 30 yards away, rumbling with the first roars of Saturday’s game with Nebraska. The sea of blue-clad supporters wearing gray fedoras and camouflage hunting jackets and “This is JoePa’s house” T-shirts parted around Matko.
“That is such [expletive]!” one young woman screamed at him after glancing at the signs. “Who the [expletive] do you think you are?”
Eyes hidden by blue aviator sunglasses, Matko didn’t respond.
The night before, thousands of students held candles and sang Coldplay’s “Fix You” a capella in front of Old Main to support victims of sexual abuse. They wanted to show a different side to Penn State than the 40 charges of child sexual abuse against ex-football assistant Jerry Sandusky or the riots late Wednesday after the university fired iconic coach Joe Paterno for his role in the cover-up.
Under Saturday’s cloudless sky, Curtin Street revealed something else.
A beer showered Matko. One man slapped his stomach. Another called him a “[expletive].”
“I understand the culture,” said Matko, who graduated from Penn State in 2000 with a degree in nutrition. “I was part of it. It doesn’t surprise me what I’m getting from them.”
Matko drove three hours from his home in Pittsburgh on Saturday morning. He was tired of reading about what university officials didn’t do in the wake of Sandusky’s charges. The father of a 4-year-old boy, he couldn’t stop thinking about the 23 pages of horror in the grand jury’s indictment of Sandusky. Right or wrong, he thought, I’ve got to do something.
A gust of wind picked up rust-colored leaves, dozens of discarded bookmarks and pamphlets about child sexual abuse and crushed blue cups.
Two middle-aged women wearing “Shuck the Husks” buttons on their blue fleece jackets dispensed the bookmarks nearby. Their sign read: “Penn State pride is about more than football.” They wanted to do something, anything to help.
“This is the elephant in the room no one wants to talk about,” one woman said.
Down the street and to the left, hundreds supporters pressed around the statue of Paterno leading his team from the tunnel. Three bouquets of white roses sat beneath it. Pictures snapped and right index fingers thrust in the air in copies of Paterno’s pose.
“We need to rebuild the university,” said one man, who leaned against the stone wall with a solemn look. Like many others Saturday, he refused to give his name.
Matko’s vigil continued. “The kids are what this day is about, not who wins or loses,” the sign resting against his jeans read. “Or who lost their job and why. Honor the abused kids by cancelling the game and the season now.”
A passer-by kicked it.
“You’re going to get your [expletive] kicked, man,” a man bellowed.
“That’s [expletive], guy,” another said.
Abuse flew at Matko from young and old, students and alumni, men and women. No one intervened. No one spoke out against the abuse. Over the course of an hour, a lone man stopped, read the sign and said, “I agree.” Those two words were swallowed by the profanity and threats by dozens of others during the hour.
“The world is here. The world wasn’t at the vigil,” Matko said. “I still can’t believe this game is being played. People are telling me the game is going to generate revenue for the kids. That’s the point. We can’t separate revenue, money from football. That’s part of the reason why we’re in this mess.
“I feel so betrayed. … I can’t believe the guys covered it up. It’s disturbing and it’s not over.”
Matko didn’t preach at passers-by. The signs said enough, two voices in a wilderness of blue.
“What a [expletive] idiot, man,” shouted one fan. “Get out of here.”
A woman, clad in blue like the rest, launched a finger-wagging, tirade inches from Matko’s face. Two men led her away.
A burly man wearing a “JoePa” T-shirt strode up, wrestled away the sign urging abused kids be put first from Matko’s right hand and slammed it to the ground.
After reading the signs, another woman glowered at Matko.
“This is in bad taste,” she said.
One bystander wondered how long until Matko was punched.
From the stadium, the roar of “We are Penn State” washed down the street. Three men with white shirts and ties and rolled-up khakis in Paterno’s style hurried past. The sweet smell of kettle korn and smoke from barbecue up the street drifted past two women as they split a 40-ounce bottle of Mickey’s Fine Malt Liquor.
Each time Matko’s signs were knocked away, he adjusted his black backpack, retrieved the signs and stood his ground.
“Not now, man,” one student said, shaking his head. “This is about the football players.”