The year was 1991 and I was just weeks into my new obsession; Super Nintendo. I had saved up my allowance, birthday and holiday money, as well as the couple bucks or spare change my grandparents would sneak my way when my parents were not looking any other time we saw them. I was addicted, I admit. I had been saving for a long time, ever since first reading about the successor of the Nintendo Entertainment System in some Nintendo Power magazine. I knew I had to have the system. It would be mine. Oh yes, it would be mine. Knowing, or believing, my parents would not get the system for me before my birthday or Christmas, I took it upon myself to have exactly $200.00 to be used for purchasing the system myself as soon as possible. My parents surprised me with the system one evening, having gone to Toys 'R Us to pick it during the day without my knowing. Of course, this was not a gift, but a delivery requiring payment upfront before breaking open the box and hooking it up to the old TV. I did not care. I was now the first kid in my neighborhood to own a Super Nintendo.
The Super Nintendo was released in North America on August 23, 1991. Five days later, likely as I was playing Super Mario World and making my way through Vanilla Dome in search of a secret exit here or a switch palace there, Penn State opened the 1991 season in the Kickoff Classic in Giants Stadium. Joe Paterno's Nittany Lions were two years removed from joining the Big Ten and set to embark on one final dominant season as an eastern independent. The opponent was Georgia Tech, who had claimed a share of the national championship the previous season (Colorado won the AP and coaches poll titles, but Georgia Tech took home the UPI championship). Both teams were ranked in the top ten, setting up one of the more high profile Kickoff Classics in the game's history. Penn State blew away Georgia Tech
, taking a 34-3 lead into the fourth quarter before the Yellow Jackets put together some junk points to make the final score look at least a little bit more respectable (34-22). Penn State quarterback Tony Sacca threw a school record five touchdowns in the game. He was destined for greatness, Penn State fans probably thought at the time.
The following week my dad took me to my first Penn State football game, and thus opening my eyes to the world of college football for the first time. Penn State was playing Cincinnati on September 7 after moving up two spots in the AP Top 25. It was something I had never experienced before. I had been to Phillies baseball games at Veterans Stadium, but there was something different about going to Beaver Stadium, which was opening a new season with a newly expanded Beaver Stadium. An upper deck in the north end zone increased the seating capacity and was a big deal at the time. Instead of going to a game at night, I was attending a game in the afternoon, sitting out in the sun with the fresh grass offering a sight that could not be duplicated in the cookie cutter Veterans Stadium, with its artificial AstroTurf (Note: I loved the Vet. It was a dump, but it was my
dump). My memories of the afternoon in Happy Valley were limited, but I have relived moments of that afternoon enough times to feel as though they are more vivid than they probably should be.
I remember having to get up in the middle of the night so we could make the three to four hour trip to the middle of the state, which felt like it was in the middle of nowhere. Why id we have to get there so early? As I quickly learned, the gameday experience starts with a tailgate feast. We would meet up with my aunt and uncle in the parking lot, and getting there early enough gave us a much better shot to get parking spots close together in the same lot. I am sure I spent the bulk of that road trip the way I did for years; sleeping in the car. I would tend to doze off somewhere after the second rest stop once we got on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. I would just about always wake up as we started to make our way up the mountains, a sign that I would soon learn would mean we were getting closer to the destination and traffic would soon be backing us up for what seemed like miles. No matter, because we were now in range to listen to the pregame show on the radio.
So we listened to the pregame radio coverage as we slowly inched through the small roads guiding us to the parking lots outside Beaver Stadium. We tailgated by eating hot dogs and chips and some Coca-Cola. My dad and uncle likely exchanged thoughts and observations from the previous week's swatting of the Yellow Jackets and discussed how Tony Sacca was the next great Penn State quarterback, or just how good this defense might be. They probably also thought this would be Paterno's last great team to send him off into retirement. Yeah, well, anyway...
Once tailgating was done, it was time to pack up and make our way into the stadium. At the time, the process seemed to take forever to me. Why were we packing up just to go sit in the stadium for another hour before the game even starts. After meandering our way through Gate C and up the ramp to our bleacher seat (what, no backs? No arm rests? No place to put my drink my dad would later buy?) I was introduced to the Penn State Blue Band. As a young trombone player in the fourth grade, and the only one in my elementary school, I was captivated and inspired by the line of 20 something trombones in the band marching right in my direction as they picked up the melody to The Nittany Lion and performing their signature moves. Like sports, my musical interests took a little longer to develop as well, but I knew then that playing trombone could be pretty cool. I later became a big band nerd, but that's another story for another day. The Blue Band performed their pregame routine, the drum major had done a flip that I most likely missed because I had no idea what to look for despite my dad giving me a heads up. I was still in a completely unfamiliar environment and had no real sense for what was going on around me.
The wait between the end of the pregame show and the start of the game seemed to take forever for me, and because I had no real concept of what was happening in the game I struggled to understand just how long I was going to be baking in the sun that Saturday afternoon. Penn State once again took care of business against Cincinnati, ripping apart the visiting Bearcats 81-0. A talented redshirt freshman tight end named Kyle Brady caught two touchdown passes from Sacca. Fullback Sam Gash added two more scores on the ground, as did hotshot freshman running back J.T. Morris, who broke two touchdown runs of over 50 yards each. No matter what Penn State did to slow down the scoring, it was no use. Cincinnati head coach Tim Murphy even took blame for the lopsided result after the game, with no ill feelings towards his counterpart in the Coke-bottle glasses, rolled up khakis and black Nike sneakers.
"Those 81 points - that wasn't Joe running it up - that was my fault," Murphy said. "There's no question about it. This was as fine a team as we've played since I've been here, and we've played Florida State and Miami."
On the car ride home that day, as we listened to the Penn State postgame show on the radio to recap all of the highlights from Penn State's 81-0 victory, my dad turned to me as we sat in traffic and said "Don't get used to seeing that."
Paterno was known to always suggest his team was never as good as a single game may have made them look, nor did he ever belittle his clearly inferior opponent. On this day, his players followed that philosophy, showing sympathy for the undermanned and outmuscled Bearcats from Cincinnati.
"You get a funny feeling inside after a game like that," Penn State defensive tackle Tyoka Jackson said afterward. "They're not that bad and we're not that good."
But on that day in September 1991, Penn State was that good and Cincinnati was that bad. A blowout was destined to happen and there as nothing Cincinnati could do to slow it down. The scoreboard at Beaver Stadium, still working despite Penn State's offense putting it to work, had a space letting you know which part of the field the ball was. The sun made it difficult for me to read from the opposite end of the stadium, so I have been told I asked my dad what "Balloon" meant on the scoreboard. My father, who was likely disgruntled at my lack of reading ability would inform me it actually said "Ball on" and explained what different pieces of information on the scoreboard meant. This was not only my first time attending a football game, but it turned out to be the first time I actually watched a football game at all. I was a late-blooming sports fan, and the only sport I had played was peewee soccer. Well, that and R.B.I. Baseball.
I would come to pick up the facets of the game in the following seasons, making one or two trips to Beaver Stadium in 1992 (a 17-14 loss to No. 2 Miami) and 1993 (Penn State's first Big Ten game against Minnesota and the following week for a thriller against USC). By 1994, I was all in on Penn State and college football, and the timing could not have been more perfect. The 1994 season captivated me and made sure I fell in love with college football for good. To this day, the 1994 season is what I credit for sparking my love for college football, but it was actually ignited three years prior.
This weekend I imagine thousands upon thousands will be enjoying their first college football games. I am not sure any will see another 81-0 exhibition of power and dominance, but I am sure there will be plenty of unique stories and memories that develop from coast to coast. As you can see from some of the tweets shared throughout this story, everybody's first experience with college football in person has different results. Some good, some bad, some personal. My wife's first college football game was a Division 2 football game between Shippensburg and Shepherd, but her first experience with Division 1 football was also a Penn State game against a team from Ohio. Her's was a very memorable one, the 2005 Penn State-Ohio State game. We all remember what we can and hold onto these memories for as long as we live. Feel free to share your memories of your first college football game in the comments or share them on Twitter using #MyFirstCFBGame
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