Being Saturday, today was no different for retired linebacker Reggie Givens, former Penn State Nittany Lion. Well, maybe it was a little different. How could it not be?
At noon, Givens was in front of his television, doing what he usually does on a weekly basis; watching his alma mater battle an NCAA foe (today, it was the Nebraska Cornhuskers). For the first time in nearly half a century, the Lions did not have Joe Paterno patrolling the sidelines as their head coach. Unless you’re Ashton Kutcher, you know why. Actually, that’s unfair. I’m sure even Kutcher knows just why by now.
“It’s like one of those out of body moments,” said Givens, over the phone from his home in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. “It’s like, not real. Like, am I really watching this?”
He wasn’t talking about Penn State’s failed comeback in a 17 – 14 loss to the Cornhuskers. But, rather, all the sordid details of the week’s events serving as a backdrop – actually, more like a “frontdrop” – to the game.
A three-time Grey Cup Champion with the Baltimore Stallions (one) and Toronto Argonauts (two), as well as a former San Francisco Forty Niner and Washington Redskin, Givens patrolled the fields of the CFL and NFL with great speed, tenacity and vigour, the way he was taught back at Penn State, also known as “Linebacker U.” Givens’ adaptability and versatility made him an important reason why the Argo defence of ’96 and ’97 dominated like few others in CFL history have. Givens was able to convert to the position of rush end with the Argos. And he could do it all. Contain the run, rush the quarterback, or drop back in pass coverage when necessary. His 182 fumble recovery yards in 1997 remains a single season CFL record to this day. Couple tremendous athletic ability with good coaching, and that’s what you get.
The painful thing, these days, is having to come to terms with one of those good coaches being hauled away in handcuffs, charged with 40 counts of sexual abuse against young boys. When word first arrived about his former coach at Penn State, Jerry Sandusky, being arrested, Givens thought people were joking with him.
“I got text messages and I thought someone was trying to play a trick at first.”
As a protegé of the disgraced former Penn State Defensive Coordinator, and a proud alumnus of the university that now struggles with the great weight of a horrific sexual abuse scandal, you’d expect Givens to have strong feelings about the heartbreaking and angering details that have emerged in the past week, leading to the charging of Sandusky, the firing of Paterno as well as the dismissal of the university’s president, and rioting students on campus.
(A night after the rioting, that same campus was the scene of a peaceful candlelight vigil, for the victims of the crimes alleged.)
Givens does have strong feelings about all this. Feelings of disbelief, feelings of anger and, very specifically, feelings about knowing that he doesn’t know everything about the situation right now. It seems he’s struggling to make sense of it all, and you can hardly blame him for that. So are many.
“It’s a heinous crime, if it happened, but I don’t know that it did,” he said. “I’m not in a rush to judgment. I want to hear everything. I want to hear his side, I want hear him (Sandusky) talk. I want to hear the process, before I truly make a decision.”
It’s important to note that Givens is not maintaining Sandusky’s alleged crimes did not happen. What became very clear over the course of our 30 minute discussion is that Givens is unhappy with what he believes is the ignoring of a simple matter of due process. And he’s having trouble merging two very different things, in his mind: The Sandusky that coached him and the one being portrayed in the media.
“I’m not saying he didn’t do it,” Givens continued, choosing his words carefully. “I’m still in disbelief. That’s not the guy I know. What I know, and what’s being reported is two different things. Up to this point. It sounds really bad. There’s got to be some kind of truth to it. But I don’t know the extent of what’s going on. I don’t know what really happened.”
I asked Givens whether there was ever a hint that there may be something wrong about Jerry Sandusky, while he played at Penn. Did anyone ever say anything? Were there rumours of any sort? Jokes?
“Nothing that I can come up with. No one ever said anything.”
Givens has been a noted “community guy,” if you will, helping out with charitable projects whenever and wherever he can. He believes a lot of that sensibility was instilled at Penn State. And that Jerry Sandusky played a part.
“He was the one who got me doing community service with the kids,” said Givens. “He’s one of the reasons why I started doing that.”
When we turned our attention to the firing of Head Coach Joe Paterno, Givens renewed his distaste for knee-jerk reactions and also trained his sights on the media and its role. More than just documenting things, Givens believes the media had a hand in shaping the events of the past week.
“The media’s the one who caused him (Paterno) to be fired, in my opinion. They’re a large reason why the situation is like it is.”
“In the beginning, they made it all about Joe Paterno. Now they’ve started to come around and talk about the kids. The media didn’t care about the story, they cared about Paterno. The kids were an afterthought. That’s all they talked about for 2 or 3 or 4 days.”
Pressed for more of an answer on Paterno, Givens admits it’s not necessarily that Paterno shouldn’t have been fired. Just that he shouldn’t have been fired in the way that transpired. He points the finger not only at the media, but at Penn State’s Board Of Trustees.
“Getting fired by the Board Of Trustees in the middle of the night, that made it even worse,” he said. “There was no due process in the whole situation. If you’re gonna do it in the right way, which Penn State’s always been about, you don’t succumb to pressure. You’ve got to figure out what really happened. And they didn’t wait to see what happened, and call Joe in and say ‘okay, what really happened?’ You could have had an opportunity to call Joe in to ask him those questions. You never let him say anything. And that’s the problem I have with it. You could decide to fire him afterward, but I don’t like the due process in how they did it. You can’t condemn someone on speculation.”
Retired from pro football since
2000 2005, Givens is now a coach himself, with his own company, Blitz Mobile Fitness, in Fort Lauderdale. He’s also a realtor and coaches a little high school football, at Pine Crest. The football lessons he learned from Paterno, Sandusky and others during his time at Penn State? He remains grateful for those. He can still apply some of those lessons in his vocations. But some, if not all, of the rest will be torn to shreds if Sandusky is found guilty of his crimes.
“If he’s guilty, he became a predator. A monster. And that’s horrible. Kids you’re supposed to help, you end up hurting….” Givens’ voice trailed off as he tried to deal with the enormity of those charges. “There’s no words for that. Respect and admiration for a coach is one thing. A man preying on kids… there’s no coming back from that.”
Maybe not for Jerry Sandusky. But as for the school he loves, and the football team he watches every Saturday, Givens is more hopeful. Can it return to glory?
“Yes,” he offered without hesitation. Because this doesn’t have anything to do with the high graduation rates and the quality of education. The kids and the alumni, they won’t let Penn State go away.”
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