Going to State College for a game has always been one of my most favorite things to do. It’s hard to describe, but the place just makes me happy. The scenery on the drive in, the small college-town feel, the trees and the east-coast architecture all blend together to make this an idyllic setting any time of year – not just for football season.
This time, however, was different. This time, we were heading back to not only catch a game, but to also be reunited with our daughter, Jessica. We moved her in as a freshman four weeks earlier.
Before moving to Arizona in 1995, we had attended nearly every home game for over a decade. For the past 20 years, we would often plan our trips back to Scranton to see family around a game – home or away. Because of that, we would either fly directly into our hometown, AVP for you road warriors, or Philadelphia. Philly was always cheaper, but it required a 2 hour drive due north once you landed, often times after a stop at Pat’s for the requisite Cheesesteak. Then, to get to State College, it was another 2 hour drive west from Scranton. In other words, getting around back there usually always entailed hours of driving.
Anymore, we need to maximize our time in State College so we could spend it with our daughter. That leads to a quick geography lesson. State College is the name of the actual town in which the University Park Campus of the The Pennsylvania State University sits. State College is located in aptly named Centre County – the geographical center of the state.
Pennsylvania has two major airports, one in each of its major cities, Philly and Pittsburgh. We’ve made the drive from PHL to State College many times and it’s about a 3-1/4 hour drive. The drive from PIT is about 2-1/2, but the flights are usually much more expensive. Doing some research, I found that, believe it or not, Baltimore is actually closer to State College than Philly by about 15 minutes. So now, we have three options depending on the best airfare.
Sure, you can fly in State College, but airfare is usually very expensive and they have a history of cancelling flights. It seems that the smallest of rain storms will cancel flights. If you’re lucky, they’ll put you on a bus, otherwise, you’re on your own. Nice. Even with all of that, it sometimes is worth the money and the risk.
For this trip, we decided to try BWI. We landed at rush hour on Friday and made our way north to State College. The traffic was about the same as Philly, but the roads are much nicer – and the scenery is awesome in northern Maryland. We took an impromptu detour to grab a quick bite and avoid some traffic and it gave us the opportunity see some great sites – albeit at 50mph.
The Milton Inn was one of the places along the original route north, York Road. This was the old “highway” to Pennsylvania. It’s awesome to see signs that depict circa 1740! I would have loved to pop in for a cocktail!
Another historic marker that caught my eye, but I couldn’t read was the Gorsuch Tavern. A little research unveiled its interesting past.
Not far from there was an enormous horse farm. With Pimlico Race Course, home of the Preakness, not far away, I’m guessing these were some of the grounds for those ponies.
As you cross over from Maryland into PA, the first major town you enter is York. York is known as the First Capital of the United States. The Articles of Confederation were originally drafted there and the words “The United States of America” were first spoken.
One landmark I always remember from York was the weightlifter on top of the York Barbell company building – where they make, you guessed it – weightlifting equipment. Next door, you can visit the Weightlifting Hall of Fame. Not today, thank you.
As we continued north, Waze routed us through some surfaces street of Harrisburg to avoid the traffic on the freeway. Little did we know, we’d pass Appalachian Brewing Company. Last time we were at Penn State, we picked up some of their craft soda, a Birch Beer. Next time, this will be our dinner stop.
Harrisburg is the half-way point to State College. After that, you jump on scenic 322 West for another 90 minutes. Of course, it’s not very scenic at night, but you’ll be rewarded on your return trip. One roadside wonder that you’ll see in daylight is the Statue of Liberty in the middle of the mighty Susquehanna River just outside of Harrisburg.
It doesn’t take long to see the glow of Beaver Stadium as you enter State College. It serves as a beacon for tens of thousands of fans streaming into the tiny town the night before. The town itself is only about 40,000 people and University Park, home of Penn State, housing another 12k. The State College metro however, boasts a healthy 154,000.
Before long, we were welcomed at the door of our daughter’s dorm with a long-awaited hug. Shortly after, we headed to the world-famous Berkey Creamery for an ice cream. Even at 10pm, the place was jammed and the line growing longer. A little trivia. Ben & Jerry’s founders got their start in the business by attending a $5 correspondence class from Penn State!
Before we left the area for the night, we had to make a pass by the famous Nittanyville, formerly known as Paternoville. Here, students camp out in order to secure their place in line in order to get the best possible seats for the first-come, first-served Student Section. This week, campers started pitching tents on Monday night!
With hotels being at a premium during football weekend, we stayed about 30 minutes outside of State College at the Hampton Inn Lamar. Of course, the place was full of Penn Staters – and even a few Rutgers fans. The rates were still crazy, but worth the 30 minute drive to save a few hundred bucks! What wasn’t worth it, was that it was a smoking room!
On gameday, we started with breakfast at the Waffle Shop, a State College institution! The line is always long, but moves very fast. Once we got inside and ordered, we had our food within 10 minutes. After that, we went shopping to restock the dorm and grab some tailgate supplies. Interesting to note, the beer laws in PA are pretty conservative, except for the fact that you can drive up, place your order and they’ll deliver the beer to your car! Of course, when in Happy Valley, you have to try the Duquense Paterno Legacy Series beer!
Once back downtown, Jessica and her Tapestry Dance Company were performing to raise money for THON, Penn State’s Student-Run fundraiser to fight Pediatric Cancer. THON is the world’s largest student-run philanthropy in the world, having raised over $127M since it’s inception in 1977 – with a whopping $13M raised last year alone.
Traveler Tip: Parking is also at a premium for the games. Make sure you buy your parking two weeks in advance to save a ton of hassle and a few bucks. We were able to pick up a pass for $25 from a scalper. After that, it was out to the lot!
It’s not the same flying in and trying to manage a tailgate – especially when you look around at all of the “professionals”. We certainly looked like rookies with our tiny cooler and store bought food, but hey, it was a beautiful day hanging out in the distance shadows of Beaver Stadium.
Little did we know, we parked right along the bus route for the team. A crowd started to gather to greet them as they made their way to the stadium in their trademark blue buses.
As game time approached, we packed up and made sure we’d get inside early. The pregame is always a great scene at Penn State. Having purchased the tickets using Seatgeek, I’m always a little worried about counterfeit. So when the scanner at the gate finally turns green and dings, I feel a little relief and get more excited at the same time.
Our seats for this game were the best I’ve ever had for a football game – period. We were on the aisle, right on the 50 yard line, about 30 rows up.
The highlight for pregame is when the Drum Major marches his way through the band and sticks the landing on his forward somersault.
Another highlight is the band’s Floating Lion formation.
It was very apparent early on that the Stripeout was going to be awesome. You could see the sections filling in with the appropriate colors except for the occasional red of a visiting fan. And the student section was an absolute Whiteout – including white pom poms. The only color in the 20k seat student section was the Block S in blue behind the south goal posts.
As kickoff approached, the stadium filled in, the team entered and the place erupted – including fireworks from the top of the stadium – another first for Penn State. The crowd stayed in it most of the game – even as the rain came down starting in the 2nd quarter.
The home team didn’t disappoint. The game was squarely in control the entire night, but that didn’t stop the crowd from cheering them on. There was a little bad blood from the Lions visit to Rutgers last year, so I’m sure that had something to do with the crowd’s passion. That or the 8pm kickoff that allowed plenty of time for tailgating.
As the game wound down, the ever-creative student section began a chant of “We’re not rivals”, pointing to the fact that even if the Rutgers head coach thinks it’s a rivalry, it’s not. Yet. Final score 28-3, Penn State.
Even with the rain and the blowout score, the student section didn’t seem to lose many people. They know, that when the game ends, win or lose, the players make their way over, sing the Alma Mater and hopefully, ring the Victory Bell.
Sunday morning, we made our way back for a quick bite to eat with Jessica before heading out on some last minute shopping for her. We made a quick stop at the famous mural wall and before you know it, we said our “see you soons”.
On the way through Baltimore, we drove by some other pretty impressive stadiums – Camden Yards and M&T Bank Stadium. Penn State will be playing Maryland at M&T later in the year. I actually attended the second game ever played in that stadium – a preseason game between the Ravens and Eagles. That was the night they “hatched” their mascots – three ravens named, Edgar, Allan and Poe. Edgar and Allan have since retired.
At the airport, I finished watching the Raiders vs Ravens game. As you can imagine, there were plenty of Raven fans huddled around the TVs. The improbable finish left some outgoing travelers pretty bummed. Just as the game ended, I was approached by a guy asking me if the Raiders scored. I did my play-by-play of the finals plays of the game and he shook his head as we both got in line to board. As we’re waiting to board, it hit me who this guy was. None other than the Golden Retriever, former ASU Sun Devil and Baltimore Raven, Todd Heap.
Just as we’re ready to board, up walks another guy and stands beside me and Todd – NFL on Fox announcer, Dick Stockon. Let’s just say Dick looked like he was feeling fine. He had just finished calling the Redskins game earlier in the day. He noticed Todd and started a conversation with him that lasted almost the entire flight. It turned out that they were both seated in the row behind us. I now know more than I ever wanted to know about Stockon and that we should look for Todd to appear on mass media in the not too distant future.
That wraps up another incredible trip back to Happy Valley. Thankfully, my Paterno Legacy Beer made it home successfully!