UNIVERSITY PARK - No one could have blamed Pete Massaro if he walked away from football, or, at least, from Penn State football.
After two major knee injuries, just being able to walk at all was a risk, let alone taking the chance for a team that had no chance of going to a bowl game and had lost some of its best players over the summer to sudden transfers.
Yet, there was the 6-foot-4, 256-pound graduate senior from Newtown Square putting it all on the line in the second half and hurrying Wisconsin quarterback Curt Phillips into a couple of incompletions.
"Tonight was a fairy-tale ending. I couldn't ask for anything more," Massaro said. "Getting down early. Coming back. Just fighting, fighting every step of the way. It's kind of symbolic of how our season went."
Those plays were among a number that helped the Nittany Lions finish the season 8-4 with a 24-21 overtime victory over the Badgers at Beaver Stadium on a frigid Saturday. It closed out one of the most tumultuous seasons any college football team has ever played through and sent out what has turned into one of Penn State fandom's favorite senior classes on a highly emotional winning note.
"You've definitely got to keep your emotions in check, seeing your family out there. They were crying, teary-eyed, but we had to focus on the task at hand. And there's no better way to go out as a fifth-year guy to go out than beating Wisconsin at home in overtime," said Penn State quarterback Matt McGloin, who was honored with 30 departing classmates a half-hour before kickoff. "It's been an exciting journey, and I'm happy with the way my guys played today."
McGloin's guys were an unlikely bunch that included a mix of star recruits, players that flew under the radar of other colleges, walk-ons and former walk-ons like himself, sons of former Nittany Lions, players like Massaro and Michael Mauti who were trying to come back from multiple catastrophic injuries and even some players who stayed at University Park because they just didn't have other options.
"I feel great for these kids, especially these seniors. You put in a lot of work, going back to when we first came here and all the things that came up during the offseason off the field," Lion coach Bill O' Brien said. "You just can't say enough about these kids. It may be a little redundant, but I've been around some special teams, and this is a special team because of the football players, and, especially, the seniors."
In the last year, they'd endured the firing and death of the legendary coach whose staff recruited the vast majority of them, the decision not to hire his popular defensive coordinator as his successor and unprecedented media scrutiny in light of the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal that in turn resulted in unprecedented and controversial sanctions by the NCAA just a couple of weeks before fall practice began. Then they lost the first two games of the season in heartbreaking fashion.
Yet, as the seniors attended their final Penn State postgame press conference early Saturday evening, they wore smiles and, incredibly, talked of things largely in positive terms.
"If you said, 'Write up the way you want to go out,' I don't think I could write it up any better," senior center Matt Stankiewitch said. "It was just an awesome experience to have my family there, my friends, my close friends from home watching me. I couldn't be happier."
Stankiewitch was a multi-year starter, but even upperclassmen like little-used walk-on J.R. Refice echoed those thoughts.
"It definitely helped me grow up. It made me grow up and become a man," said Refice, who stayed with the team for his fourth year even though he never got on scholarship. "As much as I grew up since I got here, in the last five months, you really grew up. You really became tough. You realized life's not always going to be roses."
Cornerback Stephon Morris was one of the players that could have transferred immediately under the NCAA's sanctions and contributed somewhere else in their final year of college but decided to stay at Penn State. He already was sporting a lettermen's club baseball cap when he entered the media room.
"I learned not to run from adversity, especially with a group of guys that love you, that are in the fight with you," Morris said. "No matter what they throw at us, I know this team will stand there and just hold hands and give it all we've got. I learned I have a second family."
Morris might have gained perspective, maturity and closer relationships over the course of the ordeal, but he lost something else when Wisconsin kicker Kyle French's 44-yard field goal in overtime lined wide left to give the Lions the win.
"I can't find my helmet, by the way. I threw my helmet, and I'm still trying to get somebody to find it so I can have it for the rest of my life. When he missed, I just threw it and ran to the student section," Morris said.
The end of the game was an emotional climax to an emotional week that wrapped up the emotional season. The seniors spoke one-by-one to the team on Friday night.
"I went back to the hotel room last night, and you try to block all the thoughts out, but stuff keeps popping into your head. Last time in this stadium. Last time with these fans. I'm not going to lie. I shed a tear here and there," Massaro said. "I usually take a nap in the morning. But I woke up early and couldn't get back to sleep. I was trying to visualize going out there and having a great finish. It was emotional all the while."
At 3 p.m., the seniors were introduced and walked out to the center of the field, where their parents awaited. After that, a tarp was pulled from the face of the east-stand luxury boxes revealing their graduation year listed alongside those of other great Nittany Lion teams.
"I was like, 'Wow. I'm a part of something,'" Morris said. "My mentor, Troy Vincent, always joked with me that I don't have no accolades, but, you know what, I'd rather have '2012' go up than any other accolades."
Massaro and others, though, admitted that dealing with the intensity and the pregame ceremonies was a lot with which to have to deal, and it made channeling feelings and focusing on the game a fine line.
"I think that's what got us in the beginning. We had to worry more about hitting and doing our assignments. After we calmed down, the defense started to play our game. Then, coming out of halftime, the offense stepped it up. I think, overall, we had a pretty good performance," senior defensive end Sean Stanley said. "It's the best season of my career, by far. We had fun every game. We enjoyed each other."
This senior class's contribution wasn't lost on the underclassmen like junior Glenn Carson. After the game, Carson shared a hug with Mauti on the field.
"I don't think this senior class is ever going to be forgotten in the history of Penn State," Carson said. "I've learned so much from them. Me and Mauti made each other so much better. We were like brothers. I had a bunch of guys in the senior class like that that really helped me have an amazing season."
A famous coach once said that you are what your record says you are. The 2012 Penn State team would beg to differ.
"It's not the end result. It's what you go through that you really appreciate," Refice said.