STATE COLLEGE — A pep band and more than 1,000 fans bearing signs and shouting their support for Penn State football turned out this morning to greet players gathering for offseason workouts amid a cloud of uncertainty in the wake of stiff NCAA sanctions resulting from the Jerry Sandusky sex abuse scandal.
Starting center Matt Stankiewitch shook hands and slapped high-fives as he snaked his way through the crowd.
"It's awesome," he said. "I can't believe this many people showed up."
Fans carried signs, while others bearing inspirational quotes from Winston Churchill, Thomas Paine and Vince Lombardi were posted in the windows of the Lasch football building — the same place Sandusky abused some of his victims.
It's Sandusky and the fallout from an internal report finding former coach Joe Paterno helped cover up the allegations that has cast a dark cloud over Penn State football, resulting in a postseason ban and lost scholarships.
But the scandal could cost Penn State current players, too — most notably star tailback Silas Redd, who visited Southern California during the weekend and didn't attend Tuesday's workout.
Redd is perhaps the most important person to the Nittany Lions' immediate future.
The 1,200-yard rusher would be a focal point of coach Bill O'Brien's reconfigured Penn State offense and another good season could have the junior with the dazzling open-field spin move headed to the NFL draft a year early next spring.
On Monday, backup safety Tim Buckley, a former walk-on, became the first player to transfer from Penn State in the wake of the sanctions after returning to his native North Carolina to play for North Carolina State. Penn State also confirmed Monday that former starting quarterback Rob Bolden had left the team, though the demoted signal-caller was given the OK to consider other schools before the NCAA meted out its landmark punishments on July 23.
A handful of other players are at least considering a transfer, leaving the possibility open that Buckley's decision might lead to a chain reaction. Still, the majority of O'Brien's core players appear to be sticking with Penn State, determined to weather out what could be a stormy season for the program.
It's the difficulty facing players that prompted two former Nittany Lions to organize the rally.
"What these guys have had to endure and overcome, nobody has ever been faced before in college football," said Tim Sweeney, a businessman who hosts an online radio show. "There aren't any better representatives of our university than our football team."
Guard John Urschel was impressed with the turnout — all for workouts that aren't mandatory.
"I haven't seen anything like this. It's unreal," he said.
After players arrived, fans streamed to the practice field to watch them work out. Local businesses provided coffee and doughnuts.
O'Brien said at Big Ten media days last week in Chicago that more than 50 players have re-affirmed their commitment to Penn State, though he did expect some transfers. Two Class of 2013 recruits have de-committed over the last week, but six prospects visited O'Brien during the weekend before, standing by their verbal commitments.
"We have a really unique opportunity at Penn State to do something really special," one of the six recruits, Cedar Cliff High senior Adam Breneman, said in a phone interview. Breneman, of Camp Hill, Pa., is considered one of the top tight end prospects in the country.
"We have a chance to bring a community together. We have a chance to be remembered for a long time and give a community hope."
Redd could be O'Brien's most valuable player ... if he stays. The tailback had seven rushing touchdowns last season, and averaged 95.5 yards per game on the ground as Penn State finished 9-4. Redd voiced support for former coach Joe Paterno as late as two weeks ago, after former FBI director Louis Freeh released the results of his investigation in the Sandusky scandal for the university.
Freeh said Paterno, who died in January, and three other school officials concealed allegations against Sandusky — conclusions vehemently denied by Paterno's family and the officials.
"It has nothing to do with us," Redd had said about the findings. Penn State later handed the results of Freeh's investigation to the NCAA.
Redd had also said his opinion of Paterno, the coach that recruited him to Penn State, hadn't changed. He said Paterno, in his view, remained "the best college football coach of all time."
Since then, the NCAA instituted its four-year postseason ban on Penn State that would cover the last two years of Redd's eligibility. College sports' governing body is allowing Redd and all other Nittany Lions to transfer to another school and get on the field right away.
The only restriction is they cannot practice or play with Penn State this year and still play for another school this season, meaning the Penn State roster should finally be set once training camp starts in a week. But the process has set up a college version of NFL free agency, in which other schools have been busy trying to cherry-pick Nittany Lions.
USC appears to be the landing spot if Redd decides to leave. With an offense led by quarterback Matt Barkley, the Trojans will be highly ranked and one of the favorites to win the Pac-12 Conference. A person familiar with Redd's decision said the running back was returning from California on Monday and could make his decision as early as Tuesday. The person requested anonymity because no one was authorized to speak for Redd.
Fans certainly want Redd to stay.
Most downtown businesses are displaying "Proud to Support Penn State Football" signs on windows. Some stores have started selling shirts with the slogan "Billeave," playing off of the first name of O'Brien, the former New England Patriots offensive coordinator.
Penn State fans and students have also started a Twitter campaign to sway Redd with the hashtag "StaySilas."
"With Silas Redd, or without Silas Redd, I would not discount Coach O'Brien's ability to make an offense and put points on the board," said Sweeney, who also heads the Penn State football Lettermen's Club, a group of former players.
Members of the football alumni group also plan to speak with players at a team meeting later Tuesday. Sweeney said he hopes hundreds of lettermen attend the meeting that O'Brien asked they attend.
Penn State spokesman Jeff Nelson said any plans by players to transfer would come from the players themselves or his new school, not Penn State.
It's unclear if Bolden has settled on a new school. He was the starting quarterback to open the last two seasons before losing the job to Matt McGloin each year. There appears to be an interest from LSU in Bolden.
This spring, McGloin was tabbed the outright starter by O'Brien, while Bolden was demoted to the third team.