Learning My Penn State History In Jail

A broad grin swept over the face of Arlando “Tray” Jones III when I told the inmate serving a life sentence in a Maryland prison that I graduated from Penn State.

“We are Penn State,” the bald-headed black man told me in my role as the prison system spokesman.

That Jones knew our trademark football cheer despite being locked up for 31 years impressed me. Then the Baltimore native, who earned a psychology degree in prison and published his memoir from jail, embarrassed me.

“You don’t know where that phrase comes from do you?” he said.

Despite graduating from the only college I applied to and following the team since I was 9-years-old, I didn’t. I thought it was just the patented football cheer where half the 107,000 packed into the stadium yell “we are” with the fierce retort of “Penn State” from the other half, intimidating visiting opponents.

Jones explained that the phrase dates back to days of segregation. Penn State had two black football players in 1945 when the segregated University of Miami asked the team to leave the black players home for their game in Florida.

Instead, the players voted to cancel the game. Three years later, the team made it to the Cotton Bowl in 1948 against Southern Methodist University. Word surfaced that SMU wanted to have a meeting with Penn State officials to urge them not to bring the black players to Texas.

All-American Penn State guard Steve Suhey, whose son Matt eventually played for the school, responded for the team. “We are Penn State,” he said. “There will be no meetings.”

Penn State battled SMU to a 13-13 tie with one of the black players, Wally Triplett, scoring the tying touchdown. Suhey was named Most Valuable Player of the game.

After all, we are Penn State!

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