I was at my Aunt Carolyn's house. We would always go there for picnics when I was younger, where some great Wiffle Ball games were held in her side yard, by the way. I would guess it was maybe 1999 when I would have been eight years old. Not positive on the timeline, but I know for a fact it was sometime before I was ten years old, I was young. We'll just say that.
I don't remember much, but I remember this event happening rather vividly. I was in an argument with my first cousin who was likely in his early 40’s at the time and we were arguing about Pitt and Penn State. I can't imagine what I could have been saying? I was like eight years old for crying out loud! What does an eight year old know about a college football rivalry? Did the anti-Penn State rhetoric come out of my mouth like a natural, was I just repeating my parents? I like to think I was just born with it.
Anyway, what 40-year-old spends time arguing with an eight-year-old about a college football rivalry? I just remember him being beat red in the face, and I probably was too. Neither one of us was going to give an inch. I'll still never give an inch in an argument like that to this day either.
I'm sure it was all resolved with my mother and his mother (My Godmother) telling us both to stop arguing. We both carried on, shut off the switch and went on about our days. Hell, I doubt he would remember this, it was almost twenty years ago.
That's the earliest memory of the Pitt and Penn State rivalry for me.
Most would say a guy that is 25 years old probably wouldn't think much of this "rivalry". Many younger Penn State fans dismiss it entirely, and some Pitt fans do too. They even point to the Backyard Brawl as a bigger game (which by the way is also now defunct - Thanks conference realignment!). It's just the nature of the beast when a game goes into a 16-year hiatus. I can see where the game died for some, or never mattered at all for others.
It didn't die for me and a lot of other people either. Despite being in a generation that hasn't seen much of the game, the rivalry has always been present in my life. Maybe it's the proximity. Growing up and living in Johnstown, you either liked Pitt or Penn State, or randomly cheered for Notre Dame because your grandparents did. Those people ... well that's a different story entirely. I was curious the other day and checked my phone to find the distance from my house to Heinz Field and my house to Beaver Stadium.
1 hour 31 minutes to Beaver Stadium
1 hour 29 minutes to Heinz Field
Growing up smack dab in the middle of even a defunct rivalry can impact how you look at things. I have family and friends I know that are defined Pitt fans and likewise family and friends that are hardcore Penn State fans. That's just how it is. We tell jokes, poke fun at losses, argue over petty things. The usual rivalry kind of stuff. We just never had a game to settle the debates, now we do.
Maybe some Penn State fans from Philadelphia don't quite get the flair of the rivalry or the importance, or even the flat out reality of it, but it's always been there. It's here now, and it is never going to go away.
I see two sides of how Penn State fans are approaching this game. The first approach, they want to dismiss the importance of it, "just like any other game". They simply want to deflect any acknowledgment of the game altogether. "Oh, it's just Pitt's Super Bowl, it's not that big for us." They want to get in, get out, and that's their official stance. "We're a mighty Big Ten powerhouse, Pitt is a nobody" and so on and so forth. That's the attitude right there of why Pitt fans typically can't stand Penn State fans. Arrogance, holier than thou, just plain old entitlement.
The other approach they are taking is by their actions. Buying tickets, students standing in line, trying to shame Pitt's attendance, #WhiteOutHeinz, etc. That's all good and fun - do more of that. Make funny memes on the internet, have some more playful banter. It's fine. As the Emperor in Star Wars said, "let the hate flow through you." The game IS a big deal because you are treating it like one. You can't say it's just another game but spend hundreds of dollars to attend just one freaking game in September.
The actions are speaking louder than words. I always see this "It's easier to get Pitt season tickets than Penn State single game tickets, that's why we bought them." That just isn't true, there were 12,000 open seats (#107KStrong) last week for Kent State. I can get you into Beaver Stadium to see them play top 10 Michigan State right here for $55 (I got you fam). If the Pitt game wasn't a big deal, if the Pitt game truly wasn't viewed as a rival - they wouldn't have purchased tickets. Penn State fans would not make it a point to be there.
This is just my story of the rivalry. Not everyone grew up in Johnstown. Not everyone has family that attended both schools. I get that, and maybe the rivalry holds differently for me than others. I just want to point out that I'm not alone. There are Penn State fans the same age as me that can't stand Pitt, I know them, I talk to them - we’re friends. We trash talk, it’s all good.
It's a weird concept to me to deflect the importance of the rivalry, or even acknowledge the very existence of it. In case Penn State hasn't noticed, they don't really have a rival. Ohio State and Michigan? They already have rivals - themselves and well, Michigan State. Sure, they are big conference games and half-rivalries when Penn State meets one of those teams, but it's not that downright-bitter-arguing-with-your-40-year-old-cousin-when-you-are-eight-years-old-at-your-aunt-carolyn's-Sunday-afternoon-picnic kind of rivalry. I think Penn State fans would be better off embracing it. It's fun, it really is.
You see Alabama-Auburn, Ohio State-Michigan, USC-UCLA, that used to be Pitt and Penn State, right there with those games. That's fun to me, I don't get why the ego of playing Temple and Buffalo is more important to them than having some battles with Pitt every year.
Will Pitt and Penn State renew this thing (er, the Keystone Classic) after 2019? Hopefully new age fans understand this isn't the Keystone Classic, it's just Pitt and Penn State. That's all it ever was, and all it ever needs to be. I'm sure down the line the game will come up every now and again for a two- or four-game series. Heck, it might even be another 16-year hiatus until we see it. It's certainly possible the way both teams have scheduled for the foreseeable future. We have some people saying it won't reach the old levels of yesteryear, and maybe it won't.
Maybe it'll come and go, and we'll just be internet rivals again after 2019. Personally, when 3:30 p.m. rolls around on Saturday afternoon after one team is victorious and the fans are meeting up in the parking lot walking to their cars, well let's just say both fan bases will get that taste of what a rivalry actually is and will be counting down the days until September 9, 2017.
Come to think of it, I have an earlier memory of Pitt-Penn State. My aunt, the same one who scolded me and my cousin for arguing, got me this collector Matchbox truck with Penn State all over it. It was a collector's item maybe even worth a few bucks, it's probably still in my parents' attic somewhere still in the original box. I've had it as long as I can remember to be quite honest. I remember having a conversation with my mom about it years and years ago.
"Mom, I don't really want this - it's a Penn State truck, we're Pitt fans"
"It was a gift, you have to keep it. It was very nice of her."
"But mom, It's Penn State....."