Black still connecting alumni, fans to Penn State through The Football Letter

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Note: This story originally appeared in AlumnInsider, the Penn State Alumni Association's monthly member e-newsletter.

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Minutes after James Franklin and the Penn State football team rang the victory bell after their 30–13 home victory over Temple last month, fans filter out of the stadium while the Penn State Marching Blue Band occupies the field and pop music blares through the stadium loud speakers.

For most people, the day at Beaver Stadium is finished, but John Black isn’t like most people. Black is occupying his seat in the press box, the same one he’s had since Beaver Stadium expanded in 1978. He’s making notes and examining his earlier marks before moving back to the second row for a more spacious work area.

Black, a 1962 Penn State graduate, is watching the live video feed of Franklin’s post-game press conference, scribbling notes while Franklin answers questions and talks about the importance of the victory.

A few minutes later, Franklin finishes and Black exits the press box, another game in the books. He started writing The Football Letter in 1976, so there aren’t many people around who have more historical knowledge and context about Penn State football; two weeks after the Temple victory, Penn State finished its regular season against Michigan State and Black authored his 475th edition of The Football Letter, putting him on pace to complete No. 500 during the 2016 season.

Even if you’ve never met Black, even if you’ve never seen a photo of him, there’s a foolproof way to find him if you’re walking around the Beaver Stadium press box on game day: Just look for the guy with the pad and pencil.

Black may be an outlier in this regard, but there’s reasoning and a strong purpose behind his method for writing The Football Letter, the Penn State Alumni Association’s weekly report on the football team; Black will begin his 40th season next year — he took the helm after founder Ridge Riley, a 1932 Penn State graduate, who wrote The Football Letter from 1938-75.

While nearly everyone else in the press box is texting, tweeting and looking up scores of other games while Penn State plays, Black keeps his eyes on the field, almost always cupping his hands over his eyes or using binoculars for a better look.

He’s looking for something — anything — that stands out, and in a way he mimics a film director or band conductor, watching everything unfold from a strongly unique perspective.

Black possesses a singular focus, and it’s not updating his Twitter account or seeing how other teams across the country are faring. In an age when seemingly everyone is multi-tasking on a half-dozen different levels at any given time, Black doesn’t fit into this category. And he’s fine with that distinction.

“It’s just a concept that’s foreign to me,” Black said. “I concentrate on every play, and I try to be aware of who’s in the game at any particular time for Penn State, what formation they’re using, who’s covering whom on defense, and I focus as completely as I can on the Penn State team.

“I have no interest in the other distractions.”

While nearly everyone else in the press box is texting, tweeting and looking up scores of other games while Penn State plays, Black keeps his eyes on the field, almost always cupping his hands over his eyes or using binoculars for a better look. “I concentrate on every play, and I try to be aware of who’s in the game at any particular time for Penn State, what formation they’re using, who’s covering whom on defense, and I focus as completely as I can on the Penn State team," he said. 

Image: John Patishnock

Black isn’t categorically opposed to the digital age, it’s just he doesn’t need a laptop or iPhone to feel connected. He’s keenly aware that The Football Letter comes out two days after the game — an eternity in today’s constant news cycle — and is intended for a specific audience. So instead of a play-by-play rundown and broad generalizations, he includes context and writes with perspective.

“I enjoy it a lot, because it’s just inside me,” Black said. “It’s built up through the years and it’s added to my continuing passion for Penn State and the depth of it."

Black usually arrives an hour before kickoff and begins poring over pre-game notes. In the minutes before the start of the Penn State-Temple game, Black looks over the media packet, highlighting various sections with blue and green highlighters. He’s scanning statistics and historical records, calling attention to words and numbers with swooping circles, pinpointing what he deems newsworthy.

Dressed in khakis and a wool vest, the bespectacled Black looks like a professor who’s grading final exams.

The game starts, and nothing goes unnoticed. Throughout much of the game, Black talks softly aloud, pointing out anomalies and patterns. He’s partly talking to himself as he continually takes notes, but the scene almost feels like he’s giving a free journalism lesson for anyone fortunately close enough to eavesdrop on his thoughts.

Donovan Smith returns to the offensive line, and Black points that out on the first play. Later in the game, a Temple receiver gets behind the defense, though the pass is off-target, near the sideline. Seemingly an ordinary incomplete pass, but Black remarks that the receiver was matched up against a Penn State linebacker, and that the Owls didn’t convert on a mismatch opportunity.

In a way, Black sees everything unfold a half-second before everyone else. On a play in which it appeared Akeel Lynch swept past the left side of the line for a touchdown, causing the stadium to erupt in euphoria, Black removes the binoculars from his eyes and says Lynch stepped out of bounds near the eight-yard line and that’s where the refs will mark him. He was right.

Sure, Black enjoys a view most others don’t, but he’s also looking for what most others aren’t.

Ryan Jones, a 1995 Penn State graduate and a senior editor for The Penn Stater magazine and overseer of The Football Letter blog and Twitter feed, usually sits a row behind Black, but sat next to him a few years ago for a game. Black went through his normal routine, calling out player names and positions, watching as different formations unfolded and players took on new assignments.

Most beat writers are constantly on social media, mostly out of necessity, Jones said, but Black is an anomaly in that he can jettison the online approach and focus on the game, and the game only.

“I don’t think he ever misses a personnel change, he’s always on that stuff,” Jones said. “That’s just his process, and he’s so thorough, and it’s so cool and admirable to watch.”

Black spent time in the U.S. Marine Corps before coming to Penn State and becoming editor of The Daily Collegian, as a student, and, eight years later, of the The Penn Stater magazine as an Alumni Association staff member. He played quarterback for his high school and Marine Corps’ base teams, and even tried out for Penn State. The problem, he said, was he had to compete against the likes of Richie Lucas, Class of ’60; Dick Hoak, ’62; and Galen Hall, ’63; but he stayed connected to the game by covering it for the ensuing four-plus decades.

And unlike most other reporters, Black shows just as much interest in the Blue Band’s pre-game and halftime performances as the game. “I don’t get up and run out at halftime to the press food,” he said. Other halftime ceremonies, such as recognizing the 1994 undefeated team and All-University Day, also hold his focus. Everything that happens at Beaver Stadium is part of the experience, and subsequently, the story.

Black realizes he doesn’t have just any job, it goes beyond that. “I think a tremendous responsibility comes with that,” Black said of writing The Football Letter, “because you’re doing your job and really following through on trying to be the eyes and ears at the game for all avid alumni and fans.”

Image: Steve Manuel

A few days after Penn State’s loss to the University of Maryland, Black recounted how rare the loss was for the Nittany Lions. Like most fans, he knew it was the first setback Penn State experienced at home against Maryland, but then his examination went far past those on-the-surface numbers.

The Penn State-Maryland series started nearly a century ago (1917), and the two teams have played 38 times overall, with 22 games in Pennsylvania. Prior to this season, Maryland’s lone win had occurred at home, with the tie coming in Baltimore and not at Maryland’s campus in College Park.

Black reels off all these numbers from memory. There aren’t any notes, and this subject wasn’t part of a pre-scripted interview list. So when Penn State loses a game like the one against Maryland, or wins a contest against Temple, an opponent Penn State has regularly bested over the years, much of what occurred in the years prior to the game is just as relevant.

“I lean on the history of the program a lot, because it’s meaningful to me,” Black said. “What I’m trying to convey is more than just the immediate past game. I try to keep it in context of the season, the rivalry with that team, the stretch of seasons for Penn State football, and I think that is reflected in a different flavor in the articles I write.”

More men have walked on the moon than have written The Football Letter. Black never thought of his connection with Riley in this way, but he laughed and gave it some thought when told about the analogy.

He started in the mid-1970s, an era when he says, “sports and football weren’t as hyped up as they are today.” Then, games typically started at 1:30 p.m. — everything wasn’t beholden to television contracts — the press box featured free hot dogs and Black typed his stories on a typewriter afterward.

The reason this historical lineage is important is because Black realizes he doesn’t have just any job. It goes beyond that, he said. His weekly round-ups are the result of a life-long passion that’s culminated in adhering to the same mission every year when fall envelops Happy Valley: Give the Nittany Lion faithful an inside look into the gridiron squad.

“I think a tremendous responsibility comes with that,” Black said of writing The Football Letter, “because you’re doing your job and really following through on trying to be the eyes and ears at the game for all avid alumni and fans.”

Archives of The Football Letter are available to read on-site within the Special Collections Library on the first floor of Paterno Library. For more information about the archives, call 814-865-7931.

Alumni Association members with email addresses on file receive The Football Letter the Monday following every game during the season. To renew your membership, update your information or become a member, visit the Alumni Association’s website.

News Source : Black still connecting alumni, fans to Penn State through The Football Letter
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