Penn State coaches and underclassmen alike lined up in two rows on the practice field. They formed a tunnel not unlike the one these seniors will pass through today before they take on Wisconsin.
Bill O'Brien then brought together the old and the new. As they do before the final practice every season, teammates exchanged their uniforms on Thursday morning before the session.
When it was over, with the cameras rolling for Penn State's website, the coach started his own ritual as the seniors prepared to walk through the lines.
Listen up! O'Brien said. You've got your swapping jerseys tradition. This is our new tradition! Thanking these guys for everything they've done this year! All right? And this is their last practice on this field.
Great job, seniors.
With that, they walked off the field outside of Holuba Hall for the last time, receiving applause, handshakes and backslaps from their teammates leading all the way back into the Nittany Lions' Lasch Building headquarters.
There have already been plenty of last moments for this group of seniors, who will take the ride on the blue buses from Toftrees to Beaver Stadium for the final time this morning.
And, of course, walk through that tunnel one final time.
A lot of people are gonna be emotional, defensive tackle Jordan Hill said. I know I'm gonna be one of 'em. Everything we've gone through our whole careers is coming to an end. It's bittersweet. I'm gonna try and fight back tears as hard as I can, but it's gonna come.
My mom said, ‘I can't imagine how you're gonna be after the game. You bawled after your state championship game (as a senior at Steelon-Highspire near Harrisburg). Not because you won, but because it was over.'
The ceremony will start a half-hour before kickoff around 3 p.m. with 31 players being honored along with their families.
Penn State also has a few surprises to unveil as well, hinting at one of them on Friday. The program released a photo on their Facebook page of the façade underneath the suites at Beaver Stadium with the years of all of the Lions' most memorable seasons – national championships, undefeated teams, Big Ten titles.
The row of years stops at 2008. The photo has a white tarp covering the area just next to it.
O'Brien has made it clear that he feels the 2012 team, and this senior class in particular, is as important as any before them. These players are the ones who stayed. Who got their names on their jerseys. Who helped save the program.
These are young guys. These are young guys that have been through a lot, O'Brien said. They have been through the death of their former head coach, a legendary coach. They have been through the things that went on off the field that don't need to be repeated – we just all know. They have hung tough, dealing with the NCAA and the sanctions that came out in the summertime. They've been through the fact that they had to lead this football team and keep these guys together.
At the age of 21, 22, some of them 23 years old – that's pretty heavy stuff. And you can't say enough about them. I think people have to understand within those walls over there at the football building, these guys will always mean a lot to this football program. Mean a lot.
But first, there's still one last game to be played.
The Lions have had some other highly emotional games this season – hosting the opener against Ohio and then Ohio State under the lights both come immediately to mind – but those didn't end with a Penn State win.
That's why some of the seniors are wary about dwelling on things other than the Badgers.
I'm trying to avoid that, quarterback Matt McGloin said. It's definitely gonna be emotional come Saturday. It's definitely gonna be a great day for football. (This week), I'm trying to focus on preparing for Wisconsin.
After the game we'll worry about how emotional it was, and all the memories and how great it will be.
Like the Lions, the Badgers are playing for pride. Wisconsin has already clinched a spot in next week's Big Ten title game, and postseason-ineligible Ohio State has already claimed the Leaders Division title.
But the Badgers aren't eager to head into that championship against Nebraska on a two-game losing streak. Led by tailback Montee Ball – who can break the NCAA's all-time touchdown record with one more score – they stand in the way of any kind of storybook ending for Penn State.
We're not a pretty bunch, O'Brien said. We're 7-4. We wish we could have some games back where we thought we could have played better. But we do play hard. And a lot of that has to do with the senior class and buying into a new way of doing things.
We will remember them. Forever.
at Penn State
3:30 p.m. today