Rose Bowl bound after a casual encounter at an ice rink

By Brittni Henderson

It seemed like a regular February morning when my family and I took the 90-minute ride up to the Olympia Ice Arena in Springfield, MA. My brother, a senior at American International College, was playing in his senior game for the college’s DI hockey team. I was accustomed to making the journey once or twice a year to see my brother play—I am one of his biggest fans!—so this seemed like any other game, but with a little more excitement due to it being one of the last times he would lace up his skates as a Yellow Jacket. For some reason, it felt like there was a hint of magic in the air that afternoon. It could have been the fact that the option of playing professionally was lingering or graduation was a few months away. Either way, once we arrived, I could feel that something special would happen that day.

As we waited patiently for puck drop, the typical celebration of the seniors commenced. Families gathered to commemorate the moment by listening to their son’s accomplishments being announced over the loudspeaker and then a professional-looking young man ushered each family out onto the ice to take a group photo. Once it was #24’s turn, the Hendersons made their way onto the black carpet covering the ice for our photo op. After striking a few poses, it was time to bid good luck to our beloved defenseman and take our seats in the bleachers. Before walking away, I realized that I needed that photo. I approached the busy young man and asked if he could send it to me when he had a moment to step away from his work. What seemed like a seemingly simple question to a complete stranger turned out to be the gateway to an epic year for the two of us.

He, of course, sent me the photo that night. I posted it on every social media outlet and exchanged my thanks to him for being so kind. Even though the Yellow Jackets tied that afternoon, I ended up winning one of the best years of my life. I will be forever thankful for the following twelve months and blessed we encountered each other that winter day.

I kept in touch with the handsome mystery man, whose named turned out to be John Hanna. At the time, he was employed as AIC’s Coordinator of Athletic Communications. Since I live in Rhode Island and he was living in Springfield, we only saw each other once in a while, but made a point to spend time together if we could. Flash forward to June 2016, we spent the entire month celebrating our birthdays—and John’s new job as Assistant Director of Strategic Communications at Pennsylvania State University.

In the month leading up to his departure to State College, PA, we went to concerts, events, fancy dinners, and other miscellaneous gatherings. As sad as it was to see him leave on that warm July day, I stood behind my firm belief in following a dream. For John, this was the next big step in his career in athletic communications. The job awarded him many new opportunities, but I can’t say I didn’t benefit a little, too! I was able to attend my first Penn State football game at Beaver Stadium—and overtime win against Minnesota!— and I experienced John’s work in progress at three of #4 Penn State Men’s Hockey games at the beautiful Pegula Ice Arena.

You could say I became an overnight Penn State fan, focusing more on hockey since John works directly with the team, but I would follow football if I could, too. When the Nittany Lions beat Wisconsin on December 3, 2016 to clinch the Big 10 Championship, I jokingly texted him from the bar at Chelo’s saying, “Let’s go to the Rose Bowl!!” Never did I think that a month later we would actually be on a flight to Los Angeles.

For me it was an instant yes because I like spontaneity, it took John a few weeks to “pull the trigger” as he would say. Since we were lucky enough to get two complimentary tickets and a little help from our parents, the over $600 price tag for flights didn’t leave that big of a dent in our pockets. The trip needed to be short and sweet, so we took a direct flight out on New Year’s Day at 6:30 a.m. EST which landed at 10:30 a.m. PST, and planned to come home the following Tuesday.

A little jet lagged but excited, we checked into our hotel and went to explore the boardwalk at Venice Beach. That night we went to bed a little groggy but eager to get up to experience what has been called “The Granddaddy of Them All,” ready to see our Nittany Lions take on University of Southern California’s Trojans.

Before we made it to the stadium, we stopped in downtown Pasadena to catch the Blue Band and the Penn State floats in the Rose Bowl parade. After that, we stumbled upon a hole-in-the-wall local bar that just so happened to be chock-full of Penn State fans. We were instantly greeted with “WE ARE! PENN STATE!” cheers the minute we walked in. A hearty breakfast was consumed, as well as a few pregame mimosas and beers, before we made our trek over to Rose Bowl Stadium.

“I couldn’t believe the stadium was literally tucked right into the mountains in a residential community. It was like no other experience I’ve ever had,” John shares. “From the souvenir ticket, to the bacon-wrapped hotdogs, to the B2 Stealth Bomber that did a fly over during the anthem, to the final tick of the clock—I will never forget my experience in Pasadena.”

We had great seats smack dab in the heart of the Penn State section, surrounded by students, alumni, staff, and other Nittany Lion enthusiasts. Although I’m new to the family, I felt instantly welcomed into the tight-knit group of loyal fans.

The weather was more Rhode Island than Southern California, but that didn’t stop us from feeling the heat permeating from hard working taking place the field. The game itself was a roller coaster ride of emotions, leading to an unfortunate loss by our beloved Nittany Lions, but the chance to witness history happen right in front of our eyes was worth it. The whole day was truly priceless.

After the game, we had to walk a few miles to find enough cell reception to call an Uber to get back to our hotel—poor planning for sure—but thinking back now, it’s just a comedic addition to our journey.

“I couldn’t even get that upset [that we had to keep walking],” John says. “I kept reliving the game: seeing Saquan Barkley, a future NFL Pro-Bowl running back, zigzagging his way through the USC defense for a 79-yard touchdown run. I saw Brandon Bell intercept a ball and stumble to the one-yard line, breaking his arm in the process. The adversity that Penn State and that football team has faced over the last five years, all while still fighting to bring the program back to national dominance, was something incredible. Having to walk to find an Uber didn’t matter so much to me anymore.”

We left the next afternoon so we didn’t get to experience very much of California, but that’s ok. I’m sure that there will be many other adventures in our future! We both agree that attending the Rose Bowl should be on the Bucket List of any sports fan, but having your team in the line-up is a definite plus!

“Good food, good beer, good football, but even better company!” John says. “I couldn’t have asked for a better start to 2017. Let’s go State!”

As I get ready to take my next road trip to State College to visit John, I can’t help but wonder what will top the year we had in 2016. In the meantime, I’ll be in the crowd cheering on Penn State like I was a Nittany Lion my entire life.