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Penn State saga, college football's ugliest scandal, retold in 'Happy Valley'

Saga of Penn State and Jerry Sandusky, a coach convicted of child molestation, retold in gut-wrenching film

As we head into the most glorious time for college football, rivalry game weekend, there is an asterisk.

It is a documentary titled "Happy Valley." It is about a place and a school that, once perfectly named, may be less so now.

Penn State University sits in the center of Happy Valley. Its city, State College, population 41,757, has fewer smiley faces these days.

As we head into the biggest salute to the athletic courage shown in college football, there is another asterisk.

It is 35-year-old Matt Sandusky. If the surname doesn't click, we will help.

Matt Sandusky is the youngest son of Jerry Sandusky, the assistant coaching guru of the 46-year Joe Paterno football reign at Penn State. Three years ago, in the ugliest scandal ever to hit college athletics, Jerry Sandusky was convicted on 45 counts of child molestation. Sandusky, like Paterno a legend in Happy Valley, had been a pedophile while running sports camps for children.

The country was disgusted. Happy Valley was shellshocked. The jury did its job. Sandusky, now 70, will never again see the sun shining over a field of children at play.

The film came to Los Angeles for a preview screening Wednesday. Matt Sandusky came along.

"I didn't have anything to do with this film," he said, "but I'm happy I found it."

As you watch this weekend and marvel at the guts and toughness of those scoring touchdowns and making tackles, keep Matt Sandusky in mind.

He was one of six children of Jerry and Dottie Sandusky. All were adopted. He had gone to one of Sandusky's camps, a program for at-risk children called Second Mile, and was befriended by Sandusky. Matt came from a dysfunctional home that often included as many as 50 siblings and relatives under the same roof.

Eventually, he got in trouble and was given a choice of juvenile camp or joining the Sandusky family.

"Easy choice," he said.

He had gone from family hell to family heaven, or so he thought. There was always food on the table and plenty of Penn State jerseys to wear.

"The Sandusky name was a golden ticket in this town," he said.

When the scandal broke, it was natural for authorities to question Jerry Sandusky's children, Matt and his four brothers and a sister.

"I lied about what had happened to me," said Matt, who said, to this day, he doesn't know whether his siblings were molested. "That's what you do, deny and lie. I lied to the grand jury."

Then he attended the first day of the trial and listened to the testimony of the witness identified only as Victim No. 4.

"I knew him, played racquetball with him," he said. "He was telling his story, but it was my story."

Matt Sandusky left the courtroom, spoke to no one for two days and finally told his wife what he was going to do. Throughout this, he said, she hadn't asked him whether he had been a victim. Now, she knew, and so would the attorney general.

He said he had been inspired by the courage of Victim No. 4. He said he realized that what had happened was affecting his entire life.

"I knew I needed help," he said. "I knew if I was going to do this, it was going to have to be about more than just me. I needed to be a voice. While doing this is hard, it doesn't kill you. To heal, you have to disclose."

He went first to Sandusky, saying he would not testify on his behalf. Then he went to the attorney general. Once that news got out, any chance of Jerry Sandusky's acquittal ended. Matt never had to testify, but Sandusky's lawyers knew he was there for any rebuttal.

Matt Sandusky still lives in Happy Valley. His children are 2, 8, 10 and 12. He uses the Sandusky name in public appearances, for the film and for his foundation, Peaceful Hearts, which he said exists to create an atmosphere in which survivors of child molestation feel safe. At home, he goes by a different name, but said his family still is occasionally harassed.

He has no relationship with other members of the Sandusky family.

"I was kicked out," he said. "I was the liar. That's how it usually goes."

The film was directed by Amir Bar-Lev, who also did the 2010 documentary on the death of Pat Tillman.

Mike Tollin is a Los Angeles film executive who saw "Happy Valley" at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah.

"I cried my way through it," he said.

Jolie Logan runs a national foundation called Darkness to Light (D2L) that champions the cause of child abuse prevention.

Logan found the film and Matt Sandusky. Tollin, through his group called PACE (Philanthropy and Community Engagement) found the money for a limited distribution. In Southern California, that included showings Friday in Los Angeles and La Jolla and Dec. 12 in Palm Springs and Santa Ana.

The film is gut-wrenching.

It has a scene of a man standing near the statue of Paterno with a sign saying Paterno "enabled pedophiles." Eventually, that statue was torn down. Paterno died 10 weeks after the scandal broke out.

It captured the agony of a city of Penn State football fans, robbed of community dignity and identity.

"We had Camelot," said Paterno's wife, Sue.

It had scenes of a mural artist painting a halo over Paterno's head, then removing it as more was learned.

And it had Paterno, in his younger years, preaching to his team: "College football is something special. Hopefully, we will never lose sight of that, or screw it up."

In Happy Valley, they did screw it up.

Sadly.

bill.dwyre@latimes.com

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