On Joe Paterno

**Perhaps it's foolish for me to be writing this now. The facts of the Jerry Sandusky case are only starting to come in, and it will be weeks, months, or perhaps even years before we know all there is to know to pass proper judgment. Still, I've got nothing but emotions, I'm in a glass case full of them, and they need to come out. That having been said, these are my thoughts given what we know about the Jerry Sandusky scandal and how they relate to Joe Paterno. Considering my opinions have already changed about 50 times between Saturday and today, I reserve the right to change my opinions for better or worse as the facts continue to come out**


It was a cold Sunday afternoon in early 2005, a typical winter day in State College with snow cover on the ground, a stiff, chilly breeze in the air, and a gray sky that blankets Happy Valley in October and rarely leaves for long before April. As much as I abhor cold weather, those types of days bring me back to my fondest times at Penn State. On that particular day, myself and several of my friends were just getting back from a snow tubing trip on Tussey Mountain, one of the several mountains about 20 minutes away that shelter Happy Valley. We parked in the parking deck across from our dorm and began walking. As we turned the corner, we all suddenly stopped in our tracks. A short, stout figure came into focus from the distance, walking towards us at a relatively brisk pace. As he drew closer, the realization hit us: “Holy ****, that’s Joe Paterno!” A living deity, the symbol of everything that we’d come to love about our alma mater over the past three years, a man who defined the term “larger than life”, and there he was, no more than 20 feet from us. This was before the great football season of fall 2005, it was a time where the “Joe Must Go” crowd was at its highest volume in the wake of the two worst football seasons of his tenure. I’m sure that we all had something profound in mind to say, something like “Coach Paterno, we support you and everything you’ve done for this university, this state, and our fellow students for the past 50 years” or “Coach Paterno, we want you to leave on your own terms once you’ve decided that you’ve done all that you can do for this university that you’ve loved for the past half a century”, but when I opened by mouth all that came out was “Hey Joe Pa!” What can I say, it wasn’t brilliant dialogue. As he approached, he smiled and joked, “Hey, you kids look like you’re up to no good!” I think one or two of us replied with something along the lines of “We love you Joe Pa!”, and we went our separate ways. A brief, five-second interaction with nothing real substantial said by either party, and I count it as one of the greatest moments of my college life.

That was the sort of impact that Joe Paterno had on us Penn State students. We were absolutely awestruck by a man who was so much bigger than his surroundings, but at the same time was so accessible. There are very few other places where you could catch the coach taking an afternoon walk around campus. Joe Paterno and his wife Sue don't live in a huge mansion a half hour outside of town, they live in a rather unassuming house three blocks away from campus. Not long ago, Joe Pa would walk to the stadium on gamedays, soliciting cheers from his loyal fans along the way. For 61 years, Joe Paterno lived as a coach or assistant coach in State College. He is as much a part of a community and a family as he is a football coach.

Every single Penn State fan has thought of the day that Joe Paterno would step onto the field at Beaver Stadium for a long time now. It's been a VERY long time coming, even when Penn State first joined the Big Ten in the early '90s Joe Pa openly theorized that he probably wouldn't be around to see them play a Big Ten game. We all wondered, would he retire on his own? Would he be forced out by the masses disappointed in Penn State's string of bad seasons? Would he go out in a blaze of glory after winning a National Championship? Would health problems force him out? Would he really DIE on the field as many had joked? We didn't know, but I can guarantee you that no one expected it to end like this. Even in the worst case scenario we expected Joe Paterno to leave with his dignity and class firmly in tact. Shockingly, that scenario appears to be in jeopardy.

The Joe Paterno I met that Sunday afternoon in 2005 is different from Joe Paterno today in a number of ways. On that afternoon, the Joe Paterno that walked towards us at a relatively brisk pace was a spry, young 79 years old, just a couple of years removed from the day he chased down a referee by foot after a Penn State/Iowa game to give him hell. His tongue and wit were still as sharp as ever, and he could charm you with a story of days gone by or a comment as simple as “Hey, you kids look like you’re up to no good!” He was old, but he didn’t look or act the part. Six years later and time has taken its toll. After collisions with players, hip surgery, stomach ailments, and various other maladies, Joe Paterno looks every bit of the 85 years old that he is. His speech is slower and more deliberate than ever, some of the things he says don’t always make perfect sense, and he’s been relegated to the coaches box, no longer physically tread sideline that he owned for the better part of a half century. The living legend is beginning to diminish in front of our very eyes.

Joe Paterno is also different in many of our minds after the events of the past few days. His image has been tarnished, perhaps permanently, by his association with a man, Jerry Sandusky, who performed unspeakable acts on the most innocent of victims, and his possible role (or at least relative inaction) in a cover-up that allowed those unspeakable acts to continue long after they should have been stopped. There are still many questions to be answered and many facts to be uncovered here, but so far we do know this: Jerry Sandusky did unspeakable acts, the worst of which was witnessed by graduate assistant Mike McQueary, who relayed at least *some* information to Joe Paterno, Joe Paterno relayed that information up the ladder to his superiors, and they deemed that information credible enough to bar Sandusky from bringing children into Penn State’s athletic facilities but for whatever reason not enough to call the police. Anything beyond that regarding Joe Paterno’s role and his actions is pure speculation. Admittedly, I got caught up in speculation very early on in the game. I still feel as though Paterno should have called the police after he saw nothing had been done, but at this point I'm done with the speculation and I'll wait and see what other details come out. I feel like those details aren't going to be good for Penn State or Joe Paterno, but until then this is where I'm at.

Joe Paterno has done more for the Pennsylvania State University than perhaps any single man has ever done for a university. Forget the 409 wins and 2 national championships. Joe Paterno helped mold thousands of young men into productive members of our society. You can talk to any former player of Paterno’s and they’ll wax poetic about the impact that he had on him in his time at Penn State. His “Grand Experiment” led to Penn State being among the top D-1 schools in graduation rate year after year. Penn State football players have gone on to be teachers, lawyers, businessmen, and leaders of society thanks to the guidance of Joe Paterno. Joe and Sue Paterno have contributed over $4 million dollars towards various departments and colleges, and helped to raise over $13.5 million dollars for the expansion of the Pattee Library. That library is now known as the Pattee-Paterno Library, and is undoubtedly the only case in the country where the school’s library is named after the football coach. That money doesn’t account for the countless millions of dollars that people have contributed to the university in Paterno’s name.

Still, all of the great things that Joe Paterno has done and the example that he has lead for over 60 years at Penn State don’t give him a free pass for the mistakes that he has made. Whether it’s fair or not, Paterno has built himself up on a higher standard, and as such we expect him to do the right thing. Some will argue that he did all that he could do with this Jerry Sandusky situation. Others, including myself to some extent, believe he could have done more (though there are varying arguments as to how much Paterno really did and how much more he really could have done). I can’t shake the feeling that Joe Paterno could not have possibly acted in a way that he knew could potentially endanger children, but at the same time I can’t shake the feeling that he HAD to know more. Facts may come out that push the debate one way or another, but in the court of public opinion Joe Paterno’s legacy will forever be marked with an asterisk.

Joe Paterno is a very complex individual. As a figure who really is “larger than life”, we apply labels to him. Joe Posnanski, who's writing what I can only imagine will be the definitive biography of Paterno, brought up some good points about this. Some might call him a hero, others a villain. Some might call him an icon, others a phony. Some say he is a great man, other say he’s a coward. In reality, Joe Paterno is all of these things, and he is none of these things. He’s simply a man, prone to the same character flaws and lapses of judgment as the rest of us. This scares us. In the 61 years of Joe Paterno’s tenure at Penn State, he built this image of a man who can do no wrong, a white knight guarding the sanctity of college sports while the rest of them were trying to burn it all down. We build up our heroes because we use them as a guide to do better ourselves. “If Joe Paterno can do all of these great things, why can’t I?” The reality is, true, 100% good heroes do not exist. Everybody is human. Thomas Jefferson, one of the founding fathers and the author of our Declaration of Independence, had an affair with one of his slaves. Abraham Lincoln once proposed sending blacks to another country. Albert Einstein was a noted womanizer and he helped to create a weapon that would be responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of people. We expect the world to be black and white, that good people will do good deeds and evil people will do evil deeds, but in the end that’s simply not the case. Good people do wrong too, and while they should be held accountable for their actions, it should be remembered that they are human.

So I’m left to imagine what would happen if, on a chilly Sunday afternoon in early 2012, I happen to find myself across the street from Irvin Hall and in the path of Joe Paterno once again. If I had an opportunity to say more than “Hey Joe Pa!” this time around, what would I say? Would I try to absolve him of any guilt that he might have? Would I admonish him for not doing more to protect those kids all those years ago? Would I thank him for his time at Penn State? What would I do? If I had to guess, I’d thank him for everything he’s done for my university. I’d tell him that I have and always will look up to him as a molder of men and as a promoter of education, and for dedicating his life to those causes. I would tell him that as the icon and symbol that he has built himself up to be, we expected him to do more for those who needed protection the most, and while what he did SHOULD have been enough to stop this from happening, the fact that this situation continued to go on under his nose for so long is unacceptable. And lastly, I’d quote a line from our Alma Mater. Not the “May no act of ours bring shame” one that has been (appropriately) tossed around over the past few days, but the final line that follows it: “May our lives but swell thy fame, dear old State.” For the better part of 61 years, Joe Paterno’s life enhanced Penn State’s name and its reputation, and he claims that he will dedicate the rest of his life to continue doing so. By the virtue of his example as well as in light of his failure, I plan on doing even better.

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