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Hold On Loosely

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Advancing the ball a bit from the Greg Schiano article below, it's rather amazing that the one storyline we haven't explored this season is the contract status of Joe Paterno.  With the team's high-scoring offense and lofty national ranking, the Paterno story has been firmly strapped into the back seat of our collective consciousness.  Perhaps then, it's only logical that it took a boring, 20-6 victory over a nondescript opponent to revive the situation. 

Many people, myself included, believed that the ever-present conflict between Paterno and University President Graham Spanier -- haven't heard his name all season, have you? -- would eventually drag the football program through the proverbial mud, especially if the Lions on-field performance mirrored their off-field difficulties.  Now, it seems the battle which loomed over the program for the past few years may never take place.  And somehow, that is sad.

No matter how many times we have disagreed with his methods, we have always loved Joe Paterno.  Actually, we have loved him for the very same reasons we occasionally don't -- he's fiercely stubborn, loyal to a fault, and is beyond comfortable with his belief that we don't know a damned thing about football.  And no matter how many times we ran our own mental simulations on how the Paterno era would end at Penn State, whether he was fired, carried off the field after one last undefeated season, or dropped dead of a heart attack as the winning Penn State field goal sailed through the uprights, we never allowed any of the possible outcomes to look like this:

His ailment bothers him enough that he's spent a game and a half in the press box this season. He's been unable to run onto the field, which has been a symbol of his endurance.

He's been unable to make his way around the practice field without the aid of a golf cart. He's been doing his weekly radio show from his home.

After the win over Purdue, reporters were kept out of view while Paterno received help changing his shoes at the front of an interview room.

We never allowed those thoughts because they represented our greatest fear, even if a small, reluctant part of us silently believed this was the most likely outcome.  The injuries are very real, very debilitating, and not going away.

This is The Great Sadness Nobody Wanted. 

Paterno's pain is evident in his face and demeanor.  Dr. Wayne Sebastianelli is never too far away when Joe is on the sidelines.  Forget traveling to see recruits.  We're way past that point.  Now we are talking about not being able to leave home to do a radio show.  And we're suddenly faced with the morbid scenario of whether it is indeed better to burn out than fade away.

The thing is, there is no fading away as the head coach of the #6 team in the country.  And the only thing that can keep the nation from focusing on Paterno's health is the football team's continued winning.  If they remain undefeated, the team will be the story.  If Penn State should happen to lose at Wisconsin and Ohio State, late October and early November will be consumed with rumor and speculation about exit strategies, successors, and all of the other business that we've gleefully ignored to this juncture.  The emotions, choices, and decisions will become even more complex.