Mourning a Man Who Bled Blue & White

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We all knew it was coming. We knew it as soon as the lung cancer diagnosis was announced. We knew it when the exclusive interview ran in last weekend’s Washington Post, lingering on details of sickness and suffering. And we knew it yesterday, when CBS News wrongly reported on his demise and his family announced his condition was rapidly declining.

But on this bleak January morning, we are now faced with the fact that Joe Paterno has died. And despite knowing it was inevitable, I type this with tears in my eyes and sadness in my heart.

I’m crying because, as a Pennsylvania native and a Penn Stater, this loss strikes closer to my heart than it would if I had been born in another state and educated at another school.

I’m crying because yet another touchstone of my younger days is gone, which summons memories of people, places and events I hadn’t thought about in years.

I’m crying because the nation lost a great man who had only recently fallen out of greatness.

I’m crying because Joe Paterno died amid shame and scandal and it didn’t have to end this way.

Despite being the winningest coach in major college football history, those of us who went to Penn State know JoePa was about more than just football. He was a figurehead, a hero, a moral compass who, leading through example, taught us about hard work, humility, giving back to the community. Hundreds of books in the library bear stickers indicating that they were gifts to the university from him and his wife, Sue. In an age of McMansions, he stubbornly spent his life in a mere house, his name, number and address easily found in the phone book. When my father turned fifty, I asked a classmate of mine on the team to get Coach Paterno to sign a football for him. The coach gladly complied and my father was thrilled.

Despite having only a passing interest in Penn State football (I went to exactly three games during my time there), Joe Paterno was still one of my heroes. In my mind, he was one of the few true greats. I admired him from afar. (I never met him in person.) I defended his honor. When I went to the Creamery, I always ordered Peachy Paterno.

Then it all fell away, with a swiftness that was both shocking and disorienting. Allegations arose that one of his assistant coaches had assaulted young boys, some of them in the football team’s training facilities. Rumors of a university-wide cover-up quickly took on the aura of fact. Everyone, it seemed, had known about the allegations yet did the bare minimum required by law. One of them was Joe Paterno, a fact that split my heart wide open.

When Coach Paterno was fired, I applauded the decision. He had to be held accountable. Children were harmed under his watch. He could have done better. He should have done better. And for the past few months a hard, bitter part of me knew I would never be able to forgive him for that.

But now that he is gone (Which is still hard to type, by the way. Even though he was 85, many Penn Staters thought he’d outlive us all) I think that, if not forgiveness, then at least some context is in order. Joe Paterno loved his wife. He loved his family. He loved the team that he had coached for decades. He loved the university that the team represented. He did a lot of good. He did a little bad. We can remember the bad — as everyone will — but we must not forget the good. He was not a perfect man. No man is.

I want to close with a phrase familiar to anyone who’s ever spent time in Happy Valley. I didn’t say it during the scandal because I thought it was inappropriate. But I will say it now, because Joe Paterno’s life encompassed much more than the past three months. And I will say it in his honor, because he believed in it with every fiber of his being.

We are Penn State.

Posted on by Todd Posted in Musings

One Response to Mourning a Man Who Bled Blue & White

  1. Sue

    Never having someone in my life like Paterno – even from afar – I can’t actually empathize, but I do understand better after reading this why he meant so much to so many people. I also think we make a mistake when we hold people up to standards that no mere human can live up to.