Recently, many people have offered many opinions about the current state of events surrounding Penn State University. At the risk of redundancy, I would ask you to allow me the conceit of offering one more.
Today, Penn State University removed a statue of its beloved football coach, Joe Paterno. It’s been said that he didn’t do enough to stop Jerry Sandusky from molesting young boys on Penn State property as well as his own. To some extent, sadly, I agree.
Please understand I don’t come to this conclusion blindly or easily. I am a Penn State alum, class of 1997, and I consider the years I spent at Penn State to be some of the best years of my young life. I never knew Joe Paterno personally, nor was I ever involved in the football program.
I had the pleasure of meeting Joe Paterno twice in the four years I spent there. The first time was during breakfast one morning before class. Some friends and I were dumb enough to schedule early morning classes. We met at the dining hall as usual, but there appeared to be a lack of seating that day, for some reason I don’t remember right now. We were seated in an overflow area. Only one other table was occupied by about a dozen or so students. Being half-awake, I didn’t pay any attention to them. While I was eating, one of my friends said, “Hey, isn’t that Joe Paterno?!” I thought it was a joke at first, expecting to look up and hear, “Made ya look!” I ignored it until they said, “No, really. I think that’s Joe Paterno!” I was too drowsy to put up with the joke much longer, so I decided to look and get it over with. Sure enough, there he was, discussing some things with his team. I said, “Hey, that’s Joe Paterno!” I was immediately met with a look of “No shit, Sherlock” by my friend. I summoned some courage, grabbed a notebook, and approached him for an autograph. He was very pleasant and gladly gave it to me. He didn’t seem bothered by my request at all.
The second time was not so exciting. I was working for the academic fundraising call center, Lion Line. We cold-called alumni and hit them up for donations for Penn State’s academic programs. One night, he came in and spoke to us briefly. He told us what a great thing we were doing for the university, how important our job was, and how proud he was of us. Made us feel good. We were pumped. I got to shake his hand. Giggity.
That’s the extent of my personal relationship with Joe Paterno. Regardless of those limits, there is much I know of the man. Coach Paterno was a staunch advocate of personal accountability. He believed that the football program at Penn State was his house, and he fought hard to keep his house clean. He’s been criticized lately for not allowing school administrators to discipline his players, when necessary. That’s because no one I know was ever harder on his players. If someone screwed up, Joe Pa took care of it and made sure that person suffered consequences. Let’s be truly honest here – Before this whole scandal, Coach Paterno was lauded for that. He was the coach who kept his house cleaner than any other NCAA football program. He was a media darling, with everyone clamoring for an interview. He spoke his mind plainly. He was a patriarch. While everyone was asking “WWJD?” (remember that fad?), Penn Staters asked themselves “WWJPD?” He was our conscience. He was that one elder member of the family who we never dared disappoint, and when we did, he had that knack of making us feel very bad about it.
That’s what makes this so hard.
What was once lauded as his greatest attribute also turned out to be his fatal flaw. Because he considered Jerry Sandusky to be his responsibility, he tried to handle it himself. Sadly, Jerry Sandusky’s perversions would prove to be beyond Joe Paterno’s abilities. In November, when the scandal broke, Coach Paterno confessed that he wished he’d done more. I truly believe that. Personally, I believe that Joe Paterno wished he could have delivered the punishment Jerry Sandusky deserved. Tragically, Coach Paterno could not fathom the depths of Jerry Sandusky’s depravities. He didn’t understand that he was not equipped to handle that situation. Now, because of that hubris, his legacy is being torn apart.
I don’t see Joe Paterno as a great man. I see him as a man who did great things. Ultimately, however, he was a man who had his flaws just like everyone else. We put this man on a pedestal so high, we could barely see him. Unfortunately, the higher the pedestal, the greater the fall. Few men have had their pedestal higher.
So many would blame Joe Paterno for everything that’s happened. Let’s remember there is one person responsible for this horrific scandal – Jerry Sandusky. He is the true villain. He is the one who victimized those young boys. No one else. To say anyone “allowed” it to happen is simply finger-pointing.
I am still proud to be a Penn Stater. I am still proud to have briefly met Joe Paterno. I still value what he taught us all by his example. Because of him, I learned accountability and responsibility. Now, tragically, he’s taught us all one more lesson: to know when something is beyond your control. I’m not going to remember Joe Paterno as a “great man” or even a great football coach. Instead, I’ll remember him as the man who gave so much of himself so that I and millions more like me could say, “I went to Penn State.” The millions he donated never went toward athletics, but always to academics.
I love this picture. It looks as if the wall itself is weeping at its loss. Still, shadows of the past remain. Penn State can raise statues and take them down. Many will come and go. Penn State existed before Joe Paterno, and it will go on without him. I am proud to count myself among so many others who were part of the long Joe Paterno era. I pray that in time, a way can be found to recognize his contributions again. Until then, those of us who loved him as our patriarch will carry that in our hearts. We are saddened but not broken. We will get through this. We are… PENN STATE!