Some people just want to work hard, earn their living and be a model for others to do the same. They don’t want fortune, don’t care about fame, and just try to do their part to be a decent human being in what is otherwise a rapidly declining society. If you are one of these people, you can understand what I’m saying. If you are not, then maybe you resent people like that–people like me–PEOPLE LIKE JOE PATERNO. I never spoke to Joe Paterno, the legendary Penn State University football coach. I never went to his house to experience the way he treated his family. I never worked under him as a student athlete. I never came into contact with him personally, but I know the kind of man he was. Call it a gut feeling, because I can recognize my own kind. Maybe it is because I view myself as old-fashioned that I can relate to JoePa. Maybe it is some other kind of spiritual connection. I don’t know exactly what it is that makes me draw any parallels between my character and his, because I certainly don’t have the years upon years of greatness that he did. I just know that there is a connection.
Joe Paterno has been a role model for me since I was a tiny child. Of course back then it was all about Penn State and to a lesser degree, about football. My parents both graduated from Penn State, and my aunt worked there in the department of licensing (we always knew what products were officially licensed merchandise and how to spot the fakes!). She and another of my uncles would come over on Saturdays to watch games. She would bring a HUGE crazy pizza from a sub shop on the way from State College, and we would make popcorn in our brand new microwave oven and heat up butter in the fancy butter sprayer. It was a joy to grow up Penn State’s glory years (the 80’s!) and watch Joe pacing on the sidelines with his jaw gritted and those signature humongous dark glasses he wore. I looked forward to those days with my family, and it was about much more than football, even then. I would go to Penn State with my dad on occasion to sit through his classes, always hoping to catch a glimpse of JoePa on campus somewhere. Back then, he was just a celebrity to me at 5 or 6 years old.
As I grew older, I lost my penchant for watching football in general. I grew skeptical about Penn State as a school (I always said the school had gotten too big for its britches when I was applying for colleges). I went to Temple (so odd when the Penn State game in Philly housed thousands more PSU fans than the home team) and I moved away from Central Pennsylvania because I hated everything about small towns. I went out to see the world, but one thing that always remained constant was my affection and respect for JoePa. I thought of him as another grandfather. When the rest of the sports world was getting arrested for drugs, robbery, rape, murder and corruption, there was JoePa remaining as he had always been, working hard and accepting only the highest of behavioral and academic standards from his players. He was still giving much of his money to the university, like he had been many years before. His body was getting older, but his attitude remained the same. He was consistent. I wished so many times that more people in this world could be like him. That more of his players would make it in the pros and show these fools how to act like decent and respectable human beings. That more coaches put stock in those same values.
As he aged, people started to say he was too old to coach football. I say people wanted Penn State to win, and Joe was about much more than simply winning. Joe was teaching the same values to a new brand of students who, every generation are a little bit less respectful to others, a little bit lazier and a little bit more entitled to a trophy for last place. Winning is harder when you don’t accept the good athletes with the bad grades and criminal records these days, I guess. Nevertheless, people started to doubt him, when they should have been taking a look at the lazy kids they were raising. I applauded him for standing his ground when others were saying it was time for him to retire (and I didn’t even watch football anymore). Somebody needs to be the model for those kids, and there aren’t many left with the fortitude to do it.
Then came the Sandusky scandal, and Joe Paterno’s name was embroiled in it all. He was chastised by one section of the public for “not doing more.” His legacy of 61 years, his outstanding character and contributions were put to the test. His job–his life–was whisked out from under him when the loudest screamers and the squeaky wheels in the social media needed somebody to fall–and FAST. They pressured the Board of Trustees at Penn State to make a quick decision to fire him without so much as an exit interview. And the Board of Trustees did. At the same time, Joe was diagnosed with lung cancer. This man, who has spent his entire career working hard to build a quality program and trying to maintain it, had his whole life taken away from him in the span of a week. Joe held it together for two months after he was hit with these devastating blows. He was courageous, and he was still just as giving and as honorable toward the university and its students after they fired him as he had ever been previously. He continued to speak out to the students, reminding them to act responsibly even among the turmoil caused by these emotionally-charged events. Today, on January 22, 2012, he passed away and left behind him a legacy. JoePa’s legacy should not and will not be tarnished by the events of the last two months. He was a good man, with a wonderful career that touched so many lives and a huge heart. I can’t be the only one who thinks that broken heart may be the reason he is no longer with us. Yet somehow, I believe that he did not die with any disdain or resentment toward the people whose nasty commentary took away the ending to his career that this man truly deserved. This shows most of all what kind of a man Joe was.
I am saddened by today’s news. So saddened that I couldn’t read any more and cried myself to sleep. I feel like I lost another grandfather this morning. I cry because I don’t feel that anyone should die having been treated this way shortly before his death. I am thankful that Joe is home with God now and can have some peace–the same peace he deserved in his dying hours. Bless you, JoePa. I will miss you. And WE ARE…NOT QUITE THE SAME PENN STATE WITHOUT YOU.