Outside of listening to him talk in the green room of Beaver Stadium, I only ever had one interaction with Joe Paterno. I was walking down Allen Street in State College one day my junior year and across the street, I see Joe in a booth in the Corner Room. I stopped and just stared at the living legend through the glass as he sipped from his pop, speaking with another man on the other side of the booth. After a few seconds of standing there dumbfounded, Joe turned and looked at me, gave a little laugh and gave me a peace sign. I finally came to, waved and made my way down College realizing how I made a fool out of myself in front of the greatest college coach of all-time.
That situation showed the greatness of Coach. He wasn’t some mythical figure that the media likes to think we portrayed him as. He was friendly with anyone who came up to him on the street. He ate ice cream on a park bench at the Creamery and shared stories with students who stopped to talk to him. Penn Staters never worshiped Joe as some sort of god. Penn Staters respected Joe as one of the greatest men who had ever lived.
When you think of Joe Paterno, many think about all the stats attached to his name: 409 wins, 24 bowl wins, 2 national championships, 5 undefeated seasons, 68 first team All-Americans. But those aren’t the stats that mattered to him in the big picture. He worried about the number of his players that received their diplomas, the number of books that filled the library that bears his name, the number of children he helped with his work for the Special Olympics, his five children, his 17 grandchildren and his loving wife, Sue. Those are the numbers that really mattered to him. Those are the numbers that make up the dataset of his Grand Experiment.
Since Sunday morning, journalists from all over the nation have been debating on what Joe’s legacy will be. They try to make out whether the charges against Jerry Sandusky and the questionable actions taken by Paterno afterwards will become a permanent black mark on his record or if 1% of his decisions really make a difference on the other 99% of them.
In the days after the Grand Jury Presentment was reported on, it became a national revelation that Joe Paterno was “not a saint.” If you followed the octogenarian’s life at all, you would have known this fact well before the Sandusky charges were brought about. Joe had bouts of road rage which were well-documented. He had players that hated his guts and coaches that didn’t care for him, either. He disrespected sportswriters who didn’t give him the same courtesy and let his opinions be known to referees and corrupt coaches.
Everyone can think what they want when they look back in history at Joe Paterno, but this is how I will think of him.
I’ve only known one man greater than Joe Paterno and that was my grandfather. They were both veterans, they both loved their wives to the very end, they both nourished great families and friends who stood by them. They both also had a profound impacts on the lives of the people around them whether those people actually knew them or not. Sure, they made their mistakes, but they did infinitely more good than bad.
When it comes down to the Sandusky situation, the “moral majority” have slung barbs at Paterno for the past 10 weeks. To them, I say this: Who am I, who are they, who is anyone to determine which way Joe Paterno’s moral compass should point? Until then, one would be hard-pressed to find a better man than Paterno. He said that he didn’t know how to handle the situation and sending it to his superiors. If he thought that was the best thing to do in his mind at that time, I’m not one to tell him that he was morally wrong considering all the right he had done. One might call me a Paterno apologist for that thinking, but I consider it realizing a man’s true character.
How will I remember Joe? I’ll remember him as the most respected man I’ve ever come across. I’ll remember him as a great humanitarian and a great leader. I’ll remember him for always doing his best and a man of unreachable moral standard. I’ll remember him as the man who took the time to make every person he came across feel accepted, even a kid simply staring at him through a window.
Thank you for everything, Coach. We love you.