Joe and son Jay Paterno

Success with Honor: Joe Paterno, through the eyes of a Penn Stater

I am experiencing difficulty writing this piece. Not because I’m in such a saddened state – it is a sad time, yes – but because how does one go about summarizing the life of a legend? I have been tasked in part, but am also willing, to share what this historic event means to so many of us; however, unfortunately, I will never be able to convey every feeling of emotion – love, sadness, hate, anger … that have overcome so many, whether from a long time ago, or as recent as a couple of months ago. However, I will do my best to share with you and keep this event as relative to my own personal experience, as possible.

I am a student at Penn State. However not as glamorous, I am a student at a Commonwealth campus of Penn State. It’s still a Penn State degree, but think smaller both in campus and student body size. I originally applied to Penn State with the intent to major in Mass Communications, either in journalism or radio broadcast. Those of you who have followed me here in the past, and on Cat Crave Radio, were long aware of that.

Six years ago, never did I think I would be writing my perspective, as a student at Penn State, about a legend. Why do I throw out six years ago? Because six years ago, I was entrenched in what I believed would likely be a career in operating heavy equipment for a large general contractor.

Six years ago — two years ago … three months ago, I wouldn’t have imagined what would go down at Penn State and soil the image of a man who was so ordinary, and anything but.

I was always enamored by Paterno’s press conferences. I always had to listen very closely to what he was saying, because he spoke in something of a high-pitched whine, but a whisper at the same time. Paterno was a grandfatherly figure to me. Not because I ever met him personally, but he just had that look about him. Yes, considering his age, I am stating the obvious, but there was something about JoePa that I found comforting.

His press conferences were generally always polite; there were times he would fire off at a reporter here and there, and sometimes it was a valid question, but following a loss, he would get badgered, and pop off on the reporter who was badgering him.

I never once heard a *bleep* in any of his press conferences. And his dialogue was always so vintage. Last year, one of his post-game press conferences was like listening to a recording from the 1960’s.

So what was Paterno all about? Success with honor. Not just success on the field, but success in the classroom; success in the community. Being successful, but doing so honorably. Because of such values, Penn State football is among the top programs when it comes to Graduation Success Rate (GSR); it was tied with Stanford in the top-10 institutions at the conclusion of 2011.

But at the conclusion of a losing game, I always took solace in Paterno’s words. He never made excuses that the other team cheated, or that officials made bad calls. It was generally that the team just wasn’t prepared, and that it was looking ahead to its next opponent. He was an educator, and he took pride in being a respectful, respectable human being.

Admittedly, I am doing my best to avoid the inevitable. I shall take this moment to briefly recognize the event, but I shan’t belabor the point. The more recent history, which led to the demise of a legend’s coaching career, and ultimately his death. I’m not avoiding it out of denial so much — the events that took place did occur — however, I am not of the Court of Public Opinion. I believe and take stock in the American Civil and Criminal Justice system and what it embodies and represents. Paterno was not implicated by the State Attorney General, having fulfilled his legal responsibilities. It ends there.

That was a painful process to go through. To absorb it all at once was near impossible, so I can understand why so many students perhaps lived in denial, and the shock that followed — the numbness felt all around campus, as a lot of us tried to comprehend the mass amounts of information and mis-information that were thrown at us daily.

I still cringe everytime I go to message boards or news outlets to read content on Penn State or Joe Paterno — not so much due to the journalist’s reporting, but more-so to the complete ignorance that follows in commentary from any person who can type and put a sentence together. There are some valid points made by some who are either very familiar with the law, or are trying to wrap their mind around it, but it’s the extremists who just buy into and feed off of whatever is fed to them through the media that is most disappointing.

As painful of a process it was for students to endure, I can’t begin to imagine the pain and betrayal felt by Joe, his wife Sue Paterno — sons Jay and Scott.

Outsiders, or those who really have no concept of what Paterno stood for, labeled us — myself included, blind cult followers, and that we support pedophiles. A person who I was relatively close to and hosted an online radio program with slandered us mercilessly through social media. Knowing full-well, my association with the school, he still labeled all Penn State students trash. That’s a very extreme statement to make, considering statewide, the student population is just under 100,000, with one of the largest alumni associations in the world. It hurt to read such things, and the ignorance that people show. What do they really know? They’re taking in as much as ESPN and other media outlets can pump into them, and then spewing it back at us, as we’re just finding out as well.

Do I condone or support the molestation of children? Hell no! May Jerry Sandusky rot in prison and be raped a thousand times over by inamtes for any wrongdoings with children he is convicted of. But Joe Paterno was the wrong man to publicly hang. Joe Paterno was not “wrestling” with children in the shower. Paterno was not taking kids into his basement and cracking their backs while lying underneath them.

I ask anyone who is so quick to judge and so certain of the unproven “facts,” what they would have done if they had been in Paterno’s situation? The typical answer is, “I would go to the police.”  And that’s commendable, understandable, and expected! I asked myself the same question, and I thought about it for a while. I tried to actually place myself in his position, and that’s when I realized, I don’t know, I would probably have done the same thing! It’s an internal matter, and since Paterno wasn’t Penn State, or bigger than Penn State like the majority of preconceived notions out there now believe he was, he did what I likely would have done. Reported to my superiors about it.

Does that make me an enabler? I suppose to a lot, yes it does. Am I okay with the public’s newfound opinion of me? Not really, but I don’t know the majority of you anymore than you know me, so I really don’t care what you think of me. But what happens when someone reports an incident to police and didn’t actually witness the incident? Why doesn’t then-Graduate assistant Mike McQueary, who at age 28 witnessed the incident first-hand, receive the public’s ire more than Paterno? McQueary “slept on it!” He witnessed it!

My feelings, if put in the same or similar situation, would likely mimic JoePa’s or anybody else placed in that situation.

I didn’t know exactly how to handle it and I was afraid to do something that might jeopardize what the university procedure was, so I backed away and turned it over to some other people, people I thought would have a little more expertise than I did. It didn’t work out that way. –Joe Paterno, Washington Post interview

Paterno was a huge public figure of Penn State. People who have never been to Penn State, who may also never have set foot on American soil, know Joe Paterno — know Penn State. The man is legendary. So it’s easy to understand why the first target the media locked its sites on was JoePa. Because who the hell is Graham Spanier? Who’s Mike McQueary? I barely knew who Mike McQueary was — it took me two years to finally remember his name. I always called him the red-headed guy. Who’s Jerry Sandusky?…To those who don’t follow Penn State football very closely, he’s the milkman. He’s anonymity. But say Joe Paterno, and everyone thinks Penn State. Images of a grandfatherly figure with thick eyeglasses comes to mind. He was an easy target — a victim of another sort of circumstance.

But who are the real victims? The ones who have to live with this for the rest of their lives? Yes. The defenseless children who Jerry Sandusky is alleged to have sodomized. While the children — victims of Sandusky are victims of a particular circumstance, there are also those, such as Paterno’s immediate and extended family who are also victims, as they endure watching a man — great grandpa, grandpa, pop, Dad, husband — go through the wringer that is the Court of Public Opinion. Watching a man who was deemed innocent of wrongdoing by the law, get stripped of his dignity, his honor, and his good name. They took his passion away from him; they replaced him. But they didn’t take his spirit. He kept his integrity.

Two years ago, it felt a tremendous honor to attend an institution which employed a public icon who was respected not just in college football circles, but in all of sports. My one desire, which would later be realized, was to attend a game before JoePa either retired, or worse. That desire was realized in grandeur, as I was not only witness to a Penn State win over Iowa in 2011, but I also had the privilege to walk on the field at halftime to represent my campus on All-U day, Paterno’s 408th career win as a head coach.

Six months ago, I wondered how much longer I would see Paterno on the sideline; my friend David and I would always converse about what would happen to recruiting once the name of a legend had retired. Then we would kind of chuckle — a awkward chuckle, before one of us would say, “he’s not gonna retire; he will die on the sideline.” It turns out, we weren’t very far off.

When the news broke, we knew the end was near. Paterno later on declared he would retire at season’s end. I was a bit saddened, immaturely at the moment stating that it wasn’t fair, but then came to grips with the gravity of the situation, and knowing that he never wished to receive such attention that it would detract from the university and become a distraction, his retirement was inevitable. A day later, a Board of Trustees’ decision was made public, that “effective immediately, Joe Paterno is no longer head coach of football at Penn State.”

That’s when the numbness set in. That’s when I felt as if the identity of Penn State had been stripped away.

It’s difficult not to associate Paterno and Penn State as one. When a man has held the same position for 46 years, the two, while separable, are inseperable. Bobby Bowden of Florida State held a similar sort of ambassadorship.

After that, I felt a semi-disconnect from the football program. It just didn’t seem as special anymore. An unfair assessment of the coaches and players who remained while the dust flew, and after it sort of settled? Absolutely! But it was missing its key piece. The first game without Joe on the sideline was so foreign to me. I was watching from my apartment bedroom, and just imagining, JoePa is watching his first Penn State football game from home. Like me. Like a lot of us.

News of Paterno’s death was handled as delicately as a four-year-old who is carrying around a cat for the first time by its neck. At 8:55 pm Saturday January 21, Onward State reported that Paterno had passed away. They were sure of it, even citing that an email had been sent to the football team mere minutes prior to the release. Major media outlets CBS and FOX followed suit, and 15 minutes later, sons Jay and Scott Paterno communicated via Twitter that, “no, reports were false — Dad is still alive, but his health remains in serious condition. Continued prayers for support are appreciated.”

One beat writer who I follow on Twitter, Darin Gantt, had this to say in regard to the handling of Paterno’s premature departure.

Been out, let me get this straight: Newt Gingrich is a viable politician, and Twitter turned Joe Paterno into Schrodinger’s cat. Got it. –Darin Gantt

Anybody who, like myself, isn’t familiar with Schrödinger’s cat, please enlighten yourself.

As if keeping a vigil, I stayed awake until 6 am this (Sunday) morning. I just wasn’t tired. I surmounted one last effort through Twitter to see if anything new of JoePa had been reported. Nothing. When I later awoke at 10:30 this morning, the first post I read on Facebook from my friend David stated, “RIP Joe Paterno.”

It has been a challenging year to be a Penn State student…Classes have been easy, comparatively speaking.

So it ends. The life of a legend. The life of a man who was so simple, that it seems almost ridiculous that he would be such.  But unlike heroes, who are merely remembered, legends live forever. In our minds and in our hearts.

I leave with you one of my favorite quotes from Joe Paterno.

Success without honor is an unseasoned dish; it will satisfy your hunger, but it won’t taste good. –Joseph Vincent Paterno; 1926-2012

Follow Eric on Twitter @PSU_EQ.

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