Paterno died just as he expected
I’ve been a fan of Penn State and Joe Paterno since I first saw them in 1986. The Nittany Lions were on their way to a national championship that year.
A few years later, as the team struggled, and Paterno had the first losing season in his illustrious career, there were calls for him to step down. Some people said that man in his 60s was too old to coach, but JoePa was stubborn and refused to lead, and kept on going strong for two more decades. The calls for him to quit came and went time and again, but Joe kept going.
Part of his stubbornness was that Paterno, who eventually passed the great Paul “Bear” Bryant on the all-time wins list, didn’t want to be like Bryant. Bear finally called it a career at the end of the 1982 season. Thirty-seven days later, Bryant was dead. Joe feared the same fate. He often said he had no hobbies. He didn’t want to do anything else. Coaching football and coaching football at Penn State was what he wanted to do. It’s what he was.
Obviously Paterno’s career did not end the way anyone expected. He was supposed to go out on his terms. Instead, he was unceremoniously fired Nov. 9 in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child abuse scandal. Earlier that day Paterno, in an attempt, surely, to save face, told the Penn State Board of Trustees not to worry about him one more minute, as he would retire at the end of the season. In an attempt to gain back control of their institution, the trustees had to do what was once unthinkable. And as soon as they did it, I and countless many more predicted that Joe would be dead within a year. Unfortunately we were right.
Just 10 days after his termination, Paterno announced he had been diagnosed with lung cancer. He and his family were confident he would beat it, but chemotherapy and radiation are tough on anyone, let alone an 85-year-old man.
And so 63 days after his career ended, Joe Paterno is gone, but his legacy will live on.
Oh, that legacy has been tarnished, no doubt, but not enough to render it forgettable. Despite the most egregious oversight or mistake or error, whatever you want to call of it, in his life for not doing more after hearing Mike McQueary’s report of Sandusky and a boy in the locker room shower, Paterno did a lot of good on and off the field.
He made many lives better, through his Division I-record 409 wins, and through his personal and charitable acts beyond the gridiron. There may be a statue of Paterno outside Beaver Stadium, but the Paterno name lives on just two campus buildings: a library named for Joe and his wife Sue, and the Catholic Spiritual Center bearing his wife’s name. And that tells you all you need to know about the man. And it makes it all the more difficult to understand how he of all people failed when someone needed his help most.
Yes, there were fiery moments in his career, but for the most part he was as vanilla as his team’s iconic uniforms. He was a throwback to a simpler time. He was a piece of living history.
For me, personally, Joe Paterno will remain a role model and icon for his successes and tragic failings. He is a reminder of all that is right and good, and how easy it is for even the best people to make mistakes.
And so it may be Paterno’s final lessons that are most valuable. He left his legendary career and life with dignity and humility. He never blamed anyone else or cried, “Why me?” He accepted his fate and gave thanks for all he’d been given and received in his life. And for those of us he could count among his admirers, I say thank you, Joe, for all you’ve taught us.
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