I didn’t grow up a PennState fan. I didn’t grow up idolizing Joe Paterno. Sure, I knew who he was — saw him on ESPN, knew he’d won a whole bunch of football games — but I didn’t really know much about the man some called "a living legend." That all changed when I rolled into State College for my freshmen year at PennState in 2005.
Today, I and other Penn Staters are sad. Sad not for the loss of a football coach, but for the loss of a man who meant much more to us than others can probably understand. I’ll try my best to explain it from our perspective, and why he made PennState a special place to be.
I’d picked Penn State for a number of reasons. It had pretty much everything I was looking for: a top notch meteorology program, an excellent marching band, a picturesque setting and the quintessential “college town” atmosphere.
I arrived on campus as a naïve freshman, reporting early for tryouts for the Penn State Blue Band. After making it through the attrition of the audition process, I found myself quickly on the fast track toward becoming a full-fledged Penn Stater. In only a few short days, I knew the fight songs, knew my music and drill for my spot on the field, and could recite the alma mater if asked – all before the other students had arrived on campus.
We had our first performance at a pretty informal event at the end of that week called “Be a Part From the Start.” It was basically designed to get the incoming class involved in activities on campus right away. We played fight songs, the cheerleaders led some cheers and some student leaders said a few words to get the students motivated to take on the world.
As it turned out, the keynote speaker for this rally was none other than Joe Paterno. The crowd went crazy as the then-78-year-old stepped up to the podium. I honestly had no clue he would be speaking. After all, it wasn’t a football rally. Why would Joe be the one to give the speech?
Despite the noise and excitement, a hush came over the crowd as Joe began to speak. He told us that these were the days that we’d never forget. He told us that the choices we made now would shape and mold our futures. He told us there wasn’t anything we couldn’t do, and that we’d better set our goals high. He told us most of all, that as of that moment – we were PennState, and we were family.
No mention of football ever left his mouth. Instead our football coach was telling us to study hard, reach for our dreams, never to settle for anything less than our best, and challenging us to make an impact. Words of wisdom from the football coach. I quickly realized that Joe was much more than a coach, and that this was much more than just a place where I would get my degree.
Over the years I saw Joe indirectly on a regular basis. Football games, pep rallies, university events or just walking through campus. Sure, I never got much more than the occasional high five in the tunnel as we were getting ready to take the field, but I – along with most other Penn Staters – felt like we “knew” him.
He was always the same. He was always challenging us to do more, always stressing the academics that he so firmly believed in and constantly giving back to the university that he himself had already given so much – setting the example for us to live by.
He coached his football players on the field, sure. Ask any of them and they’ll tell you he was tough as nails. But he coached them off the field just as hard if not harder. Joe’s players graduated at an unprecedented rate among major programs. Some of his players went on to become professional football players, but many more went on to become doctors, lawyers, teachers and fathers. He cared about their lives after football and checked up on them throughout the years. In many cases he stayed around long enough that he often got to coach their sons.
He’d been through it all; our very own window to the past. “When Joe started…” was a common phrase. When Joe started, the football field seated 30,000 and was on the other side of campus. When Joe started, Eisenhower was president. When Joe started, there were fewer than 20,000 students. The list goes on and on. As the university and the world changed, Joe stayed the same – that’s why we trusted him.
Since he’d been there so long and seen so much, Joe had such a fatherly influence on the whole school. In the way that you look up to your grandfather for advice, alumni and students saw him as their mentor for over four decades. He was the voice of reason.
Joe made PennState what it is today, and PennState made all of us alumni what we are today.So Joe is a part of who we are.
That’s why we’re so sad today. That’s why we were so devastated in November, when the horrible news broke of the allegations of child abuse on campus. It put a chink in the armor of our idol and role model. It made us feel as though a part of us was gone, broken; unable to be restored.
The months that have followed the scandal have brought some clarity, some soul searching and some healing. Now, we’ve come to realize that this doesn’t change our PennState family, and that our values and ideals inspired by Joe still hold true. Even if we are heart broken by the mistakes that happened, we can band together and take action to help others going forward, fighting against abuse anywhere.
Now that Joe has passed, almost undoubtedly an indirect result of this scandal, it feels that another part of us is missing too. No more speeches telling us to study hard, no more challenging us to change the world, no more "We Are! PennState!" chants from the biggest cheerleader the school has ever known. Those have come to pass, as they inevitably had to someday. But the ideals and values of a man larger than life will live on.
When Joe Paterno told his father that he wasn’t going to go to law school and that he instead was going to go stay in central Pennsylvania to coach football, his father asked him, “Are you making an impact?”
Looking back at that question now, it might better be asked, “Who has ever made such an impact?”
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