The last picture of Joe Paterno was startling. We imagined the scandal at Penn State, the sudden and sad ending to a remarkable career, the tarnished statue near Beaver Stadium, had gnawed at his core every bit as much as the cancer. We knew he was old, broken, sick. Until that picture, though, we never realized he was dying, maybe because we could not imagine it.
For his final interview, with the final photo being snapped, Paterno sat in a wheelchair, his face gaunt, his body emaciated, wearing a wig because cancer treatments had stripped his wavy, once jet-black hair. His interviewer, Sally Jenkins of the Washington Post, wrote that his weakened voice “sounded like wind blowing across a field of winter stalks, rattling the husks.”
And, now, it has been stilled. JoePa died Sunday. With what did he leave us? Is it the legend? The winningest major college football coach of all time? The man whose “grand experiment” in the end was sidetracked by a great failure? Whose motto, “success with honor” was horribly chipped by dishonorable acts, not his, yet somehow his?
Joe Paterno went to his grave not fully comprehending the crimes allegedly committed by a former assistant coach, nor perhaps his role or responsibility in dealing or not dealing with it, nor how a job he had grasped with an iron fist for 46 years could be wrestled away with a phone call.
The phone call was the death sentence, metaphorically. On Nov. 9, Paterno had reacted to the growing turmoil in Happy Valley by announcing he would retire at season’s end, a decision I firmly believe he was prepared to make, even before Jerry Sandusky’s grand jury indictment for sexual crimes against children came to light and before the cancer became a factor.
But Penn State’s trustees had serious issues with which to deal, serious damage to control, and the forceful answer was to fire a president and a football coach. They had been to the crossroads before, some of these same trustees and this same coach, and he had swatted them away like flies because he, not they, had the power and the constituency. This time, I suspect, they fired him because they could.
Everyone knows the story, so we won’t belabor it. Nearly a decade ago, Paterno satisfied the legal minimum by sending an eyewitness report of Sandusky’s behavior up the administrative ladder. The moral maximum would have been to make sure something was done. Confused and conflicted, he did not. And it was not.
Because the incident involved a child, and allegedly other young boys before and after, there was and is considerable and justifiable angst. In retrospect, Paterno said he wished he had done more and called it “one of the great sorrows of my life.”
Now, that life has ended. And history, as is so often the case, will be transferred from pencil to ink over time. With what did Joe Paterno leave us?
We should not forget he built a brand of excellence and dragged a low-profile university to a reputation of academic greatness along with his football program. We should not forget the 409 wins and championships, his 47 Academic All-Americans, his philanthropy, the impact he had on hundreds of athletes and thousands of others.
Nor should we, or can we, forget how and why it ended.
Maybe what JoePa left us is the understanding that even greatness is imperfect, that even the immortals are simply human, and that life is contradictory.
We are born, we try our best, some of us accomplish much, some of us make mistakes, most of us do both, and then we leave.
Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6398.