Thoughts on JoePa

We all knew this day was coming, sooner rather than later unfortunately.

When news broke that former Penn State coach Joe Paterno had lung cancer I knew it would only be a matter of time before the terrible disease claimed his life. Even as his family tried to say it was “treatable” there was very little chance in my mind that a then 84-year-old man would be to able to not only fight off the cancer but deal with the chemo and radiation treatments that go along with it.

Still, the passing of not only a coaching icon but an iconic human being is almost too sad for words. Even after the child sex abuse scandal involving one his assistants cost him his job, Paterno never wavered from the man he was throughout his entire life, especially the past 61 as a football coach at Penn State. Don’t think so? What other person would donate $100,000 to the school that turned its back on him, firing him after over six decades of service via a phone call at 10 p.m. on Nov. 9?

Some say the things Paterno said during his life were just for show. You know, that he didn’t care about having the all-time wins record. Or that it didn’t bother him when there were calls for him to be fired after the Nittany Lions had four losing seasons in five years from 2000-04. Or that in the wake of his dismissal that he wasn’t bitter towards the school or those who terminated him. Unfortunately, there will always be those types of people. So much for taking the man at his word.

I got the chance to cover Penn State football in 2007-08 and two personal memories of Paterno will always stay with me.

In 2007, former Pocono Record writer Andrew Kroeckel and I made the trip to State College to cover media day in August. We went out the night before, and being that I’m a Penn State graduate, I wanted to show Andrew around town. Long story short, we were out pretty late and were running behind Saturday morning. We were supposed to be at Beaver Stadium at 10:30 a.m. to catch a bus that would take the media over the practice facility about two blocks away. When we got to Beaver Stadium the bus had already left, but I knew where Holuba Hall was so I drove us over there. As we were walking through the gate and onto the outdoor practice field we both saw an older gentleman walking toward us at a brisk pace. We both figured it was some security guard coming to either ask us for ID, yell at us for being later or both. As got closer we realized it was Paterno, who gave us a wave and said, “Hey guys, thanks for coming,” before ducking into a locker room.

After Penn State throttled Oregon State in the 2008 season’s second game I was trying to figure out a sidebar to write for the following day. A week after the only pass thrown to him clanked off his hands in the end zone, tight end Mickey Shuler make three amazing catches against the Beavers. Two one-handed grabs for touchdowns and a third catch on a pass thrown about a yard behind him. So I asked Paterno what he thought about Shuler’s game a week after dropping the only pass thrown to him. His response: “It looked as if he played well. I don’t see things. Everything that you guys see. You’re probably from Harrisburg Area. I can’t just watch for some things that are happening in the game and stick my two cents in there once in a while. Shuler had a couple good catches. And I think he played well. But he’ll get better and better. I like him. I think he’s a good ball player.”

People always enjoy those stories when I tell them. Both were a big part of who Paterno was: part nice old man, part cantankerous coach in no mood for questions he didn’t feel like answering.

There will always be people whose opinion of Paterno is negative after the scandal that rocked Penn State last November. Those peoples’ minds will never be changed and that’s their right. For me, a lifelong Penn State fan, graduate of the school and journalist who covered the team for two years, my views may be seen somewhat through rose-colored glasses. One mistake, when looked at in hindsight, does not make Paterno nor did it ruin everything he did in his life. He was a man who didn’t just care about winning football games, but turning 18-year-olds in men who would benefit society. Not once was there an NCAA investigation, recruiting violation or academic scandal under Paterno’s watch. His football team consistently ranked near the top of the graduation rate and those players who didn’t value their education would never sniff the field until they realized the value of going to class.

That is how will remember Joe Paterno. So will many others.

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