Monday, January 23, 2012

The day I nearly killed Joe Paterno

The year was 1974. I was living in Penn State’s Nittany dorms, WWII-vintage single-story buildings, which have since been torn down and replaced.
We liked them because the rooms were all singles and the rule-enforcement was a bit more relaxed than it was on the rest of campus.
It was a Saturday afternoon in the spring and my group of friends was planning a party.
Penn State has earned a reputation for excellence in many areas, and in those days it included celebrating. All work and no play did not describe us. Let’s say we were more “balanced.”
We were driving back to campus in a pickup truck with a fresh half-keg of beer and three or four of us in back.
A half-keg weighs about 160 pounds and college students are naturally lazy, so we would drive right up to the side door of the dorm, even though this would require driving on the sidewalk.
In those days, and I suspect for many years after, Joe Paterno would walk to work from his small house just off-campus. The football team’s practice field was just behind Nittany dorms.
On this particular Saturday, we rounded a corner and Paterno was right there, smack-dab in front of us, briskly walking home from the practice field.
Our driver slammed on the brakes. Paterno also stopped short and his eyes grew big.
For the record, our driver hadn’t been drinking, but I guess Paterno could tell the rest of us had.
“You boys look like you’re having fun,” he smiled.
“We sure are, Joe,” one of my friends replied as we waved to the coach and continued on our way.
Paterno would go on to coach 37 more years after that near-death encounter. But even then he was beloved;  we would have been tarred and feathered if we’d run over him.
 By 1974, Paterno had:
• Already been head coach for nine years and compiled a 75-13-1 record, including three undefeated seasons (no national championships, but don’t get me started), including four major bowl victories.
• Turned down head coaching job offers from the Pittsburgh Steelers, New York Giants and the University of Michigan, plus accepted and then backed out of a lucrative offer from the New England Patriots.
• Begun his “Grand Experiment,” placing emphasis on academics for his players. This was paying big dividends in recruiting as Paterno could honestly tell parents their sons had good chance of graduating.
There was a lot to admire in Paterno. The plain, no-name jerseys, his insistence on sportsmanship and his refusal to run up the score on defeated opponents.
None of this makes up for his failure to act when he became aware of the horrible accusations against his once-trusted assistant. And Paterno made it clear after his firing that he finally understood this, even though the whole concept of pedophilia was obviously completely foreign to the 85-year-old.
Along with many of my fellow Penn Staters, I believe Paterno was treated unnecessarily poorly. But Paterno refused to be bitter and I also believe he’d be the first to note the real victims are the young boys who apparently were abused on his watch.
But I will not turn my back on JoePa, any more that I would reject my own grandfather. One mistake, even a big one, doesn’t wipe out decades of doing the right thing.

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