Joseph Vincent Paterno devoted his life to The Pennsylvania State University.
He possessed inherently positive attributes as a man, a coach, a leader, a father figure, a mentor and a devoted family man. To know Paterno was to know greatness. For him, his life was about giving; it’s what drove him. Giving his time, his heart, his work, his money, his entire being to an institution and all it encompassed.
The millions of dollars Paterno gave to Penn State for academic scholarships, the building of campus cultural centers and a world-class library are just the tip of the iceberg. He was vastly underpaid during a large majority of his later years for an employee in his position and a coach of his stature, but he didn’t care. He took much less money on an annual basis so that the university could thrive in other areas and often gave a portion of that already-lowered salary back to Penn State.
Endless are the stories about Paterno performing personal favors for his extended family, which included the tens of thousands of players, students, alumni, coaches and friends who loved him and who felt his love in return. He loved literature and often quoted The Classics as a way to show others how to better themselves. His teachings have left an indelible mark on lives all over the world.
When he walked into a recruit’s house, Paterno would tell the parents that he was not able to promise anything related to playing time, the depth chart, or a future in the NFL. But what he always did promise was that their child would get an education. The graduation rate for Paterno’s players was at or very near the top of the national list every single year.
Coaching football and teaching young men how to become better people was all Paterno knew how to do. He famously and constantly told reporters who would ask him when he’d be ready to retire that he didn’t have any hobbies. He didn’t fish, he didn’t play golf, he didn’t collect stamps, he didn’t hunt, he didn’t leisurely travel (save the one week each summer when his entire family, which included his wife Sue, their five children and 17 grandchildren gathered along the shore in South Jersey) and he certainly didn’t do anything artistic.
He was a full-time coach and father to his players – former and current.
When a fullback whose Penn State career spanned the late 1970s called Paterno’s house to congratulate him on the day he tied Bear Bryant’s record for victories in 2001, Sue answered the phone. The First Lady of State College spoke to this player (who asked to remain anonymous) for about 10 minutes because Paterno was still flying back to State College from Chicago. Sue explained to him how her husband always told her that, “My players are all that I have. I love all of them and I only want the best for them. My goal in life is to show them how to be the best they can be in life, not just football.”
Speaking of Paterno’s old buddy Bryant, it’s quite ironic that both men died shortly after each coached his last game. It’s as if once they were no longer able to do the only thing they knew for a lifetime, their internal will to keep going vanished. Obviously the myriad of health problems which Paterno experienced as well as his battle with lung cancer at the very end were the actual causes of his death. But in a spiritual way, just like his iconic friend from Alabama, the end and the end were one and the same.
Nobody is perfect.
Yes, Paterno should absolutely have done more to follow up on and take charge of the Jerry Sandusky situation. He made a terrible mistake by not doing so. But don’t vilify a man who stood for all things good by attaching one chapter of a very complicated issue to his entirety. It’s so terribly unfortunate that such a painful mistake was part of a much larger issue – an abhorrent issue caused (allegedly, for now) by a man whose body, mind and soul are pure evil to the core; a man with whom Paterno had virtually no contact after his retirement (throat scratch/cough dismissal) in 1999. The fact is that Paterno and Sandusky were barely on speaking terms for much of the latter’s final season, and when he left, the situation certainly didn’t improve.
He was partially complicit and negligent in a certain way – that cannot be disputed. Paterno did what was required of him by following the chain of command in such a situation. But, in his own words, he should’ve done more. The view that his “old-world” thinking did not allow him to handle the situation properly is not nearly good enough. He should’ve done more. However, don’t think for one minute – ever – that his inactions came from a malicious place. Paterno devoted his life to the betterment of youth, and if you honestly think he purposely didn’t do what he should’ve done then you know absolutely nothing about the man.
In time, the hope is that when this situation fully unfolds, more people will begin to realize – with healing and proper vision – that Paterno was not the cause of these awful tragedies.
There will be much more written about the legend in this space as time marches on. For now, in the immediate days following his death, the only responsibility is to honor an incredible life. You never stopped giving, Joe. And now it’s time for people to give to you by honoring your life and your memory with the utmost respect it deserves: not for the records you set as the greatest football coach in the history of the sport – which you undoubtedly are – but rather for the way in which you graciously touched so many lives and hearts.
Goodbye for now, Joe. Although your body is physically no longer with the living, your spirit will live on forever. You did so much good for so many people and those who understand what you lived for, what you stood for and what you died for will fight to defend the entire you, not the you that was portrayed in the final months of your life. The word “better” is found quite often in this encomium and that’s because it applies perfectly here – the world is a better place because of you.
In your honor, as you loved to quote Latin phrases, here is the way you fought until the day you passed:
“aut vincere aut mori.”