My reverence for Paterno was as instinctive as a genetic tick. My family — mostly teachers and Penn State grads a few generations deep — admired Paterno for championing education seemingly above all else. Some of my fondest childhood memories are the Saturday mornings in the fall when my grandparents would drive my brother and I over the Tuscarora Mountains to watch JoePa storm the sidelines in Beaver Stadium. In the mythical-sounding college football fiefdom of Happy Valley, Paterno — the king of the land — didn't abide by “everyone else's” metrics for success in Big Time college athletics. High class attendance and graduation rates seemed more prestigious than collecting National Championship rings, landing five-star recruits, and seeding top draft picks to the NFL. Walking away with a college degree was just — if not more — valuable than anything a bowl game victory could bring. The media and everyone else? Be damned. This pride-in-the-Program was something every Penn Stater wore with a badge of jingoistic — and some would say smug — pride in our Alma Mater. The captain of the ship was Joe Paterno, the man from Flatbush who passed up law school and NFL jobs to transform a cow college into a giant research institution.
In April 2007, I was a 21-year-old junior at Penn State, studying English and working as a delivery driver for a sandwich shop in State College. Quite honestly, it was not a fun semester. I was balancing an overly ambitious academic workload and some vestiges of a college social life with a job that often required me driving around Happy Valley to drop off greasy, highly caloric drunk munchies at 3 a.m. four nights a week. I tried not to complain; the money was good for a college job and I was able to juggle a nocturnal sleep schedule without letting my grades completely slip.
After running on all cylinders for a few months, I burnt myself out and came down with the flu one week. I spent a few days in bed and watched a lot of really crappy daytime TV to get over it. By that Friday, I was still feeling kinda lousy but was starting to come around. That afternoon I noticed a pile of about seven or eight library books I'd dug out from the Pattee-Paterno stacks in the corner of my room. I had completely forgot about them, having taken them out a few months earlier as primary sources for a few class papers. I had no idea how much I owed in fines, so I immediately went into “Oh, shit!” mode. In a matter of minutes, I threw on a pair of jeans and a hoodie and jumped in my car, and headed immediately toward the library.
I pulled up to the library around 5 p.m.. At that time on any given Friday afternoon, the west side of Penn State's campus is extremely deserted for the weekend, so I had no problems throwing on the blinkers and parking in a 15-minute parking zone in front of the library's North entrance. A little frenetic and frazzled, I grabbed the stack of books off my front seat and headed in, trying to balance this heaping tower of books in my arms. And, right when I reached for the handle, the door popped open.
“You look like you could use a hand.”
It was Paterno, wearing a blue blazer and smiling behind his iconic horn-rimmed glasses, holding the door to his namesake library open.
“Um, yeah! Thanks Coach.” In hindsight, such a boyish, gleeful response sounded so stupid and overly-enthusiastic at such a completely innocuous gesture. Any polite human being would do the same thing. But I was starstruck and fawning over a living legend. Guilty as charged.
For a second, while shuffling through the door, I had this brief preternatural sense his eyes were glued to the book-bindings, glancing over the titles. I almost wished he would have asked me what I was reading.
But instead, he shot back at me with his grizzly Brooklyn accent: “Study hard. It's going to pay off.”
I wasn't entering the library to study. But I just nodded my head, grinned, and said, “Of course, Coach.” And that was that. It happened so quickly. He let go of the door and headed left, to a reception awaiting him in “his” part of the library. I headed right, to settle my balance and return this unruly stack of literary criticism, many of which had a seal in the front binding to commemorate the volume as a gift to the University by Joseph and Sue Paterno. On my way out the door, I paused for a second before calling home to tell my mother and father and anyone else who'd listen.
Everyone at Penn State has a story about the time they ran into Joe Paterno. Most, if not all, are far better and more sanguine than mine. It happened again later that summer, when I was walking past Joe's house on the way to campus. That afternoon, he came outside and jumped into his Toyota Camry, obviously headed to practice. He gave a little wave as he drove past, his facial expression reading the exact same as when he opened that library door: “Study hard.”
That exact facial expression — a thinking-man's look of encouragement that emphasized brains and hard work above all else — is precisely why Paterno became such a lovable and transcendent folk hero at Penn State. That look became the living, breathing symbol for the “Grand Experiment” of “Success with Honor” in college athletics. The great sportswriter Dan Jenkins — the father of Sally Jenkins, the Washington Post journalist who interviewed Paterno just a week before he passed — captured Paterno's intrinsic natural tick back in 1968 in a Sports Illustrated profile
“We're trying to win football games, don't misunderstand that,” said Paterno. “But I don't want it to ruin our lives if we lose. I don't want us ever to become the kind of place where an 8-2 season is a tragedy. Look at that day outside. It's clear, it's beautiful, the leaves are turning, the land is pretty, and it's quiet. If losing a game made me miserable, I couldn't enjoy such a day.
“I tell the kids who come here to play, Enjoy yourselves. There's so much besides football. Art, history, literature, politics. The players live all over the campus. I don't want 'em to have a carpeted athletic dorm or be bunched in together where they can't associate with all types of students. When a kid takes a look around here and says, 'Gee, there's nothing to do,' I tell him I suppose there was nothing for the Romantic poets to do in the Lake District of England. As far as getting an effort on the field is concerned, we stress the fact that this is the only time in a kid's life when 50,000 people are gonna cheer him. He can write the greatest novel ever, but 50,000 people aren't going to cheer him at once where he can hear it.”
So Penn State players give their best for Paterno and listen for the cheers, and they really don't worry about No. 1. “You know what happens when you're Number 1?” says Paterno. “Nobody is happy until you're Number 1 again, and that might be never.”
But being No. 1, or undefeated, might make Joe Paterno the coach of the year. How about that?
“You know what that would mean?” Paterno says. “It would mean I could go to some clinics and make a little money. It would mean I'd have a $14,000 mortgage instead of an $18,000 mortgage. Big deal.”
That's what everyone just loved about him so much. He wasn't perfect. Perhaps, in hindsight, we as Penn Staters treated his faults too much like personality quirks. But, as college football grew into the beast with many heads that it's become, who couldn't support such lofty noble intentions?
As we know, now, all of this folklore is from a far simpler and happy time. A time before the odious Sandusky sex scandal threw an enshrined legacy into a state of flux. Before a media tempest. Before a time everyone asked “why?” Before his name was struck from awards and trophies and terms like “morally culpable” were thrown around in the same breath as “Joe Paterno.” Before he was fired over the phone by the Penn State Board of Trustees and died a deeply polarizing figure in the midst of an abhorrent saga that might as well have been penned by Ovid or Homer, two of his own favorite authors. It's hard to imagine we'll ever witness such a swift and public fall from grace ever again.
To those who loved and adored him from afar, on a non-personal level such as myself, there's no easy way to mourn Paterno. We'll always struggle with tough questions that will have to go unanswered. If only it were pleasant and easy as pie again. Say it ain't so, Joe, but thanks again for opening that library door and the kind words of encouragement.