Joe Paterno – Just A Man

Today, thousands of mourners have descended on State College to pay respects to Joe Paterno, legendary football coach and mentor who died from lung cancer just months after being fired from Penn State during the height of the Sandusky scandal. The public viewing planned for one p.m. today is the first of several public and private services planned for the next three days.

As we think on the life and work of Joe Paterno, what are we to think? How are we supposed to feel? What lessons can we learn? I think there are at least two lessons to be learned from his life, work, and his failings. The first is that he was just a man.

I’m a huge sports fan who grew up in an area that considers PSU its “home team,” but I never paid much attention to college football until I attended college myself. After that, I was hooked. I love everything about college football (except the letter of the law enforcers of NCAA rules). I was never a die hard Penn State fan, but I cheered for them any time a PSU win would not hurt either Florida or Liberty.

Though I’m certainly a huge fan of college football, I have also always been skeptical of organized sports. There are certainly benefits to being part of a team, but sometimes athletes, and even fans, fall victim to idolatry. It becomes easy to see your coach as the fountain of all wisdom and knowledge.

And that is why I was a Joe Paterno fan. I felt like Paterno was the exception to the rule. He was a man who understood that football was not the most important thing in the world. The evidence suggests that he did his best to mentor young men to be better men, not just better football players. He once said he would not retire and “leave college football to the Jackie Sherrills and Barry Switzers of the world.” He later apologized to Switzer, but his point was made – we need better men as coaches in NCAA football.

I remember a bunch of Eagles fans coming down to Jacksonville for the Jaguars game (the score of that game didn’t accurately reflect the real beating the Jags put on the Eagles that day) just after PSU had reached number one in the polls. As much as I dislike the Eagles, I couldn’t help but celebrate with these fans as they changed “Joe Paterno is number one!” It was great fun.

But he really was just a man – and now, painfully, we realize that.

I’ve been reading everything I could get my hands on about Paterno over the last few days, and much of what I’ve read reinforces this lesson. All three of these accounts are worth a full read.

His record will show that he was a great, indomitable champion who amassed a record 409 victories, as well as an intelligent advocate who worked tirelessly for poor and minority athletes his whole career. It will show that he was utterly devoted to his players, regularly graduated more than 75 percent of them, and had 47 academic all-Americans. It will show that he made mistakes and omissions, one of them possibly truly costly. It will show that he mostly maintained his perspective and remained true to himself.
Joe Paterno dies, leaving record for others to debate

Thank you so much for being a great example, Joe. I will keep your memory alive as I too am not a perfect man, but yet and still a man. That means I can admit when I’ve made a mistake. I will protect and provide for my family, I will never yield standing on my spiritual, moral values and principles. Most important, I will always keep God first in the things that I do in my life.
Thoughts on the passing of Coach Joe Paterno, by Lavar Arrington

A couple of comments on Lavar’s post also caught my eye.

You are a bit biased in your opinion, LaVar and rightfully so. However, to the casual and even not-so causual observer Joe Paterno built a great football program, which ultimately consumed him. People from PSU are infatuated with him and it is like hero-worship in what is now widely known as Creepy Valley. Thus, folks closely associated with PSU (wearing JoPa blinders) will never be able to see Paterno for what he really was — one of the greatest football coaches ever, who became so enebriated with his football machine that he could no longer distinguish right from wrong. What he failed to do was not a trivial matter. He helped cover up child molestation — a very serious crimianl offense — and helping cover child molestation can never, ever be condoned.

It is a shame that his 60+ years as being a teacher, mentor, protector and defender of kids vanishes with one horrific neglect, misstep, etc., but in the end it does. It was this realization that probably killed him.

And from The sacred narrative of Joe Paterno

…But it’s worth remembering that the defining attribute of a “legend” is its casual relationship to the facts.

His life, his deeds, his thoughts, his living and breathing flesh, were fixed in legend decades before he died. No living man or woman can live up to that.

Over the next few days and then out across the years, we’ll read and hear and see a mountain of fictions about Joe Paterno. This is legend-building and storytelling and the necessary making of our mythology. In our sadness at his passing, we’ll want the legend to be very big and very simple.

This is the reflex of our best intentions.

But a man is a small and complex and contradictory thing. Hard to see, hard to find. Even Joe Paterno. And even in our mourning, the truth cuts in every direction at once. He took some of that truth with him when he died, but enough was left behind that people are fighting over it now. What’s at stake is how he’ll be remembered.

All mythology is cautionary. Every story is a warning.

He was a husband and he was a son and he was a father. He was right and he was wrong, and like most of us, he did his best. A hero to millions, in his own telling he failed his greatest challenge.

If it came to that, could you do right if it cost you everything? Would you sacrifice yourself and all you’ve built to save a stranger?

Joe Paterno was no more and no less than human, and no living man can contend with his own legend. No man can live in his own shadow.