At Penn State, you’re required to take at least two courses in physical education. I believe it’s a requirement bourne out of the fact that nearly every coach and assistant is a faculty member who teaches class. I took a jogging class with a former basketball assistant, Mike Morse, who is a Penn State legend in his own right. Our final exam in that class would be the same as our first assignment. In fact, we repeated the same test several times in that semester.
Run to Joe Pa and back.
We didn’t run to the man himself, as running to the Lasch Building or McKee Street would have fallen short of our 3 mile route. We were running from Rec Hall, down Curtain Street, towards Beaver Stadium where Joe Paterno’s likeness is captured in bronze. I remember vividly running down that tree-lined road, cramping up between Shortlidge Rd and East Halls. Run, walk, run again, walk again, and hobbling towards the massive steel frame that is the football stadium. As you rounded the corner where students lined up for tickets, you couldn’t help pick up your pace. Running towards the statue, Joe Paterno’s arm stretched out to greet you. Somehow while catching my breath before resuming my run, I never caught sight of the quote inscribed behind the statue:
“They ask me what I’d like written about me when I’m gone. I hope they write I made Penn State a better place, not just that I was a good football coach.”
I think about that now and in many ways I feel like we were always chasing after a legend. Joe Paterno’s job title was merely “head football coach” but he aspired to do more than that in every aspect of his life. He could have gone elsewhere, he could have focused strictly on wins and losses, but he stayed and made every part of Penn State better. That ethic rubbed off on a lot of people. I think we all wanted to do better because he was always looking to do things better than everyone else.
When I try to defend Joe Paterno’s legacy to people outside of the Penn State family, they trivialize his accomplishments saying he’s “just a football coach”. He built a library, funded academic programs, and inspired many others to do the same. The Schreyer Honors College helped fund my tuition with a scholarship and enrich it with special classes and opportunities. Paterno’s close friend William Schreyer funded that scholarship and those programs. That is one of the many reasons I feel connected to Paterno. I imagine just about everyone at Penn State has those same types of stories about how he touched and improved their lives.
Ultimately it seems that at times Paterno the man fell short of the standard and symbol that his statue embodies. I think Paterno is honest and sincere when he says this Sandusky scandal is “one of the great sorrows of my life. With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more.” It is fair to say that Paterno should have done more to help the victims, but it is also fair to say he is not solely responsible for their fate. I cannot sympathize with the idea that Paterno is a victim. People are fired every day for a lot less and this failing is far greater than a recruiting scandal or a losing season.The victims are the nameless children whose trust Sandusky broke and who innocence he allegedly stole.
For the last two months my anger has focused on the leaders at Penn State and the Second Mile who ignored this tragedy. My sadness focused on the idea that for these children Penn State is a place of horror and shame. Somewhere below that though is disappointment with the idea that there are no heroes any more. I cannot accept that we should not honor and celebrate Joe Paterno. As his family pointed out today, he has a “living legacy” that numbers in the thousands. Despite his failings in this matter, Paterno conducted his life in a way that makes him a worthy role model. The idea of “success with honor” continues to hold a place in the hearts of the Penn Staters who went on to become doctors, lawyers, educators, religious leaders, journalists, parents, and volunteers.
That semester I took 5 minutes off my time in that 3 mile loop, chasing Joe Pa. His life is an inspiration to everyone in the Penn State family who tries to conduct their life with his ambition, humility and grace.
My heart goes out to the Paterno family for their loss and I thank them for their continued commitment to my alma mater.