Sure, by the time I got the beat I was in my early 30s and already knew that the iconic Penn State coach was not perfect. Like Santa Claus, there is no such man. But it came as a mild surprise, after spending my first social moments with Paterno, to learn that he was as flawed as anyone.
They say you should never meet your heroes, but that would be denying yourself the opportunity to learn a valuable lesson: Life is neither black nor white, and larger-than-life figures are nothing more than flesh and blood.
The scandal at Penn State is a tragedy not because Paterno was removed as coach Wednesday night by the board of trustees or because his legacy will forever be tainted. It is a tragedy, first and foremost, because innocent children allegedly were victims of sexual abuse by Jerry Sandusky.
And it is a tragedy because the deification of Paterno perhaps permitted these crimes to continue when they might have been stopped nearly a decade ago.
The St. Joe myth, while steeped in fact, was propagated for years by writers who fell under Paterno's spell. Yes, this was a public man who was often above the fray and stood by his morals. But that did not necessarily mean he was a great guy.
Those who painted a balanced picture, gray hairs and all, were shunned and often marginalized. Paterno, after all, won all those games and two national championships without violating an NCAA rule. But in the process, the man became untouchable, and his power grew.
If you grew up in Philadelphia in the 1980s and you loved football, there was only one college team to follow: Penn State. By 1982, the Eagles were starting to decline, and Paterno's teams finally were starting to win national titles.
I'll never forget Greg Garrity's diving touchdown catch in the end zone and Paterno being lifted off the ground at the Sugar Bowl. Even as a 9-year-old, I sensed the enormity of the coach's finally winning a national title at age 55.
When Penn State beat Miami four years later for Paterno's second crown, I felt as if justice had been served. Here was a Miami program that everyone knew cheated falling to the squeaky-clean Lions, a product of Paterno's "Grand Experiment." Even during the lean years we could still puff out our chests because our coach didn't cheat, and our players graduated.
By the time I was a senior at Penn State in 1994, Paterno had his last great team. When the Lions won at Michigan, I and hundreds of other students instinctively ran to Beaver Stadium. We broke in and tried to bring down the goalposts, but they would not budge. The school instead brought out an old goalpost, and a crowd carried it all the way to McKee Street and laid it across Paterno's lawn.
When I started covering Paterno in the 2000s, the shine had dulled a bit. But he had survived a four-year lull, and the program had rebounded.
Because I was a graduate and once a fan, I wanted to prove my bona fides and avoid the worst of sportswriting sins: to be a homer.
So I ripped Paterno and the Lions when it was appropriate, and I asked the hard questions. Maybe I overcompensated. I learned along the way, though, that Paterno respected the reporters who did not cow to his stature.
Still, he could be a bully and sometimes said the cruelest of things to writers during his Friday cocktail gatherings before games. Paterno loved to bust chops, and when he delivered a real zinger he would open his mouth and make that evil face.
It's the expression I was sure he had made when I asked a question in Chicago about his no longer visiting recruits on the road.
When I left the beat, watching Penn State games wasn't the same at first. But as my sons grew older and became interested, I found myself becoming attached once again. My wife even bought a Penn State children's book written by Joe and Sue Paterno that we would often read to our two eldest sons at night.
But when the Sandusky scandal broke last week, and details emerged about Paterno's either blindly doing very little or covering it up, I sneaked into my sons' bedroom and removed the book. I thought about tearing it up and throwing it away, but I didn't.
I just put it in my bookcase, locked the key, and thought, "Why can't it be that easy to protect my boys?"
I wonder how Paterno would answer that.
Contact staff writer Jeff McLane at 215-854-4745, firstname.lastname@example.org, or @Jeff_McLane on Twitter.