Paterno had an Ivy League education from Brown University and an intimate knowledge of the Classics, and therefore was intelligent to know thyself. Deep down, he knew his body and his mind, after more than 60 years of involvement with this game, could never consent to life after football. It was really the only thing he had ever known. The relationships he built, the children he fathered, the grandchildren who would come to the tiny house on McKee Street and sit on Pop-Pop's lap, all that was wonderful.
But he knew it could never be enough. Retired, he would have come to the steps to get his morning paper and seen the students, wearing their Penn State hoodies walk right past his house en route to Beaver Stadium on crisp, fall Saturdays. He would have heard the Blue Band and that scoreboard Lion roar, and it would have been too difficult to handle. And I believe his heart just gave out.
How do you encapsulate a legacy like the one left by Joe Paterno?
He shaped hundreds of young minds, taught them about football and life. He was the classic example of the coach one detests as they are playing for him and then love with a deep passion later on. When you're young and dumb, like most of the 18- to 22-years-olds who came to Penn State to play football, a craggy coach screaming in your ear is a threat to adolescent autonomy.
Doesn't this guy know that I am a star? Paterno broke them down like wild steeds, made sure they understood that they didn't know anything about anything, and then built them back up to the point where these same kids felt invincible. And they took that feeling into life.
Matt Millen was an incorrigible at Penn State, a juniper twig in Paterno's pocket chafing at the coach's skin. Millen insulted his coach one day in the weight room. Paterno stripped away his captaincy, but still turned him into an all-American who would become a stud linebacker in the NFL.
A couple of months back, Millen cried on national television over the pain Paterno was suffering in the midst of Penn State's scandal surrounding Jerry Sandusky. LeVar Arrington got an earful from Paterno every day at Penn State's practices for being too undisciplined and constantly carped about transferring. And it was Arrington who last week excoriated Penn State officials for their callousness in replacing Paterno.
Paterno won two national championships, in 1983 and in 1986, and neither of them meant anything more to him than just another day at work. At the end of that 1986 season, the Nittany Lions defeated Miami in perhaps the most notable national championship game upset in college football history. That game moved me to write a book about that season and that Fiesta Bowl. Paterno wouldn't talk to me about it. I begged and I pleaded for some interview time. He never returned my calls. I went through emissaries, his closest advisers, even his sons, to get him to change his mind. After weeks of this parry, I got a telephone call from Penn State football sports information executive Guido D'Elia, perhaps Joe's closest friend.
"Guido, is he going to do it?" I asked.
"No," D'Elia replied.
"Joe said, and I quote: 'Ahh, what am I going to say about that team that hasn't been said already?' "
About four years back, I was fortunate enough to land a one-on-one taped interview with Paterno, when the Penn State coach was the guest at an alumni dinner in Valley Forge.
I broached the subject about when he was planning to retire, making the point that opponents were using his age against him in recruiting.
Several assistant coaches from other Big Ten schools had revealed to me that if a player they were after also had Penn State on their list, they would tell the kid something like, "Why would you want to go there? How do you know he will be there for all four of the years you go to school? And if another coach then comes in, you might not fit in with the new staff." Paterno gave me a wry smile and said, "Kids don't come here for me. They come here because it's Penn State!"
It was such a sweet naivete, but he truly believed it. Joe Paterno never saw himself bigger than Penn State.
Old-school guys are often held hostage by old-school thinking. Our fathers, our grandfathers, never wanted to hear much about the things that were wrong. They had grown up differently, had to push their way through tougher situations to succeed.
They didn't have the time nor the wherewithal to consider the things that could possibly hold them back.
If you sprained an ankle, cut yourself doing a chore, they would tell you to spit tobacco juice on it and get back in there. Joe Paterno would often rationalize a player's malady as no big deal. "Didn't you have a couple of beers when you were a college student?" he'd ask a journalist who questioned a Penn State player involved in an alcohol infraction.
And so that shapes Paterno's role in the Sandusky case.
I believe he felt in his heart he was doing the right thing by reporting to his athletic director what Mike McQueary saw in that shower instead of reporting it to the police, or following up on the incident in the ensuing days.
In typical old-school fashion, the incident was too much of a painful negative with which to deal. The institution was too big, too important, to be cut down by something like that. So consumed, he had lost perspective.
Despite what the many ex-players have said over the last few weeks, it was the right thing that Paterno be removed from his perch as head football coach of the Nittany Lions. The school had to move on from this horrendous scandal and try in some way to heal. It is overwhelmingly sad that it had to end with the death of the most famous person the school has ever produced, a great man who was snarled and cut down by such an insidious web.
In the coming days, the people who loved this great man will cry. Consumed and battered by emotion, those same people might blame the circumstance of his firing for his death.
And thus, the healing of Penn State is still light-years away.
Mike Missanelli hosts a show from 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 97.5-FM The Fanatic. Contact him at email@example.com.