Michael Vitez: For Joe Paterno, death was never far behind his firing

Penn State coach Joe Paterno before a game against Michigan State in 2004. Experts believe he lost the will to live after his firing.
Penn State coach Joe Paterno before a game against Michigan State in 2004. Experts believe he lost the will to live after his firing. (CAROLYN KASTER / Associated Press)
Posted: January 24, 2012

My worlds collided this weekend when Joe Paterno died. I reached back into my many years of writing about aging and end-of-life issues, to try and answer this question: Did Joe Paterno's firing, and the assault on his legacy, speed his death?

One expert felt it may have broken his will to live, and others said the tumult in his life surely sapped his strength, increased his stress, and made it much harder for an 85-year-old man to fight lung cancer.

The experts absolutely are correct.

As one of them said, "When you feel that you've lost your place in the world, death is never far behind."

I am reminded of one of my favorite stories of all time. For Valentine's Day in 1998, I wrote a sweet, short story about Jim Way, a soldier who met his wife in London in World War II, brought her back to Philadelphia, and loved her dearly for a half-century.

When she got Alzheimer's, he cared for her at home until he couldn't lift her anymore, and then went to Saunders House, on Lankenau Avenue, twice a day, to spoon-feed her lunch and dinner. She had long stopped being able to feed herself, or chew, or, for that matter, recognize him.

Yet he came. Year after year. And still saw in his eyes the young woman he had married. Such a story of love and devotion. She was his world.

Then, finally, she died.

And weeks later, so did he.

He had been healthy, but he'd lost his place in the world, his reason to live. Later, I did research, interviewed many scholars, and found studies that affirmed - proved - people do die of a broken heart.

Joe Paterno had his wife and family all around him. He was loved and had every reason to live. Except for one important reason - the end of his coaching career. And that may have truly contributed to his rapid decline and death. Not fiction. Fact.

One more word on Joe Paterno. I admired what he accomplished, what he stood for, his priorities in life. I do feel that he should have done more in following up after he first heard about Jerry Sandusky and the young boy in 2002.

Whether he put himself there, or the fans did, Paterno was on a pedestal. And when you're on a pedestal, your standards must be higher. But his failing here only makes him human, and in time his legacy will be strong and proud, if imperfect. And honestly, he could have lived with that.

Iverson vs. Vick

I spent a night last week at the Sixers game with a fan, John Armato, 33, returning to his first game in 11 years. He was so enthusiastic, declared himself officially back in a big way as a Sixers fan. He wore his Iverson jersey that night, so I asked him a hypothetical question, which I asked readers in my column last week. If Iverson in his prime were to race Michael Vick in his prime in a 40-yard dash, who would win?

He had a good response:

"Tough question. I would say Iverson. Because of his determination. He would be determined to get to that line before Vick. Iverson was a winner. I just don't think Vick has that same level of determination. I've never seen it. Iverson would just want it more, so I think he'd find a way to win."

Word of Moses

At an earlier Sixers game, the home opener, many veterans were back, legends from years past, and I asked Moses Malone about his famous line, "Fo. Fo. Fo." Of course, he had no idea it would be the quote for which he would be most remembered. He said it was uttered without forethought, simply a response to an interview question.

"Just came from the heart," said Malone, who now lives in Houston. "I wanted a short playoff series. I didn't want a long series, I wanted to get it over with. Summer couldn't come fast enough. So when they asked for a prediction, I said, 'fo, fo, fo.' I figured we were a good enough team. If we played good enough we could go fo, fo, fo. We lost one ... fo, five, fo. But we won it."

Malone also loved his highlight video that will be played at many home games. He was most grateful for the fact that it never showed him passing. He didn't want to be accused of passing the ball.

Stopping Wilt

There has been such response to my Wilt Chamberlain column of a few weeks ago, I add one response here, from Mike Romanausky, who played for Frankford High:

"It was 1952 or 1953 and Overbrook was playing Frankford at our court at Oxford Avenue and Wakeling Street. It was a typical mid-week afternoon game. The players from Overbrook had to make their way to Frankford by piling into their coaches' cars or any available vehicle. It seems that somehow, purposeful or not, Wilt was left out and had to make his way to the game by PTC (now SEPTA).

"Wilt gets to the game just before tipoff and, needless to say, Wilt is not happy. The game starts and whenever his team throws the ball inside, Wilt throws it right back outside and refuses to shoot. This went on for the entire first half. We [Frankford] had, I believe, a small lead at halftime. The coach must have had a talk with Wilt at the half because Wilt started to play his game in the second half.

Anyway, Overbrook beat us by about 6 or 7 with a score in the low 50s. Wilt had a total of 12 points, which I believe is the lowest in his lifetime. I sure wish I would have kept the box score. I still tell everybody I held Wilt to 12 points."


Contact Columnist Michael Vitez at 215-854-5639 or mvitez@phillynews.com or on Twitter @michaelvitez

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