A son's loss eclipses even the community's

Sue Paterno exits with grandson Joey Paterno (right) and another young family member after the tribute to her husband at the Bryce Jordan Center.
Sue Paterno exits with grandson Joey Paterno (right) and another young family member after the tribute to her husband at the Bryce Jordan Center. (DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer)
Posted: January 27, 2012

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. - Bury your father, your world changes forever.

That day was Wednesday for Jay Paterno. When you are the son of Joe Paterno, you share your new world with anybody who can get a ticket into the Bryce Jordan Center.

Jay Paterno was the last to speak at a memorial service Thursday inside Penn State's basketball arena. He represented his grieving family. He took us inside in the ranch-style home on McKee Street, where opera music played while the father watched film and his young children slept.

Jay Paterno said being Joe Paterno's son was not a burden too great.

"When you look at my driver's license, it says Joseph Vincent Paterno Jr.," said the son, "and I am so proud to have that name."

The only one of three sons who followed Penn State's legendary coach into his profession, the one who lost his father and his own job as a Nittany Lions assistant in the same month, Jay never knew a world where his father was not Joe Paterno, college football icon. By the time Jay left preschool, his father's Penn State teams already had pulled off three undefeated seasons.

Joe Paterno, the father and the winningest Division I college football coach in history, died Sunday at age 85.

It was always a little jarring to hear Jay refer to his father as Joe or Coach, but Jay made it clear that was for the outside world. Among nearly 16,000 attendees, he shared his last intimate moments in the hospital with his father, "sitting and watching him sleep," recalling cherished memories of growing up as the son of Joe Paterno.

But there also was acknowledgment that being one of the five children or 17 grandchildren of Joe Paterno was different.

"One mourner told me, 'Your family isn't very good at math,' " Jay Paterno said. " 'Your father had millions of children and grandchildren.' "

Jay spoke with a kind of level fierceness that suggested he will take your empathy but not your pity. His references to the difficult events of recent months were indirect. The same stories may have been told at the same kind of service if Joe Paterno had died a year ago. Some messages sure sounded different.

Like this one that Joe Paterno's high school friend at Brooklyn Prep, Peter "Bill" Blatty, later the author of the novel, The Exorcist, told the family this week: Blatty had entered a citywide singing contest, and everyone there thought he had won, except the judges. A day later, Blatty ran into Joe coming out of the little corner store by Brooklyn Prep.

According to Jay, his father saw Blatty the next day and asked, "Hey, why are you down? Do you believe you won?" Blatty said he thought he did. "That's all you need," Joe Paterno told him.

"In high school, he already possessed a strong inner confidence and strength, the belief in excellence over success," Jay Paterno said of his dad. "Excellence is defined internally, success externally."

With a nod to his father's love of the classics, Jay Paterno also quoted Sophocles: "One must wait until the evening to truly see how magnificent the day has been."

Jay Paterno let Nike chairman Phil Knight (most emphatically) and others lambaste the decision by the Penn State board of trustees to fire Joe Paterno on Nov. 9. The son understood he was speaking to an audience of admirers in the arena, and to a wider audience on television, with more varying opinions.

Jay Paterno also understood his task: A son eulogizing a father. Jay spoke of "unsolicited dating advice," but also quoted Martin Luther King and John Ruskin, Tennessee Williams, and a U2 lyric.

"He lived his large life nobly, never blindly chasing success defined by the world's changing values," Jay Paterno said of Joe Paterno. "He never sought celebrity. Here was a man whose fame was accidental."

The son related a proud family tale of that nobility, handed down from grandfather Angelo Paterno, of how a Jewish student at Paterno's fraternity at Brown University was being blackballed, until Paterno came up with a plan.

"My father used his compassion and cleverness to take a stand," Jay said. "Joe stood up and said he had put the black ball in and he had changed his mind."

It always seemed strange, that talk of how Joe Paterno wanted Jay Paterno to succeed him. What a thing to wish upon a son, under the best of circumstances, who was following a legend. It will be fascinating to see if Jay, a reserve Nittany Lions quarterback from 1986 to 1990, stays in State College or moves on, since in this town he will always be the former quarterbacks coach, but most of all, Joe's middle son.

Jay Paterno said that as he walked with his father in Sunset Park next to the family house in his father's final days, "I couldn't help but notice the similarities in stride."

He wasn't trying the stride on for size, only noting the family resemblance. As Jay sat in the front row with his wife and children, they watched films that highlighted Paterno's career.

As Jay Paterno prepared to speak, there was a standing ovation, so he imitated his father's high rasp: "Now sit down . . . sit down."

The job of the day was to emphasize what would remain from Joe Paterno's life. A quick two hours, considering the breadth of this man's career. One player spoke from each decade of Paterno's tenure, including former quarterback Michael Robinson, who had flown back from Pro Bowl practice in Hawaii to represent the decade of the 2000s. He had told the NFL not to make him choose between playing or coming to State College.

This was the day Joe Paterno was going to get if Jerry Sandusky's alleged deeds had never come to light, and Paterno's actions (or inactions) scrutinized. It had to be both sad and cathartic for the family - for widow Sue Paterno and her children.

Jay Paterno related his last words to his father in the hospital, how he kissed him and leaned in "so only he could hear."

Paterno told his father, "Dad, you won. You've done all you could do. You've won. You can go home now."

Similar words have likely been spoken in other families. Similar tears were shed here. As Jay Paterno walked from the stage, one of his father's early players put a hand on his shoulder. In the front row, Jay's mother was in tears. One of his sisters reached for more tissues. A trumpet played.

Contact Mike Jensen at 215-854-4489 or mjensen@phillynews.com or @Jensenoffcampus on Twitter. Read his "Off Campus'' columns at www.philly.com/offcampus.

comments powered by Disqus