Within minutes, the sculpture had been wrapped in shrink wrap and taken by forklift inside Beaver Stadium, where Penn State's football team plays its home games.
Chris Stathes, a 40-year-old kitchen manager at State College's famed Original Waffle House, stood by wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with an outline of the statue.
"You have a guy that's six feet under and they're doing this to him," he said. "If he protected anybody, it wasn't Jerry Sandusky; it was the university that he loved."
In a statement released early Sunday, university President Rodney Erickson said the statue had "become a source of division and an obstacle to healing in our university." But he did not identify where it would be permanently held after its removal.
"For that reason, I have decided that it is in the best interest of our university and public safety to remove the statue and store it in a secure location," he said. "I believe that were it to remain, the statue will be a recurring wound to the multitude of individuals across the nation and beyond who have been the victims of child abuse."
Erickson's decision came the same day that the NCAA announced it would unveil "corrective and punitive" measures against the university on Monday. Though association officials declined to elaborate Sunday, ESPN quoted an anonymous source saying the sanctions included a significant loss of scholarships and ability to participate in several bowl games.
Paterno's 7-foot-tall, 900-pound statue had become a flash point in recent days, after the findings of an internal university investigation suggested that Paterno and several top administrators conspired for more than a decade to cover up allegations against former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky.
Sandusky was convicted last month on 45 counts of child sex abuse involving 10 victims, many of whom were molested in Penn State football facilities.
According to a report issued July 12 by former FBI Director Louis Freeh, Paterno helped shape the university's reaction to at least two abuse allegations – the first in 1998 and another in 2001. In the latter, university officials opted not to notify outside authorities for fear of bad publicity, Freeh said.
Paterno's family has strongly criticized Freeh's conclusions and vowed to launch their own investigation. They criticized the decision to remove the statue in a statement Sunday, which read:
"Tearing down the statue of Joe Paterno does not serve the victims of Jerry Sandusky's horrible crimes or help heal the Penn State Community."
Paterno, who led the university to two national championships during his 60-year coaching career, earned a reputation for putting integrity and academics ahead of athletic accomplishments.
He was also a generous donor, giving more than $9 million to the university over the course of his life.
Several buildings on campus, including the library and a Catholic student center, are named after him or his wife, Sue. Those will remain, Erickson said.
His firing in November for failing to do more in response to Sandusky allegations set off student riots in the streets of State College.
But even some of the coach's most ardent fans began to question the appropriateness of allowing his statue to remain, considering Freeh's scathing findings.
Former Florida State coach Bobby Bowden said the statue should be taken down, while all week a small plane pulled a banner over State College reading, "Take the statue down or we will."
The statue's early Sunday morning removal showed signs that administrators hoped to avoid a scene. At about 11:50 a.m., well after the statue had been taken away, the blue tarp covering the fence was removed, prompting a rush forward by bystanders to the fence.
Though Erickson had suggested that his decision might come Monday, about two dozen police officers and construction workers showed up just before 6:30 Sunday morning.
They escorted a handful of students who had been standing in vigil by the sculpture behind barriers and quickly surrounded the statue with a chain-link fence and tarp, blocking the view. An initial crowd of about 10 to 15 onlookers quickly swelled to 150 as the work progressed.
But within minutes of the removal the mood outside the stadium turned somber. Onlookers took photos, milled about, but few said anything.
Colby Walk, 40, of Philipsburg, worried what would come next. He feared the NCAA could announce Monday that it was instituting the "death penalty" - a season-long football ban - on Penn State.
"One hundred thousand people fill this stadium every week for eight weeks," he said. "If you give the death penalty to the program, you give the death penalty to the town. With Joe's dying, it's kind of like we have already had the death penalty."
Penn State installed the statue in 2001 in honor of Paterno's record-setting 324th Division 1 win. And Reading sculptor Angelo Di Maria said Sunday it pained him to see it removed.
"Part of me is in that statue," he said. "All those flashbacks of glory, of the great feelings when it was erected and when I was working on it - I'm not different than any of the other people out there associating it with positive memories."
Anticipating a negative reaction, Erickson closed his statement Sunday with an explanation:
"I am certain it is the right and principled decision," he said. "I believe we have chosen a course that both recognizes the many contributions that Joe Paterno made to the academic life of our University, while taking seriously the conclusions of the Freeh Report and the national issue of child sexual abuse."
Contact staff writer Jeremy Roebuck at 267-564-5218, firstname.lastname@example.org, or @jeremyrroebuck on Twitter.
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