Even at that moment, with the sad denouement of a long and successful life approaching like a runaway train, football came first.
As the much-anticipated book, which went on sale Tuesday, suggests, the unrelenting focus that made Paterno a singularly successful football coach might also have insured his doom.
In his mania for routine and order, he would tolerate no distraction from his preparations for a game, for a season. No one was allowed to penetrate the bubble. Not fans. Not the media. Not his family. And ultimately not even the suggestion that one of his key assistants might have been a child abuser.
Whatever the depth of his knowledge about Sandusky's behavior - and, as Paterno makes clear, the coach continued to insist he knew nothing beyond what Mike McQueary had tried to tell him on that much-dissected night in 2001 - he eventually would regret not doing more.
"No one," Posnanski writes, "Paterno included, was aware enough, courageous enough, or decent enough to stop [Sandusky]."
Why didn't he do more?
The veteran sportswriter began the book as a dissection of a long and laudatory life before events transformed it and Paterno's legend. Eventually, as Posnanski knew, it would be the chapters on the last three months of that life that defined his work.
For all his unprecedented access to the dying coach, for all his sensitivities and considerable writing ability, Posnanski is no more successful in answering what is now the key question about Paterno, who died in January, two months after the Sandusky scandal got him fired, six months before the NCAA stripped away 100-plus victories and what was left of his reputation:
Why didn't he do more?
In his final weeks, with Posnanski there to chronicle the sad drama, Paterno more than ever resembled King Lear, Shakespeare's great tragic figure who, addled by age and beset by the world, asked, "Who is it that can tell me who I am?"
Until that day in November 2011, when Sandusky was arrested and a grand jury presentment detailed the accusations against him, Posnanski thought he had known the answer.
But on that day, Paterno's world and Posnanski's task changed. Suddenly, everyone wanted to know if, as it appeared to much of America, St. Joe had countenanced evil in order to save his football program.
It was, and remains so for his many supporters, an unthinkable possibility. Paterno himself, looking out the front window of his State College home at the media throng gathered there, would acknowledge that.
"How could they think that?" he asked, and no one had the heart to answer. "They really think that if I knew someone was hurting kids, I wouldn't stop it?"
The Paterno who appears throughout most of the book is a familiar one - the earnest son and student, the dogged assistant, the dedicated coach and educator. But as he aged, and he clung too desperately to his legend, his best traits eroded. He could at times become ornery, forgetful, more defiant than ever about maintaining football focus.
Posnanski points out that some thought "his refusal to retire spoke to some of his greatest attributes (fearlessness, certainty, relentlessness), others to some of his greatest flaws (stubbornness, unwillingness to face reality, the need to be in charge). Maybe it was both."
The author, who had unprecedented access to his subject, his family, and personal papers, discovered a page from A.E. Hotchner's biography of the writer Ernest Hemingway, a Paterno hero, on which the coach had underlined a passage that read, in part:
"I remembered Ernest once telling me, 'The worst death for anyone is to lose the center of his being, the thing he really is. Retirement is the filthiest word in the language.' "
In those later years, when the whispers about Sandusky were becoming reality, Paterno was, one member of his inner circle told the author, "not vigilant like he used to be."
Was that at the heart of his now infamous kitchen-table encounter with McQueary in 2001? The young assistant had seen something disturbing occur between Sandusky and a young boy in a Lasch Football Building shower and he had come to tell the old coach about it. Paterno, who later had to ask his son to explain sodomy to him, insisted he had only a vague understanding of what McQueary was telling him, yet was able to sense that McQueary was tremendously uncomfortable.
"I told him he didn't have to tell me anything else," Paterno would say.
Paterno said he reviewed Penn State policy and then reported the matter to athletic director Tim Curley. He then returned to his football focus, and, either because he didn't want to know about it or because there was no time for inquiries in his busy schedule, never again asked about the matter.
"I did what I thought was the right thing," Paterno said. " . . . We all wish we would have done more."
Detested each other
Maybe the most revelatory portion of the book concerns the relationship between Sandusky and Paterno, which, given its length and Penn State's success in that period, most had assumed was cordial and productive. In fact, the two coaches, possessed of polar-opposite personalities, detested each other. The youngsters whom Sandusky frequently brought along to practices and games "annoyed the hell out of [Paterno]."
"Paterno thought Sandusky was a glory-hound who had stopped coaching with any zeal years before he finally retired. And Sandusky . . . thought Paterno was a stick in the mud and deeply resented him for blocking his path to be Penn State's head coach."
It is another testament to Paterno's distaste for disruption that such a testy relationship could have endured for 30 years. Sue Paterno told the author that Sandusky was so popular among Penn State fans and if her husband had forced him out there would have been "an uproar."
To the author, Paterno reiterated what he'd told the grand jury, that he had no recollection of the 1998 incident involving Sandusky and a young boy. That led to the chain of e-mails among Penn State administrators that, according to the Freeh report, suggested the coach had advised them not to take the matter to authorities.
Posnanski reviewed Paterno's notes from that period - the coach was a rabid note-taker - and while unearthing all sorts of minutia, found no mention of Sandusky or the incident.
There are other new fascinating and touching tidbits in the book, which, as an homage to Paterno's love of opera, Posnanski has structured like one:
As the crisis that led to his firing built, an adviser sought one Paterno ally on Penn State's board of trustees and couldn't find one. Guido D'Elia, Paterno's personal PR man, told the newly hired adviser that the board had begun to turn against the coach when, despite the urging of Curley and Penn State president Graham Spanier, he refused to retire in 2004. "We don't have anybody on the board now," D'Elia said.
Paterno's son, Jay, a Penn State assistant coach, brought his son to Paterno's final practice so that he "would always have that memory" of his grandfather. At one point, Jay was standing in a place where he could see Mount Nittany, and in the distance also see his son, and he felt a stinging in his eyes, a mix of pain and pride and a futile wish for time to stop."
When Jay tells his father that people will find it difficult to believe that he could have worked so long and so closely with Sandusky and yet known nothing of his aberrant behavior, the coach grew indignant. "That's their opinion," he said. "I'm not omniscient."
After his firing, Paterno was so distraught that he sobbed uncontrollably. "I have spent my whole life trying to make this name mean something," he told his son. "And now it's gone."
Paterno, who never had time for TV while coaching, developed a fondness for the show M*A*S*H in his final months.
In their final conversation before Paterno's January death from lung cancer, the ailing coach asked the author what he thought of the whole mess.
"I told him," Posnanski writes, "that I thought he should have done more when he was told about Jerry Sandusky showering with a boy. I had heard what he had said about not understanding the severity, not knowing much about child molestation, not having Sandusky as an employee. But, I said: 'You are Joe Paterno. Right or wrong, people expect more from you.'
"He did not try to defend or deflect. He simply said, 'I wish I had done more,' again, and then he descended into another coughing fit."
Contact staff writer Frank Fitzpatrick at 215-854-5068, email@example.com, or on Twitter @philafitz. Read his blog, "Giving 'Em Fitz," at www.philly.com/fitz.
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