Mourning the Loss of Paterno, Our Fallen Hero
I am heartbroken. As I have mentioned many times before, I am a proud Penn Stater. Or, at least, I have been until this week.
Penn Staters have lost a hero this week. Joe Paterno is now the former head coach of Penn State football. Until last night, he has been an icon, a role model, and held God-like status among Penn State fans. Until this week, that status was earned and well-deserved. Paterno has always deflected the praise and fame that came with his status. His number one priority was about doing his best for Penn State University first, Penn State football second. Paterno was the backbone of Penn State’s “Success with Honor” program. For years, Joe Paterno resisted aggressive recruiting tactics, enforced academics over athletics among his players, and held a zero tolerance standard for his players that no other big football program could match.
Penn Staters and Penn State fans have admired, cheered for, and loved Joe Paterno for all that he has done for our university and all that he has taught the Penn State community about what is truly important. Paterno’s name has been synonymous with the ideals of ethics, honor and respect. Until now.
For Penn Staters like myself, this is more than the loss of a football coach. It feels like a personal loss to us. It feels like a family member’s disgrace. It is much more personal than a news story. This is the loss of a hero.
I don’t have many heroes. I do not idolize celebrities. I have my favorite personalities, but on the whole, I don’t really care much for the rich and famous. I have a similar distaste for politicians, too. I may support certain candidates who I think will do some good, but most are in it for fame and personal recognition, not for the greater good. I usually save my hero-worship for regular people. Single moms who sacrifice their time and personal lives for the sake of their children. Teachers who go far above and beyond the call of duty to help kids well past state standards. Soldiers who put their country before themselves. These are the people who deserve hero status in my book.
Joe Paterno was one of them. He was a personal hero to me. I had the honor of meeting and speaking with him twice while I was a student at Penn State. Once, while I was a waitress and he sat in my section. A second time while walking through campus one summer that I stayed at Penn State. These interactions were nothing remarkable to anyone else, but they touched me and showed me what kind of man Joe Paterno was. When we talked briefly, he asked me about my major. I told him I was a Secondary Education major with a minor in English and Communication. He congratulated me on my choice and talked about the importance of having great teachers. He encouraged me to stick with it and reach out to help kids. He praised teachers as the best role models for kids. He rattled off accolades about Penn State’s College of Education. Not once did he mention himself, the football program, or any football players. He truly cared more about education than the football program.
I can’t help but write about these interactions in the past tense now. Joe Paterno is still alive and he does still care about Penn State and her students. I am sure he is heartbroken over being fired from his post as head coach now, before the last home game of the season. But I do not believe he is heartbroken for his loss. Knowing what I know about Paterno, I believe his heartbreak is that he will not be able to be there for his players. But the Paterno of my memories as a student are not the Paterno we know now.
I do not expect Paterno to fight the Board of Trustees’ decision to fire him. Sure, he would have liked to finish the season, but the trustees did the right thing for Penn State by letting him go now. It hurts. But I am sure Joe Paterno will go quietly because that is what is best for our university. Penn State needs to let go of our greatest icon in order to recover from our shared disgrace.
It is a shared disgrace because, of all people, we expected more from our hero, Joe Paterno. Paterno himself would have required more from anyone else. As he said in his statement yesterday, “This is a tragedy. It is one of the great sorrows of my life. With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more.”
We revered Paterno because of his high standards. Paterno taught us all by example to never accept the minimum. To be honorable, you must do what is right even if it is easier to do only what is required. Because of his influence, we now need to judge Paterno by those same high standards of honor, ethics, and morality.
I have argued both sides of the Paterno issue all week long. As a Penn Stater and fan of Joe Paterno, I have argued that he did nothing wrong. When told of “inappropriate behavior,” he reported it immediately to Tim Curley, the Athletic Director. I blamed Curley and Schultz for bringing all of this down on Penn State and Paterno. They are the ones to blame for not reporting it to the authorities. Paterno did the legal right thing.
As a mom of two young boys, however, I cannot defend Paterno’s inaction past the point of reporting it internally. As I read the Grand Jury testimony (please be forewarned that this document contains horrible graphic details and should not be read lightly) , I could not help but picture my boys in the position of the victims. I cried for their loss of innocence at the hands of the predator, Jerry Sandusky. As a mom, I cannot condone the one-step report by Paterno as the whole of his action in the face of such crimes. I don’t believe he knew the extent of what had happened, but even a question of impropriety with young children must be investigated. That was Paterno’s greatest mistake.
I am angry with the inaction of Paterno, Curley, Schultz, and Spanier. But the lesson of reporting wrong-doing goes back to childhood lessons of right and wrong. We laugh at the cliché of “If Woody had gone straight to the police, none of this would have ever happened,” but there is nothing funny about this situation for the victims and their families. I am livid that no one did anything to stop this as soon as it was discovered. But I am angry, too, with the national media for their lack of coverage of the real crime.
You can’t avoid the news of Penn State’s scandal and Joe Paterno’s fall from grace. Unfortunately, it’s a lot harder to find any article or any news about the actual crime than it is to find the sensationalist reporting bringing down Joe Paterno and sullying Penn State’s reputation. I challenge you to find any article about the monster Jerry Sandusky without added commentary about Paterno and Penn State. The media would rather bring down an icon than report the real crime. Yes, Paterno made an egregious error by not following through after reporting the 2002 incident. But the perpetrator of the crime was Sandusky. Do not let the media force you to forget that fact.
We, as a community of Penn State alumni and fans, are hurting. We have lost a hero, but we have not lost our history. We cannot let this scandal define us. We are still a great university. We are still honorable. We are still Nittany Lions. We can still be Penn State proud. WE ARE….PENN STATE. And we will recover.