“You either die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” -Harvey Dent
I suppose I could stop writing with this. As articulate and accurate a quote one might need to describe the rise and fall of the late Joe Paterno. There is more to this eulogy piece than just a pop culture reference and a sad tone of the death of a man; I really won’t be eulogizing anything as tawdry as dirty laundry.
Joe Paterno became a man more myth than reality starting in 1966. He was accessible and real as your average Joe, yet he was anything but. At a school as steeped in tradition as Penn State was, he steeped it further with undefeated seasons, almost three dozen bowl appearances, National and Big Ten titles, and a dedication to the University that saw him turning down NFL contracts for more money and higher prestige. He was Penn State, building its reputation and filling its trophy cases year after year; 46 to be exact.
Despite the revelations of the last year, Joe spent his career instilling moral fiber, ethics, and academics in to his student-athletes; he placed a premium on education first. Joe was a character, always good for a pull quote and a smile on game day. It took serious injury to keep him off the sideline and the practice field. In his last few years he took quite a few hits, including a cracked pelvis, I think, and injured himself while trying to show a 19-year-old football player exactly how to block…he was more than 80 at the time.
Joe lived for Saturday, for every practice, and clearly loved that University and what it stood for more than just about anything. He gave graciously and deeply of his wealth back to the school. He opened his home to students happily. He was a tenacious competitor and a man who literally loved what he did to death.
Many thought he was done coaching a few years back. Injuries, health complication, just the frank starkness of the numerical number of birthdays he’d celebrated on this planet. He never wavered. He signed that extension that stood, in my eyes, as the last contract he ever intended signing; it was the contract that guaranteed he’d be the active Lions’ coach when God finally took him.
We now know this isn’t the case. He left the school almost as fast as he left the good graces of the public. I would love to sit here and argue for Joe. I would love to spin a tale of a personal code and a man who came from “a different time.” “He’s old school” just doesn’t seem to cut it in this case, but I feel that I could build a decent defense for a man who molded men with a moral and ethical code that he may have lacked at his deepest principles.
One can’t ask him, can’t interview him, and he can no longer defend himself; so inference is just hearsay and presumption. I instead want to focus on the fact that it wasn’t the lung cancer that finally got ol’ Joe off the sidelines. He lost football.
Football was his elixir of life. His fountain of youth was turf, pig skin, and running out of the tunnel. His years were reversed with the never-ending odyssey of getting better, winning, and coaching up the best team he could. Time stopped for Joe when he was on the field.
In his later years, I think football didn’t just keep him young, it kept him alive. You hear of a man passing shortly after their wife of 50 years dies. You hear of people seemingly hanging on just long enough to see their grandchild born, or their only child finally married off and blissfully happy; and they do it despite all the odds against them. And lastly you hear of the men, the women, who spend their entire life in a career they love, and shortly after retiring, kick off. This wretchedness is what fell JoePa. He was a man stripped of a love of his life. Purpose keeps many men alive, and without Penn, the tides of time came washing in and claimed the years he’d cheated from Death.
I dare not speak ill of a man who embodied something as righteous as an institution that is not the buildings, not the board, not the trustees, but is the alumni and the student body; just as the church is the congregation, not the building. Everyone has their secrets, and JoePa almost made it to the grave with his. Had he died but months earlier, then he could have died a god, but instead he wasted away like any other man. This might be the thing that hurts many the most: He was just a flawed man and not the myth that had developed around him.
Joe was a man of small stature but inexplicably seemed to cast a shadow that all too many fell in; he was flesh and bone legend. It all came crashing down around him, for choices made; and as suddenly as he looked forever invincible, to look upon him after revelations was to see a now frail, aged, and near helpless man who seemed crestfallen and beleaguered in shoulders that once bore the weight of all the hopes of Penn State faithful every Saturday with not a second thought.
Joe was once a pillar of a community, now defiled and tagged with smeared graffiti at his own hand, and seemed to every year baffle analyst and people as to his ability to keep coming back despite injuries and illness. He kept getting back up when men his age had been in the ground for a decade, but once they pulled the life support from him his strength could bear the weight of debts owed no longer. His warped loyalty lost him football. Football was what kept him alive. A tragic suicide, but one to be held in some semblance of respect. No man should be judged by any one event. He is a culmination of all his actions, and the balance of the good done in his years will far outweigh the debt of his inactions when his life’s sums are counted.
“The seat of knowledge is in the head; of wisdom, in the heart. We are sure to judge wrong, if we do not feel right.” -William Hazlitt