I have long held the theory that a broken heart can kill a person in the same way a bad disease, a tragic accident, or a crazed murderer can. I’m not talking about a failed aortic valve or cardiac arrest here. While medical experts may refute me, my personal belief was strengthened Sunday morning when everywhere I looked it was being blared that hallowed Penn State football coach Joe Paterno had just died in an ending more tragic and sad than any of us could ever dream.
All the news reports said the cause was from cancer complications, but, no, I’m solidly assured one of the greatest men this world has ever known was felled by such immense grief and sorrow he could no longer endure. The first 84¾ years of his life inspired countless books, Sports Illustrated’s “Sportsman of the Year,” a record 409 football victories, and – by far his greatest legacy - literally thousands of teenaged boys he personally molded into triumphant young men. But the last three months of his life turned into such a hell on earth I can scarcely name a soul who could have borne such a merciless weight.
When word came that his favorite lieutenant, Jerry Sandusky, had been arrested for child abuse in November, JoePa’s world was suddenly dashed by a devastating avalanche of woe. In almost a lightning stroke his Presidential Medal of Freedom nomination was quashed, Joe Paterno’s name was scratched off many national trophies, and he was unceremoniously fired after 46 years in Happy Valley by a terse, 10-second phone call that triggered a full-scale riot in an otherwise peaceful setting best known as Happy Valley.
Sandusky, who maintains his innocence and is awaiting trial on 40 chilling counts, was Paterno’s defensive genius and close confidante for 30 years before he abruptly quit in 1999. Jerry was also nationally renowned, producing 10 first team All-Americans at “Linebacker U.,” and was lauded for his tireless work with troubled youth. All that exploded in November in what Sports Illustrated soon labeled as “the biggest scandal in the history of college athletics.”
Paterno, who said just two weeks ago in an interview with the Washington Post’s Sally Quinn that until that gruesome moment he had never heard of “a rape that, you know, involved a male,” was initially told of Sandusky’s alleged behavior in 2002 when a shaken and terrified assistant coach blurted what he claimed to have just witnessed in a shower room at the Penn State athletic complex.
“I didn’t know exactly how to handle it,” Paterno reiterated in the Washington Post interview. “I was afraid to do something that might jeopardize what the university procedure was so I backed away and turned it over to some other people, people I thought would have a little more expertise than I did. It didn’t work out that way.”
No, it didn’t – it turned out in the worst way imaginable. And all it took then was three measly months for Joseph Vincent Paterno – college football’s winningest coach of all-time - to die of a broken heart.
I am fortunate that my personal scales of judgment are so sharply balanced that my respect and awe and appreciation and love for all Joe Paterno accomplished are hardly swayed by the cruel and brutal final days when compared to the 84¾ years of untarnished glory that far better define his life.
Back in the day I was around him maybe a dozen times or more and, while I am not so vain to think he really knew my name, I remember sitting beside him for a couple of hours one night at a very informal dinner with a couple of other writers and basking in every minute of it. He was real, genuine and very simple. He was also a brilliant scholar, a revered philanthropist, and insisted during one visit to State College we both go get a scoop of “Peachy Paterno” ice cream at the campus dairy.
His players – all of them – called him “Joe” rather than coach. He forbade them to stitch their names on the very plain uniforms and defied any college team anywhere to bring their glitzy uniforms, their white shoes or their unfounded hopes into his Beaver Stadium. At games he always wore baggy khakis, with the cuffs rolled up over white socks, his ever-present white shirt and navy tie, and a fierce glare behind his Coke-bottle glasses that silently warned any opponent, “Not today. Not in this house!”
Perhaps former player LaVar Arrington, an All-American who later starred for the NFL’s Redskins, described playing for Paterno the best. “If you are not a man when you first get (to Penn State), you will be by the time you leave. Joe has a system so that you’re prepared for life. Joe trains you more mentally than physically so that nothing will rattle you.”
In the coming days you will see these sons come to praise their “Joe” by the many hundreds and the Penn Staters themselves by the countless thousands – their personal scales of justice far better than mine. But even I know one of the greatest men ever born in America has finally been freed of such immense torment and anguish that his Homecoming will finally and graciously be joyous and befitting the giant who, in truth, Joe Paterno was indeed.
There is an old Indian proverb that reads, “Great men must die but death cannot erase their names.” That explains why I will remember the Joe Paterno who I adored for the rest of my life.