An email from Amazon had promised my book would arrive by Saturday but in Thursday’s mail was a copy of surely one of the best books ever that has wrapped its tentacles around me. Candidly, I’ve just read the first 150 pages but the new book on Joe Paterno is monumental. This time last year I got word that one of the world’s best modern-day writers, Joe Posnanski, was spending the entire 2011 football season at Saint Joe’s lap. Back then, of course, none of us could have predicted what would turn into the greatest scandal in the history of college sports.
I’ve been a Posnanski fan for a long time, reading him whenever I can, but when the Jerry Sandusky bombshell exploded last November, the writer inside of me did a double back somersault because I knew that Posnanski – whose ability with words is almost as brilliant as his acumen as a factual reporter – had miraculously fallen into the spellbinding story of a lifetime.
I can tell you that for most of the day Thursday I carefully and somewhat slowly began to read and savor his new book, “Paterno,” which was just released on Tuesday. I can also tell you it is so good, so well-thought, and so pure that the 402-page trove, published by Simon & Schuster, is already one of my favorite books of all time.
Admittedly, I’m a different reader – being something of a story teller myself – and I pay attention to more than the message. I enjoy the structure, the way the story is presented, and the cadence of the symphony if you please, and Posnanski’s portrait of Joe Paterno ranks with the very best I’ve ever read.
The obvious fear a journalist has is that a writer will go too soft on a close friend or too hard when a giant as large as the legendary “JoePa” tragically shatters at the end. Posnanski addressed such worry on page 10. “This book is not a defense of Joe Paterno. It was not my intention to write such a book, and it was also not Paterno’s expectation for me to write such a book.
“The only thing (Paterno) ever asked me,” wrote Posnanski, “was to write the truth as I found it. To help, he and (wife) Sue Paterno lent me many of their personal files and asked their family and friends and former players to be open with me. Paterno took the time to answer any questions I asked. He intended to keep this open conversation going until the book was finished. He died before the book was done.”
So with both clarity and candor, Posnanski stays true to his vow – the truth when he finds it. Most of the details we already know – that Joe Paterno was a legendary college football coach and brilliant “molder of men” who “wished he had done more” when it came to the now-convicted pedophile, Jerry Sandusky.
The book delightfully tells us what a good and noble man Paterno really was except for one very disturbing flaw – again that he “didn’t do more” when it was brought to light his much-admired defensive coordinator (Sandusky) was a monster that no one ever dreamed could exist in such a place as State College, Pa., also historically and now wistfully known as “Happy Valley.”
There are marvelous side stories, captured so eloquently by the astute Posnanski. He writes of a certain conversation “after the walls came tumbling down” with Guido D’Elia, a longtime Paterno confidante, who looked at the author and asked “Why?”
“Why what?” replied Posnanski.
“Why didn’t he follow up? Why?”
Posnanski then writes, “He asked me this in the most furious moment, when the scandal had reached its highest pitch, when people openly charged Joe Paterno with unspeakable evil. Madness circled. Fury hovered. Nobody could hear anything but the roar. But D’Elia knew all that was just white noise. ‘We don’t want heroes,’ he had said time and time again. ‘We don’t want to believe anyone can be better than ourselves.’
“But now he looked at me and asked the real question,” the author wrote, “the one that pounded at him, the question that glowed red beneath all the bluster and lies and absurdities. ‘Why didn’t he follow up,’ he asked again.
“I looked at him”
“’Find the answer to that,’ he said, ‘and you have the story’.”
* * *
I am less than half-way into the book. Whether I’ll find the answer to the question I don’t yet know, but I do know I have already learned much and enjoyed every sentence in reading the newest book by Joe Posnanski, “Paterno.” While I have waited on its arrival for nigh over a year – and watched an empire collapse during that time -- I am thrilled with my newest literary journey thus far.