I'm not a graduate of Penn State, not a native of State College, nor even a true fan of the football team. I'm just a boy from Tennessee who now lives in State College. But the death of Joe Paterno has been a big deal to me.
I grew up a huge college football fan (a die hard Tennessee fan - don't hold it against me), trained by my father to watch, cheer, and enjoy it all every saturday. Being from different conferences, Penn State didn't have Tennessee on the schedule, but they did play 3x in bowl games - Penn State winning ALL THREE times on sound, disciplined, physical game-plans. It got to the point where we just didn't want to play JoePa anymore. Maybe a great irony of my life is that one of the first games I really remember watching was the 1987 Fiesta Bowl between Penn State and Miami. It was the National Championship game that year, and being raised in a "we take football seriously" house, naturally my Dad had the game on. I remember asking my Dad "who are we cheering for?" He said, "that's easy, the good guys, Penn State." My Dad then took the opportunity to explain that this was a clear game of "good vs. evil", Paterno and Penn State represented all that was right in college sports and Miami represented everything wrong with amateur atheletes. Even though I never stepped foot in the state of Pennsylvania until I was 24, I learned early that JoePa did it the right way. As I passionately followed college football growing up, I remember watching Penn State get shunned a rightful shot at a National Title in '94, I remember looking forward to the Penn State/Ohio State game annually as one of the biggest of the year, and I honestly remember at one point wondering when and what the end for Paterno would look like. Its really strange that I now live here and am seeing it first hand. I've had a few thoughts the past few days:
1) I don't care who you are or what team you love, college football just lost one of the most unique people to ever grace a sideline. His off-the-field stuff and unique attire aside, Paterno was a phenomenal coach and that should be highlighted in his passing. 2 National Championships, 4 undefeated seasons (only one of those was a championship), 24 bowl wins, and after 46 years he won 75% of his games. That is staggering. I think when we talk about "no one will replace JoePa", most of us mean his devotion to his team, his off-field accomplishments with players, and his charisma. But on top of that, I'm not sure Penn State fans realize that it is pretty much unthinkable that you will win 75% of your games over the next 45 years. He was just awesome at what he did: coach football.
2) Paterno was a man of mission and purpose. He made it his mission not to just recruit players that would help him win games and boost his legacy (of course he did seek to recruit talented players to help him win), rather he sought to form and shape young men. He understood his opportunity as a coach far exceeded a win/loss record. Few men live this way. He was not a consumer of this world, but a giver. He put Penn State on the map, yet he gave and gave and gave. In a culture absent of direction and filled with passive men who stand for nothing and simply withdraw, a man like this will be painfully missed.
3) I certainly never knew him, nor did I speak to him. I did see him as my kids played in the park in his back yard, and I almost hit him with my car once on an early spring morning. I was on my way to breakfast at about 6:45am, and there was this 83 year old man in a jacket, with a backpack on, walking down across Park avenue. He was walking to work. I've never done that and I'm 32. He was simple, and lived simple. His house was plain, and his lifestyle was basic, personified poignantly by the uniforms his football team wore. He loved his job, his family, and his friends. There is incredibly wisdom in that approach to life. It makes me think, what do I honestly value? Things? People? My Family? Who cares what I think, what do my family and friends think I care about? The proof is in the pudding of your life...right now. I hope I cross the finish line like him, with my family and friends still loving me by my side.
4) Much has been made and debated about Paterno's "legacy". Many hope he won't be remembered for the Sandusky case. Some can't get past his mistakes with the Sandusky case. 2 thoughts: It is absurd for anyone to define this man by his failures in the scandal that ended his career. Nobodies life ends clean of a scandal. The only difference is that your scandal isn't publicized or that you have mastered the art faking it in life so well that your scandal is hidden in the back of the closet of your soul . If Paterno's life is marked by scandal, then mine should be as well. But because I'm not a public figure and not as well connected, my scandal may be with a failure as a father, or as a husband, or as a neglective pastor. And since those failures aren't taken as seriously in our culture, people won't care as much - but they will still be a scandal.
Coupled with that, I would really dispute the desire by many to just "get past" this dark era that surrounded the end of his life. Darren Rovell of NBC sports tweeted "From what we know, Paterno lived 99.99% of his life as a noble man", which is hardly a disputable claim. I found it really profound what controversial reporter Brooks Melchior (@SportsbyBrooks) replied with, "Humanity (our existence) cannot survive the .01%". We live in a world where out-weighing the good over the bad just cannot work. Looking past scandals and major faults is not in our human DNA. Where does that leave us? We have to be a culture of grace and forgiveness. We just have to be. Someone like Paterno, who hurt so badly over this mistake that its possible it killed him, should not have his fault define how you remember him. Nor should your repentant mistakes define you. But on the flipside, we just can't get past it by trying to focus on all the good he did. We need grace and forgiveness. If the gospel is not true, all of our legacies are just a joke.
5) I am pleased that our community is mourning and going to honor his death by celebrating his life. I tried to get tickets to his memorial this morning, and it sold out so quickly that by 10:01am Ticketmaster told me "sorry, there are no tickets left for this event." It is hard to exaggerate the impact of Paterno's death to the State College and Penn State communities. People are coming from all over to honor him, and they should. We do this with important people who impact us. Paterno was a bit like a Messiah-like figure to this place, and I say that as a complement. But it just intrigues me how different Paterno, or anyone meaningful who ever lived, is from the true Messiah. Think about how "famous" Jesus is, regardless of you are a follower of his, when Jesus died, no one celebrated his death. No one was there to throw flowers at his cross. All abandoned him, everyone scattered. There is meaning and mourning in all death, yet the one who's death we still celebrate each time we eat the bread and drink the wine - no one was there to honor him or celebrate his life. Paterno was a devout Catholic, and I wonder if he now laughs at the irony? For the father figure he was to so many players over the years, I do hope the first words of his new life were "My son, with you I am well pleased."
I've learned to love this place, and care for the things my community cares about. I'm just a boy from Tennessee who childishly mourned 3 bowl losses to Paterno, but this week I really do mourn his death. We'll miss ya JoePa. RIP.
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