Joe Paterno’s Last Gift to Us

I always knew the day Joe Paterno died I would cry. Yet I still felt awkward about it, sitting in the passenger seat on the way home from church Sunday morning, scrolling through my Facebook feed on my phone and reading friends’ reactions to the news as tears rolled down my face.

I’d seen people cry over the deaths of famous strangers before and it always looked kind of pathetic to me, a little out of touch with reality. (I mean really? Did you KNOW Michael Jackson?) Yet there I was, crying over the loss of a man I’d met once in my life. As the day wore on and I let some of the initial shock — and media coverage — wash over me, the emotions I felt were twofold: First, an odd sense that I’d just mourned the loss of this man a few months ago. His hasty firing in November had left a gaping hole in our collective identity as Penn Staters that hadn’t yet closed (by a long shot) and nothing — not Jay Paterno’s eloquent post-game comments, not interim coach Tom Bradley’s poise under pressure, not the announcement of new head Coach Bill O’Brien — had really worked to settle our minds from the completely foreign concept that the Penn State football team was no longer being led by an octogenarian with a Brooklyn accent so thick 60 years in the dead-center of rural Pennsylvania couldn’t cure it.

We’d already been mourning the loss of him as a coach and figure head and leader, and now suddenly we were forced to mourn the loss of him as a father and teacher and friend. It hardly seemed fair.

Besides that sense of déja vu, I felt a vaguely uncomfortable feeling of culpability, as if our collective outrage over the Sandusky crimes and the way they were handled, along with the media firestorm that lead to Paterno’s sudden dismissal, had somehow put him in his grave. I’d been among the many who had seethed with anger and disappointment over how things were handled in the wake of the allegations and subsequent arrests. I’d cried for the victims, and opined aloud about whether McQueary, Spanier and most of all our beloved JoePa had fulfilled their moral obligations, not just their legal ones.

Paterno had given just about his entire life to a university that dropped him at a moment’s notice like a common criminal despite a lifetime track record of honor and integrity. And though I thought it was handled extremely disrespectfully, I had stood by that decision.
But as I read about his last moments on earth, my conviction faltered. I wished so hard for him to have lived to see this whole mess played out, because in my mind’s eye he ends up vindicated, his name is re-etched onto the Big Ten’s championship trophy. His good name is restored, once again aligned with the honor it had always implied.

I hope, for his family’s sake, all of that happens, though he won’t be around to see it. After yesterday’s memorial service I have the sense that it is largely unnecessary, at least in his family’s eyes, because their faith in him never faltered to begin with. Jay’s final words to his father were, “You did all you could do. You’ve done enough. We all love you. We won. You can go home now.”

I’m not sure there’s much more that can speak to the quality of a father’s life than to have his son whisper such words in his ear moments before he draws his last breath.

Everything I’ve read and heard about Joe’s final weeks and days says he was never bitter about how it all ended for him. “In every life, there have to be some shadows,” he told writer Joe Posnanski, who’s penning a biography on Paterno due out this fall. “Look at me. My life has been filled with sunshine. A beautiful and caring wife. Five healthy children. I got to do what I loved. How many people are that lucky?”

Paterno gave Penn State countless gifts of time, talent and treasure over the years. Hell, in December, he and Sue donated another $100,000 to the school that had just fired him. That act taught us even more about grace than it did about generosity.

But I believe his death gave us one final, lasting gift:  He restored our pride. Don’t get me wrong, Penn Staters have been working hard to talk up our Penn State Pride in the last few months. We’ve rallied and vigiled. We’ve worn white, we’ve worn blue, we’ve worn our hearts on our sleeves. We’ve donated more than $529,000 to RAINN (Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network). We’ve told anyone who will listen about THON, about Success With Honor, about how Penn State is more than one man. We’ve sung the alma mater with deliberate force. But let’s be honest: Much of it felt more like determination and resolve than pure, joyful pride.

But watching the funeral procession and yesterday’s moving tribute, I felt that old familiar, easy Penn State Pride again, and it felt better than it has in awhile. I heard that pride from former players who spoke about their coach. I saw it in the audience as they listened, and cheered. And I felt it from friends and strangers as they posted and emailed and tweeted about what they were seeing. It seems the sheer act of reflecting on Paterno’s life, on all he contributed and all he stood for, has given us our Penn State Pride back in reserves we couldn’t have found if we hadn’t lost him. It has reawakened in us the knowledge of who we are, who we always were, and the permission — no, the absolute imperative — to stand proudly under that legacy.

At the memorial, Jay Paterno talked about how his father would look at problems of conflict playing out on a global scale, whether it be in Northern Ireland or the Middle East, and he’d say, “If we could just get ’em all in a locker room before a game, and get ’em in a huddle to hold hands for a common cause…”

Somehow, Joe Paterno’s death gave the Penn State community the huddle it needed. As sad as it is, this ending feels like a beginning.

Thank you, Joe, for that one final gift. We will make you Proud.

Here I am, starstruck, with Joe in 1995 after interviewing him for the college yearbook. When I asked about his life's philosophy, he said, "Just be good people. Care for other people; life is more fun that way."


7 thoughts on “Joe Paterno’s Last Gift to Us

  1. Both of my children are PSU grads along with my daughter in law and we are all Penn State Proud.

    Success with honor, it’s ours to continue.

  2. Robyn, Thank you for saying everything that I have felt and couldn’t put into words about Joe Paterno and his life. I graduated from Penn State in 1966. I never had a chance to “experience” JoePa on campus or at any game but just being a proud Penn Stater was reason enough to admire such a great man. The speakers at the memorial service yesterday “said it all”. And I too wept as I watched from my home here near Chicago. He truly was Penn State.

  3. Thank you Robyn for stating our feelings so eloquently. Down in Florida there aren’t as many of us but we are standing Penn State proud!

  4. Robyn- If I were a journalist I would have penned words similar to your. You captured my feeling and help in the the long agonizing process of healing my broken heart. I too graduated in ’66 and live in Florida but our thought and tears are just as strong. I still don’t understand how a man I never met has made such an impact on my life, but that was JoePa Thanks for your words.

  5. Thank you all for your kind words. I’m so grateful to know my feelings are shared about JoePa and what he gave to all of us, first by his life and, now, his death.

  6. A big point for me came when his son asked all the player to stand. My mind said ok, the team and maybe a few others. This after seeing several Pro football players. That camera panned back to show me and the world just how much this one simple man was able to bring all of them back, because they were all his family.

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