Published November 20, 2014
Joe Paterno was diagnosed with a treatable form of lung cancer the same weekend Penn State's football team played its first game without the Hall of Fame coach in nearly a half century.
His son, Scott Paterno, said Friday in a statement to The Associated Press that his father's doctors are optimistic the 84-year-old Paterno will make a full recovery.
The news came shortly after Penn State said the NCAA would look into the school's handling of a child sex abuse scandal involving former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky. Paterno was fired by the board of trustees Nov. 9 for failing to do more than simply report to his superiors an abuse allegation against Sandusky.
"Last weekend, my father was diagnosed with a treatable form of lung cancer during a follow-up visit for a bronchial illness," Scott Paterno said in the brief statement. The medical exam came the same weekend the school played its first game since the 1960s without Paterno leading the Nittany Lions -- a 17-14 loss to Nebraska.
"As everyone can appreciate, this is a deeply personal matter for my parents, and we simply ask that his privacy be respected as he proceeds with treatment," Scott Paterno said.
Earlier Friday, The Citizens Voice of Wilkes-Barre reported that Paterno had been seen Wednesday visiting the Mount Nittany Medical Center and was treated for an undisclosed ailment and released.
Sandusky is charged with sexually abusing eight boys over 15 years -- charges he denies. Critics say Paterno should have done more to stop his former assistant, specifically when he was told about an assault in 2002. But the longtime coach is not a target of the ongoing investigation of Sandusky.
Paterno initially announced his retirement effective at the end of the season, saying that the scandal was "one of the great sorrows of my life. With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more." The trustees fired him anyway, about 12 hours later.
Longtime defensive coordinator Tom Bradley replaced Paterno on an interim basis. He broke the news about Paterno's cancer to the Nittany Lions after the team arrived in Columbus, Ohio, for Saturday's game against Ohio State.
"I told them sometimes words pale at a time like this. I felt they should hear it from us, exactly what it was, that we were told that it was a treatable lung cancer," Bradley said. "It's just one of those things. It's a tough time for the players."
Former Penn State quarterback Todd Blackledge, now an ESPN analyst, said Paterno never mentioned the illness when he visited his former coach Thursday in State College.
"In a week or so of many surprises this was another one," said Blackledge, who noted that Paterno was in good spirits when he saw him. A Penn State spokesman said that as far as he knew, Paterno never smoked.
To say health problems added to Paterno's troubles during a rough period doesn't begin to capture the last two weeks. The lurid Sandusky scandal has tarnished the reputation of a coach and a football program that once prided itself on the slogan "Success with Honor."
Paterno's 409 career victories over a 46-year career are a Division I record. In all, Paterno guided five teams to unbeaten or untied seasons and won two national championships.
Sandusky was once expected to succeed Paterno but retired in 1999 not long after being told he wouldn't get the job.
Two university officials stepped down after they were charged with lying to a grand jury and failing to report the 2002 charge to police, an assault which allegedly took place in a shower in the football building.
A grand jury report said the attack was witnessed by Mike McQueary, a graduate assistant at the time. Now the receivers coach but on administrative leave, McQueary told the grand jury he went to his father first and then to Paterno, who in turn spoke with his boss but didn't go to the police.
When the state's top cop said Paterno failed to execute his moral responsibility by not contacting police, public outrage built and the trustees acted.
Besides the criminal case against Sandusky, the university announced last week it was conducting its own probe -- and that was before the NCAA said Friday that college sports' governing body would also start an inquiry.
NCAA president Mark Emmert said in the letter to Penn State president Rod Erickson that the probe will look at "Penn State's exercise of institutional control over its intercollegiate athletics programs."
At one time, that would have never been a question with Paterno, widely regarded as college football's model for running a clean program. He placed as much pride in graduating players as getting to bowl games, and consistently had Penn State among the top-rated academic programs in the country.
Paterno has donated millions back to the university, and his name graces a campus library -- not a football facility or athletic complex.
Prior to his firing, Paterno pressed on with coaching in spite of a number of recent ailments. He often walked into news conferences fighting back sniffles, and Paterno often passed it off as nothing more than an annoying cold.
He was said to be in good health this preseason -- getting back to his routine of walking around town -- before a receiver accidentally blindsided him during preseason drills in August, leaving him with an injured right shoulder and pelvis.
Known for his stubbornness and high pain threshold, Paterno walked away from the collision and stayed on his feet for the rest of the practice period before being encouraged to get checked out by a doctor. The injuries forced him to spend most of the season in the press box.
During the 2010 offseason, Paterno scaled back personal appearances because of an intestinal issue and an adverse reaction to antibiotics prescribed for dental work.
Paterno ran practices from a golf cart in 2008 and spent much of that season in the press box after injuring his hip while trying to show players how to perform an onside kick in practice. Two years earlier, he broke his leg in a sideline collision during Penn State's game at Wisconsin at Camp Randall Stadium.
"Anyone who has ever been around coach Paterno knows he has tremendous drive and fight," acting athletic director Dave Joyner said in a statement. "The Penn State community will be in his corner and wishes him a speedy recovery."
Lung cancer kills 1.4 million people around the world each year. In the United States, 221,130 new cases and 156,940 deaths are expected this year. The disease is typically diagnosed in older people. About 2 out of 3 people diagnosed with lung cancer are over age 65.
"There's a significant number of people who are diagnosed in their 70s and 80s," said chief medical officer Dr. Otis Brawley of the American Cancer Society, who has no involvement in Paterno's treatment.
"Generally when I hear that a person has a treatable form of lung cancer, it means the person may very well benefit from surgery to remove a part of the lung," Brawley said.
While the surgery can be invasive, people who undergo the operation "can do well after that," he said.
The lights were dim Friday night at Paterno's modest ranch home next to a park near the end of a dead-end street. A few TV photographers waited across the street for any sign of the coach.
About a mile away, a steady stream of fans arrived in pairs to take pictures at the life-sized bronzed statue of Paterno outside Beaver Stadium. Jill Varady, 24, of York, said she found out about Paterno's illness after her aunt posted a comment on Facebook.
Despite the scandal, the school should now let Paterno "definitely let him finish the season, and then ... let him retire," Varady said. "We probably will never know everything that happened."
The illness didn't change the perception of how Paterno handled the Sandusky situation, said Tessa Drawbaugh, 26, of State College. "But as far as other than that, he's an icon," she said. "Everybody wants him to be well."