Before deciding on which university I wanted to attend, and believe me it was few and far between thanks to an SAT score comparable to Babe Ruth's slugging percentage, my father said something that still resonates with me today.
The youngest of three, I knew I wanted to attend Penn State not just because my older sisters did but for the simple fact that I was a sports junkie who admired the Nittany Lions and their white helmets, plain uniforms, black shoes and winning tradition. My father said to me in the mid 90s, "Geez, I hope Joe Paterno is still head coach when you get there."
Paterno was no spring chicken at that moment and he was certainly a selling point to be a part of that Penn State tradition. I graduated in the fall of 2000, granting my father's wishes that my stay in Happy Valley coincided with Paterno's tenure as head coach. I was fortunate enough to work with great minds such as former PSU publicist Bud Thalman and SID Jeff Nelson, talented players and an intelligent coaching staff during my time in State College. However, I only had once chance to meet Paterno face-to-face and it was during a media event outside the practice facility of Holuba Hall.
I approached the iconic figure on a bright sunny day and asked him about one of his offensive lineman, Jordan Caruso, and he shook my hand and told me I should have asked him during the press conference. I understood immediately Paterno does his business with the media when its appropriate. It was my own fault that I missed the press conference -- darn campus LOOP bus -- but I am forever grateful that I had a chance to shake the Hall of Famer's hand and become just a millisecond part of his storied life.
That life came to an end Sunday, January 22, 2012, in State College, PA, the place where Paterno turned an average school into a renown institution of sports and, most importantly, academics. Paterno's life of 85 years touched the hearts of countless individuals past and present, and every person was better for it. A hard-nosed kid from Brooklyn, NY, Paterno followed his dream of being a head coach and defied his father's wishes of becoming a lawyer. It's ironic how Paterno, who temporarily let his own father down and accepted a lower salary to coach football, was an instrumental father figure to those who crossed his path.
Ask any one of his former players how they feel about the man better known as JoePa, and they'll all have similar responses. Inspiration, pride and respect were only a few lessons Paterno taught in his days and he was the epitome of "We Are...Penn State."
Former defensive standout Matt Millen shared his thoughts on the passing of college football's winningest coach at the Division-1 level.
"Forget the football aspect. We just lost a great contributor to our society. He was way more than a football coach. There are many living positive testimonies walking around because of Joe Paterno. He straightened out many lives," Millen told USA Today.
"He was rare. This was a real guy ... he was not a fake. Was he infallible? Absolutely not. He had his flaws; he made mistakes. But he was as close to being what you are supposed to be as anyone I ever have been around."
The mistakes Millen is referring to was held up in the court of public opinion regarding former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky, the one who is accused of molesting young boys. Sandusky, of course, was the architect of Paterno's defense and was a longtime friend of the man sporting Coke-bottle glasses, white socks and rolled up pants. Paterno was dismissed of his duties under a fiery media storm and quite possibly a Board of Trustees that saw an avenue to finally boot Paterno from his perch.
The game may have passed Paterno by and he arguably was just a figure-head in his later years with the Nittany Lions but make no mistake his years of dedication changed the landscape of college football. Other college football greats such as Bobby Bowden, Frank Beamer, Steve Spurrier and Mack Brown can all attest to that. It's the ones who are on the outside of the situation that make the most noise. Hundreds of other schools never had or never will have what Paterno brought to State College 46 years before etching his name into history. It just won't happen. Not today in this world of college sports. However, the current scandal involving Sandusky will blind those who reflect on Paterno, erasing 50-plus years of molding young minds into adults.
Hopefully, when the dust has settled and the court system is finished magnifying Penn State in a bad light, Paterno will be honored and his legacy restored.
Paterno was about family, education and simply doing the right thing. Penn State may have done the latter in tabbing New England Patriots offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien as Paterno's successor. O'Brien made an immediate impact during his introductory press conference by bringing his son, wife and other family members along to show that he too can lead like Paterno.
I wonder if several years down the road a father will ask his son if O'Brien will still be roaming the sidelines before choosing to attend Penn State.