Wednesday, November 09, 2011

The Shadows of Greatness

Paterno coaching in his prime in the late 1960's


I grew up watching Penn State football.  This was because my father grew up on Penn State.  We have a family of Penn Staters, across my own family but also grandfather, great uncles, cousins, and others - several of which studied, taught, and still live in State College. 

For Penn State, college football and academics go together.  This was the life's work of Joe Paterno, a Brown graduate and star quarter back and cornerback (still holds the Brown career interceptions mark) who followed his former coach at Brown, Rip Engle, to central Pennsylvania.  Joe was born from a family of Italian immigrants who carried "old world" values and a passion for education.  Joe was almost a lawyer, but he found himself drawn to the power, elegance, and teamwork of the all-american gridiron sport, thus becoming a coach.

Penn State was not far removed from being an agricultural school when Joe first arrived in 1950.  Since then, he has helped to carry the university into association with the nation's elite, a major research institution that is now part of the illustrious Big Ten, an university that competes across the region for scholars, athletes, and other talented individuals who would have scoffed at the notion of venturing to State College for an education all those years ago.

But 62 years later, 46 of those as the head coach of the college football team, Joe Paterno has literally put Penn State and the surrounding State College community on the map.  He has also commanded an outsized role in those results, using his achievements to drive material gains for worthwhile causes.  He paved the way for African-American student-athletes to not only get accepted to the university but also to play and to be considered as equals on the team and in the community.  He also fought for defining a greater meaning for student-athletes, that they should excel in both academic and athletic pursuits.  This "Grand Experiment" was described as "Success with Honor", the idea that national championships and academic accolades (starting with high graduation rates) can go hand-in-hand.  He believed so much in these ideals that he completely committed his life to their pursuit in Happy Valley, marrying a local girl, settling down permanently, and devoting almost all his time, energy, and money to make Penn State the great place that it is today.

The 78% graduation rate of his players.  The 80+ All-Americans.  The 45+ Academic All-Americans.  The 250+ players who went on to play in the NFL.  The 409 wins.  The 37 bowl games, 24 of which were victories.  The Paterno Library, and the $4.5M+ that he has contributed personally to the university.  This is all part of the backstory of a man whose legacy will be challenged by the horrific events allegedly committed by former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky (the grand jury report covers the charges) and the additional action that Joe did not take that fateful weekend in 2002 when a graduate assistant (a former player at that) presented him with certain information about events that took place between Sandusky and a young boy after hours at a football locker room facility.

I have reflected a lot on the events of the last few days.  First, the explosive outbreak of the allegations.  Then, the intensifying media scrutiny of the developing situation.  Now, the rising anger and calls for immediate action and accountability to save Penn State from its inevitable fate - that feeling of a runaway train ready to crash into, flatten, and destroy the aforementioned legacy of Joe Paterno and Penn State (update on Nov 9th: the inevitable was made real, as Joe announced his retirement today - and then at 10pm the Board of Trustees fired him).  As someone who has invested in a lifetime of memories and associations with Penn State as a place much greater now than Joe himself, I feel something similar to Matt Millen, a former player under Coach Paterno and now just another member of the Penn State family trying to grapple with this horrible situation.

I can draw no meaningful conclusions at this point.  I feel for the victims of this atrocity, who might have lost their innocence forever through no fault of their own (and, as a side note, deserve so much more, particularly if several were from disadvantaged backgrounds to begin with).  I feel for Penn Staters, whose identities will continue to be challenged by further revelations, media flourishes, and the inevitable taunts that will come from other fans, journalists, pundits, and observers from across the nation.  And I feel for Joe Paterno, who has consistently done what he believes is right - even in the face of great adversity - and has acted with honor and integrity.  In this case, he appears to have followed the law and even university policy and procedure, but perhaps not the dictates of common decency and humanity that would coincide with the greater ideals he has espoused over his long career.

In some small way, these words are meant for catharsis, to create outlet for the pangs of anger and sadness that jockey at odds for dominance in my head.  I want to consume every new article, soundbyte, and editorial that hits the wire, hoping that the next set of words will provide the revelations that clarify this whole mess.  I realize this wild hope is unfounded - there is nothing from snap reactions that will solve for the tumult ensnaring the victims, the institution, and those affiliated with the Penn State community like myself.  Instead, I pen these words as a certain cantation, to demystify the behaviors of an alleged sexual predator whose seemingly genuine care for children likely masked a much darker side (noting that Sandusky adopted six children himself and helped to found a charity, The Second Mile, that now helps over 100,000 youth annually across all of Pennsylvania).  I pen these words with a desire to unlock the puzzle of what people knew about Sandusky, what incidents were witnessed by whom, when, and why the path to investigation and trial took so long to materialize.  Ultimately, I pen these words to divorce myself from the torment of this situation and to remove myself from the news cycle so that I can grieve the loss of this great institution. 

Because this week, the Penn State we knew, the Penn State so well encapsulated in its alma mater that alumni have sung so softly before home games at Beaver Stadium for decades, has passed - and all we are left with are the shadows of greatness.
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