Monday, January 23, 2012

A death in the "family"

Earlier today, after the news broke that legendary Penn State football coach Joe Paterno had died at age 85, I realized that it's already been almost six months since I headed back from San Francisco to Happy Valley for my graduation ceremony.  Yet in that brief time the tight-knit Nittany Lion community has been sucker-punched again and again and again.  And it's excruciating every time.

I've previously discussed on this blog what is now unfortunately known as the "Penn State scandal", and of course my heart goes out to Jerry Sandusky's victims.  I do believe that Joe had a serious lack of judgement in that horrific situation.  In his last interview before his death he admitted as much himself.  So I do not examine his life and death solely through the perspective of hero worship, as so many at Penn State seem to do.  Frankly I'm proud of the critical thinking skills that I gained and developed during my studies there.  And as is common in most situations in which critical thinking comes into play, this was hardly a cut-and-dried, black-and-white situation.

Steve and I have often had the discussion over the years that once Joe stepped away from the football field, no matter what the circumstances might be, he would soon lose his life's purpose -- his will to live -- and would be gone within a short period of time.  Little did we know how swiftly that end would come, and how much more tragic than necessary that end would be.  Many people have speculated, and I agree, that in large part Joe Paterno died of a broken heart.

To those who conclude that Joe's decades-long legacy of good should be wiped off the map, I believe that you could not be more wrong.  It's so much more complicated than that.  Many outside of the Penn State community simply cannot grasp how important Joe was to the university.  He was way more than just its winning football coach -- he was its heart and soul.  He donated millions of dollars to the university's library, a wing of which is named in his honor.  Not an athletic facility, mind you -- a library.  That was where his priorities lay.  And although we may have trouble comprehending his actions in connection to the scandal, we still love him.

Look at it this way -- say your grandfather gets behind the wheel of a car, takes his eye off the road for a second, runs a red light and hits and kills a pedestrian.  A horrifying (and in this case potentially criminal) lapse in judgement leads to a profoundly sad conclusion.  Do you then simply stop loving your grandfather?  Do you cut him out of your life forever?  Or do you attempt to support him, even though you cannot wrap your head around what has happened?  Today, although both of my grandfathers were long gone by the time I was born, I mourn as if I've lost the grandfather I never had.

Furthermore, to those who self-righteously condemn Joe for not stopping the evil in his midst and therefore believe he should be damned to hell himself, I ask this -- what have you done to stop evil today?  Are you any less of a flawed human being than me?  Or Joe?  What right does any one of us have to throw stones without taking a good, long look in the mirror first?

My wish for Joe is that history recognizes his contributions to the betterment of Penn State in particular and to society as a whole, and that his remarkable life will not be judged on its heartbreaking end.  I share my sincerest condolences with the entire Penn State family, and I so wish that I could be back in State College to grieve with you in person.  Sadly this blog will have to convey my long-distance sorrow, but my heart is definitely with you.  At the candlelight vigil at Old Main.  At the growing pile of flowers at Joe's statue outside of Beaver Stadium.  At the library that bears the Paterno name. That is his true legacy.

Rest in peace, Joseph Vincent Paterno.

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