Did Joe Paterno die of a broken heart?Published 7:33am Sunday, January 29, 2012
Column: Pass the Hot Dish, by Alexandra KlosterMetropolitan
It was an ordinary Saturday afternoon during the 10th week of the college football season. My husband, Graham, and I were watching Michigan State play Minnesota when the first news of the Penn State child abuse scandal crawled across the bottom of the television screen.
“Just wait,” I told Graham. “Joe Paterno won’t put up with this. He’ll have heads rolling before morning.”
That’s not what happened. Within hours the foreboding question, “What did he know and when did he know it?” was on everyone’s minds. Joe Paterno, head coach of the Penn State Nittany Lions for 46 years, the face of Happy Valley and the most respected man in college football, wasn’t on the sidelines of this unfathomable situation. He was part of it.
Joe Paterno died last Sunday at the age of 85 after a short battle with lung cancer, but it was that Saturday afternoon on Nov. 5 that I began to mourn him.
I, like millions of others, admired coach Paterno and for good reason. It wasn’t because he won football games. Unless you were a part of Penn State, the reason we loved Joe stopped being about football a long time ago. We loved him because of who he was. After 61 years at Penn State his reputation was unimpeachable. He lived modestly while pouring millions of dollars back into the school he loved. He won games without promoting a culture of winning. Instead he insisted his players study, graduate and give back to society. He was a leader and an inspiration.
Joe Paterno was everything we wanted in a coach, everything we could want in a human being, so why, when it mattered the most, did Joe Paterno stop behaving like Joe Paterno?
I’ve been asking myself that for months. Even now, as I sit here writing, angry tears cloud my eyes and threaten to cloud my judgment. It would be so easy to say that when Joe Paterno heard that Jerry Sandusky was molesting children the coach did exactly what was legally required of him. He reported it to his superiors and allowed the system to take over. It would be easy to leave it right there and go no further, but I can’t.
Joe Paterno was arguably the most powerful and influential person at Penn State, and that is why it was his responsibility to do more than the minimum. I don’t care that he said he was sorry or that he wished he had done more. You don’t get to plead the defense of 20/20 hindsight in a situation like this, even when you’re Joe Paterno. And yet I mourn him and I miss him, and I don’t know how I will remember him.
How should we remember a man like Joe Paterno? Do we dismiss all the great good he did in his life and continue to punish him with our contempt even after his death, or do we focus only on the good and pretend that children weren’t hurt by his one catastrophic sin of omission?
Some people will decide now. He’ll be lionized and vilified with equal passion, but only time will really provide us with the perspective we need to form a fair and honest opinion of Paterno and his legacy. Eventually we will consider everything, the good and the bad, and we’ll put his memory to rest.
Last Sunday people were saying Joe Paterno died of a broken heart. If, at the end, he realized that he was part of a collapse in accountability and responsibility that led to dozens of broken lives, then, yes, I think he most certainly died of a broken heart.
I don’t wish any dying man a broken heart. I hope his family sent him to his rest reminding him that over the course of 61 years he helped and inspired thousands of people in ways that had only a little to do with football and everything to do with life.
I don’t know how to finish this because my mind is still too crowded with mixed emotions, so I’ll just say what I said last week when I heard of Joe’s passing. Rest in peace, coach. I wish it hadn’t come to such an ugly end.
Woodbury resident Alexandra Kloster appears each Sunday. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and her blog is Radishes at Dawn at alexandrakloster.com.