I’ve never met Joe Paterno, and thus haven’t formed any sort of personal opinion like so many have who’ve come across him during his decades-long career in State College have. But in a weird way, he’s indirectly responsible for much of my livelihood since I graduated from college a few years ago.
In 2007, I struck the lottery—I sold Sports Illustrated on the idea of paying me to tour the country’s major college football campuses with a video camera on Saturdays and publishing the little videos I made asking tailgaters stupid questions while I ate their food and drank their beverages (usually off camera). To this day, it’s the best job anyone will ever have, and there’s nothing you can do to convince me otherwise.
The reason I came up with this ludicrous idea isn’t necessarily because of Joe Paterno, but at the same time, I owe it 100 percent to Mr. Paterno.
I’m from Los Angeles, went to school on the West Coast and have spent the majority of my time at keyboards and behind microphones extolling the virtues of college football on the West Coast. That said, my secret shame is that I know, no matter how fun it is to follow conferences in a time zone foreign to most college football fans, I know that the heart and soul of the game will always be fall mornings in the Midwest and unbearably humid afternoons in the South.
As insane as it sounded, I wanted to figure out a way to cheat the system and actually turn experiencing this heart and soul of college football into a profession.
In my head, I had five or six schools in mind as absolute, must-go places before even attempting to put together a schedule, and Penn State was one of those places, but not for the reason other places were.
As great as it is to take in a game in Austin, Ann Arbor, Tuscaloosa, Columbus or Knoxville very clearly is, no place owes more to a single human for its current existence than State College and Penn State does to Joe Paterno.
For all that’s been said since November about Paterno, both good and bad, fair or otherwise, about how omnipotent Joe Paterno has been and continues be in central Pennsylvania since taking over the Nittany Lion job in 1966, going to any old game (in this case versus Notre Dame in Jimmy Clausen’s road debut), is a lesson in the pride a region (not just a state) takes in its identity and those who’ve single-handedly led to the cultivation thereof.
The game was the annual whiteout affair—before everyone turned color coordinating into a gimmick—and it’s the closest thing I’ve seen to college football fans turning into a Roman crowd bearing down over gladiator bloodsport. More than that, who’s ever seen hundreds of fans wearing a mask of the active coach to a game? It’s just a little bit different in State College.
What I couldn’t stop thinking, though, as I sat (in blue, mind you, I was still a college football amateur then) in Beaver Stadium watching in glee as Jimmy Clausen repeatedly ran for his life against not just an overwhelming Penn State defense, but also against a loud, swelling backdrop of white, was that 100-plus thousand people were united (that particular day) in their anti-Clausen cause. And all because of the decades that a single, diminutive, loud, bespectacled coach from Brooklyn put in building a program, school and town from the ground up.
It’s not just that Joe Paterno was Penn State (and probably the other way around), it’s that Paterno is the last person to ever be responsible for construction on that large a scale.
My trip to Penn State was just the very beginning of a career I’ve been able to carve out for myself covering college football. In my time traveling since going to State College a few years ago, no place has consistently left me thinking about the effect a single person has had on a specific place, no matter how vast the college football world clearly is.
For that, I’m incredibly grateful to have been both inspired by Joe Paterno’s State College and to have had the opportunity to experience it for myself.
Ultimately, in the wake of everything that’s happened during the past few months, no matter what Paterno’s legacy becomes (and it will ultimately be a complicated, mixed one), the unique college football ecosystem that I was lucky enough to be a part of, at least for a fall Saturday, will always be how I remember the bespectacled coach from Brooklyn.