My mother works with a young man about my age, and the last time I was at home she told me a story about him. He never went to college and wasn't much of a student but eventually found his calling doing in home care for underprivileged families—and to that end he has worked hard because he was passionate about what he was doing. My mother gushed about his positive attitude and hard work; he is always the first one to volunteer when a job needs to be picked up, and he is the best person she has seen at dealing with children.
One night a few months ago this young man went out with some friends and had a few drinks. By his own admission he wasn't drunk, but as we know that hardly matters in the eyes of the law. All that was important was that his blood alcohol level was above the legal limit, and while driving innocuously through an area of town notorious for its tough stance on drunk driving, he was pulled over and given a breathalyzer test, which he failed.
For anyone who has brushed up against the law, or known someone who has, when it comes to drunk driving the following won't be much of a surprise. Despite it being his first offense he lost his license, which means he is no longer able to provide in-home care for lack of proper transportation. His only opportunity to do what he loves is to work in-house at the shelter and try to pick up as many shifts as he can to help pay down the myriad of fines and fees associated with a DUI. He also has daily breathalyzer tests to attend as well as Alcohol Anonymous meetings, all without a car.
One mistake has now had a vast effect on this young man's career and future.
A week ago this analogy was enough to explain the Joe Paterno situation. A lifetime of good work was undone by a lapse in judgment that put others at risk, and since we live in a society that puts a premium on stopping both sexual abuse and drunk driving, both men rightfully lost a lot of things they worked hard to get.
The young man who works with my mother is now forced to take taxis to work and bum rides from friends and co-workers, and he can barely work enough hours to pay the bills because of it.
Joe Paterno lost the job he poured his life into because his inaction allowed a sexual predator to walk the streets a free man. Neither man meant the harm they brought—or could have brought—on the world, but intentions mean nothing when you get down to brass tacks. Both men took the easy way out and ignored the problems inherent in what they did.
With the passing of Paterno over the weekend, things have come to be more complex, and the analogy doesn't fit any longer. The young man who works with my mother is just that: a young man. A largely faceless cog in a society of people just like him. He is still free to overcome his mistake and redefine his legacy to those people his life directly influences. We aren't here to piece together his legacy, because in anything but a local sense he won't have one in the same way that you or I won't.
Paterno, on the other hand, was already a myth long before evidence arose alleging impropriety by Jerry Sandusky, and Paterno has had a place in the national consciousness as one of the biggest figures ever to coach sports in America for at least the last two decades. Paterno embodies Penn State football in a way that no other coach in history embodies his team. On top of that ,he is the patriarch of college football as we know it. He isn't a man; he ceased to be a that years ago. He is an institution, a name, a statue*.
Therein lies the problem with trying to come to terms with Paterno's legacy while still taking into account the last three months of his life. How can one mistake, one unfortunate circumstance, undo over a half century of good work and dedication to making a difference in the lives of others?
If you need a reminder of just how far-reaching and well-thought-of Paterno was for the last 50 years then you only have to take a step in any direction before you trip over a fawning ode to the man and his influence on the sport.
We are all guilty of being caught up to a certain extent in the myth of JoePa. I grew up in the '90s loving the Michigan Wolverines more than life itself, and while I genuinely disliked the men who stomped up and down the opposing sideline—men well known in their own right, like Nick Saban, Barry Alvarez and John Cooper—I was always awed by the short Italian-American in black glasses and a tie who looked like he had wandered into the stadium from another decade.
To begin with, he was already older than all but few of his contemporaries, and his legacy of success at the college game was largely written. In the coming years his Penn State team would regress among cries for his gentle ouster before storming back for one last brush with the national elite, but the reverence with which his name was spoken by everyone I knew—from my father to my high school coaches to the sports media—never wavered.
I listened to the 1997 Penn State game on the radio as a middle schooler when Michigan demolished the highly ranked Nittany Lions on the way to a a split national title. Later, I was in the stands as Michigan upset the Nittany Lions on a last-second pass to Mario Manningham to ruin a perfect Penn State season. Lots of games have come and gone since those two, but there are few I remember more.
No matter what season, the game against Penn State stands out in large part because of the old saying, "If you want to be the best, you've got to beat the best." As long as I could remember, there wasn't any better coach than Joe Paterno.
And really, who can remember any different? The man outlasted them all. He paced the sidelines as a head coach for Penn State longer than many people work as adults. He was a highly successful coach already in between back-to-back undefeated seasons when Woodstock happened in 1969. If he would have walked away from coaching after I was born in December of 1984 he would still be a Hall of Fame coach with a national title, three undefeated seasons, seven consensus top-five finishes and a bowl record of 11-4-1.
Instead, he hung around for another quarter of a century.
Is it any wonder that most sportswriters will spend pages extolling the man's virtues while tiptoeing around the biggest scandal in the history of college athletics? The vast majority of sportswriters have spent their entire adult life with the implicit understanding that every time Paterno laced up his black Nikes and strode up and down the sideline yelling out instructions and praise in his iconic Brooklyn accent that they were watching one of the best to ever coach the game. This kind of cognitive dissonance is a hard thing to reconcile when it consists of almost everything you've ever known pitted against the most shocking scandal to ever come out of college athletics.
But the last three months still exist, and they loom large like a shadow over 85 years of hard work and a commitment to education, excellence and doing it "the right way." In fact, the vast majority of Paterno's life is impossible to square with his role in the Sandusky scandal for the very reason that the ideal the Paterno myth is based around is absolutely incompatible with his inaction. There is no way one could argue that doing things the right way includes not doing anything more than passing it on when someone you know is accused of child rape and you are Joe Paterno.
People who disagree and want to defend Paterno argue that on the grand scale of things the good he did vastly outweighs the partial sin of him being one broken link in a chain full of them. He gave the accusations to the right people, or he didn't get a full account of the gory details. That it was failure above him or below him that ultimately led to Sandusky living free for a decade after serious accusations surfaced.
That is one way to look at it, but I don't buy it. What I do buy is that there was no single thing in Paterno's life, no decision or uncomfortable problem, that was as singularly important as stepping forward, helping bring Jerry Sandusky to justice and saving dozens of young boys from sexual abuse once there was evidence of wrongdoing.
This was the most important opportunity for Joe Paterno to prove to himself and the world that he really was committed to doing things the right way. Instead, he took the easy way out. He told a couple of administrators and promptly forgot anything even happened for the next 10 years as Sandusky walked the halls of the Penn State football complex, spent time with the team before, during and after games, or organized and ran camps for young boys the same age as the one Paterno was told was raped in the shower years before.
Or even worse than simply forgetting about it, he just ignored it rather than confronting something that horrendous and hoped it would all go away on its own.
All the good he did during his 85 years adds up, but it will never overshadow his single most important failure. This isn't about Mike McQueary or Tim Schultz or Graham Spanier. These men also failed, and arguably they did so to a greater degree than Joe Paterno. They deserve whatever is coming to them, be it prison time or a spot on the coaching blacklist. But not one of them is Joe Paterno. None of them has a statue on campus set in front of the words "Educator, Coach, Humanitarian." Each of them has ruined his own legacy, but all the legacies of all the men in State College, Pa. that failed to act in order to stop Sandusky would be just a drop in the bucket compared to that of Paterno.
The man practically is State College.
He was bigger than all of them, and when faced with the most important choice between right and wrong in his long life he decided to be just another man like all of them.
So by all means, eulogize the man. He has earned that much through years of dedicating himself to his players, his school and the betterment of college football. Just don't forget that in the end every man is defined as much by his failures as he is his successes. Joe Paterno succeeded more than any man in the history of college football ever has, and arguably ever will. He also failed when confronted with the most dire circumstance any man in the history of college football has ever faced. It all counts in the end.
You can't pick and choose how to remember the man to make yourself feel better. It is all part of his legacy now, and it was ultimately his choice.
*(Credit where credit is due: The symbolic use of Joe Paterno's statue vs. Joe Paterno the man has already been introduced as an idea by both Spencer Hall and Brian Cook, and I would be remiss not to gently push you in the direction of both, as they are two of the better pieces of writing I have read concerning Joe Paterno's death.)