Joe Paterno: An Icon and a Legend, but Not Quite a Hero

Paul WardContributor IIIFebruary 1, 2012

January 26th Memorial Service for Joe Paterno
January 26th Memorial Service for Joe PaternoJeff Swensen/Getty Images

We all have our pantheon of private heroes. Those often-anonymous people, among family or friends, or coworkers or teachers—or coaches —who have saved us in some way. Whose example saved us from our own lack of conviction, or whose help—physical or financial—saved us from collapse or whose very existence, no matter how quiet and unnoticed, became a source of stability and hope. 

And then, there is our pantheon of public heroes. A much different lot because the standard is different. Rummage through the culture these days, you see on a pedestal the Burmese dissident, Aung San Suu kyi, or Paul Farmer, the physician who has done so much to help Haitians. Or Elie Wiesel. 

Or Eddie Canales. He was on CNN’s top 10 list of heroes in 2011. His son was paralyzed in a high school football game in 2001, and so, Mr. Canales started Gridiron Heroes, a nonprofit that offers “emotional and financial support to high school football players who've sustained life-changing spinal cord injuries."

We could sit down, you and I, and it would take us all night to go down the list of public persons that we might consider worthy of more than just admiration and respect. Some we’d agree on outright; others, we might debate. 

Of course that list would include Joe Paterno, who a lot of people would think of as a hero long before they might think of, say, Ron Paul, Mitt Romney or the President. Or Eli Manning. Or Tim Tebow. Or even members of Seal Team 6. 

Here’s an excerpt from a letter that appeared recently on the website of the Centre Daily Times, the newspaper of Happy Valley. 

I was once a Penn State football prospect, recruited by Joe Paterno in 1952. What made this a departure was that I had already been injured, and Penn State’s offer was made knowing that. Perhaps the fact I had been an all-WPIAL selection prompted Paterno and Rip Engle to take a chance.

As things worked out the knee did not hold up and one young dream ended. What did not end was the continuation of my scholarship and Paterno’s friendship. Graduation came in 1956. Because Paterno had given me a chance for a university education, life has turned out well for me.

There are many stories like that. And no question Joe Paterno was a good man, with good intentions, who was loyal and creative and directly affected thousands of people in a positive way, not to mention the role that he played in defining his community. 

For all that, he has become iconic, for better and for worse—for worse, because once an icon, you are beyond the range of clear perspective. 

At a memorial service for Paterno, which drew 10,000 people, the speaker who brought the crowd to their feet was Phil Knight, Chairman of Nike. In his tribute, he said, "I'm a man who has always needed heroes. It started when I was a boy and I never outgrew it.”

It’s a moving speech for the faithful perhaps, but otherwise poorly conceived and thin. Knight never takes advantage of the opportunity to define how Joe Paterno was a hero—to find an abstraction that properly conveys what Paterno did, not just what he meant to people.  

Knight’s portrait is meant to be partly humorous, but if you listen closely, it comes off as belittling. Knight’s hero seems to be a man who was widely respected by other coaches, could play a palm tree in a skit and once sang an enduring version of "Wild Thing."

Knight adds, "In the 12 years since, through four losing seasons, big bowl wins, 12-win seasons, through All-Americans and players with criminal charges, with 4.0 students and players dismissed from the team for discipline, never once did he let me down. Not one time." 

But what does that mean? Paterno was a hero because he had some losing seasons, weathered students facing criminal charges and dismissed some for lack of discipline? Where’s the heroism in that? 

But the line that brought the house down was when Knight said, referring to the Jerry Sandusky scandal, “Whatever the details of the investigation are, this much is clear to me: That if there’s a villain in this tragedy, it lies in that investigation, not in Joe Paterno’s response to it.” 

And with that, the crowd rose as one, with whistles and applause lasting for several minutes.  

Knight went on to say that following his firing, every word from Paterno, “every bit of body language conveyed a single message, ‘we are Penn State.’ “ 

And again, the crowd roared. 

If you have no affiliation to Happy Valley, you get the sense from Knight's tribute and the crowd's response to it that Paterno’s heroism was finally his pride and his unbreakable bond to a tradition and a place that badly needed him, for many reasons. You get the sense JoePa was more like the king of Happy Valley than the hero of Happy Valley.

As for Sandusky, Paterno did the right thing and the proper thing. He did what was required. But that’s the rub. He did nothing more.  

Which is not to say he was a villain. But it’s also not to say he was heroic. He left responsibility for something terrible to others. One can only imagine the pain and confusion he must have felt when the accusations went public. And for that, you might pity the man.  

But a true hero, a true public hero, goes where others cannot or will not. That hero is driven not by the desire to do the proper thing, but the need, no matter how difficult, to do the honorable and humane thing.