Joe Paterno Changed My Life: a Remembrance and an Appreciation

Roger Sager@@nittnylyinroundCorrespondent IJanuary 22, 2012

Students and townspeople show their appreciation for their fallen hero.
Students and townspeople show their appreciation for their fallen hero.Patrick Smith/Getty Images

The first time I met him determined the course of my life.  I wasn't a great football player, but I had one of my best games on a night when we were the only high school football game in New Jersey and every college scout in the state for the weekend attended our game.

Within a week my head coach was getting requests for game films and shortly thereafter I was getting called out of class to meet representatives from schools in major conferences.  And one major independent.  Penn State.

My dad quickly eliminated the schools he deemed "colleges without classrooms."

I wanted to be a journalist, not a pro football player.  I played all the sports but football was my least favorite.  The reason was simple.  In every other sport practice consisted of playing the sport.  In football practice consisted of one type of drill followed by another.  Drive the sled, hit the dummy, run through tires.  You rarely actually played except on Saturday. 

One of the journalism schools I was interested in was Point Park College in Pittsburgh.  My dad put together a weekend where we would drive to Pittsburgh on Friday night, see Point Park on Saturday and then hit Penn State on Sunday on the way back to Jersey.  He called and arranged a meeting with Joe Paterno for Sunday afternoon.  

It probably doesn't work like that anymore, but this was 1969.  A call a couple of weeks ahead and you got 15 minutes with the coach, if he was available.

I liked Point Park.  It was a new school in downtown Pittsburgh, a city that would become one of my very favorites in the years to come.  The radio and television studios were cool, better than the others I had seen. 

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Penn State students react to the news of Coach Paterno's dismissal by the Board of Trustees.
Penn State students react to the news of Coach Paterno's dismissal by the Board of Trustees.Patrick Smith/Getty Images

But the visit got off to a poor start when, having arrived early on Friday evening and our official appointment not until Saturday, my dad thought it might be interesting to go see the dorms.  Point Park's first dorms were in old converted hotels downtown.

We walked into what was once a lobby of what looked like it had been a grand old hotel.  There was an immediately noticeable aroma wafting throughout the lobby.  I'm not sure my father knew it by scent, but he was no dummy and knew at once what it was. 

The official visit began with Point Park in a hole it likely couldn't have climbed out of, but by midday Sunday it was of no consequence.

Sunday in State College began with a meeting with a guidance counselor who told me, looking at my high school records, that even though I'd been accepted at Penn State, students with my GPA actually graduated only 33 percent of the time (that was all the motivation I would ever require to graduate almost five years later).

Our appointment with Coach Paterno was set for early afternoon.  By then we had been shown various classroom buildings and dorms and had driven around the campus and town.  I remember thinking it was really big compared to most of the schools I had visited.

Coach Paterno leads the Nittany Lions out for a 1986 encounter with Ohio State.
Coach Paterno leads the Nittany Lions out for a 1986 encounter with Ohio State.G. N. Lowrance/Getty Images

The football offices were still in the building next to Rec Hall.  I remember we walked into the secretary's area and the door to Coach Paterno's office was half open and I could see him pouring over papers through the opening.

My father told the woman who we were and she pressed the intercom and told the coach we were there.  He came into the outer office immediately with a big smile and a hand extended to my father.  I've always been turned off by people who introduce themselves with their title ahead of their name, as in, "Hi, I'm Doctor So ans So" or "My name's Deputy Mayor So and So."  I always want to say, "Wow, how prescient of your parents to have named you 'Deputy Mayor.'"  I'm sure I wasn't so annoyed by it at 17, but the point is I do remember he said, "Mr. Sager?  Hi, I'm Joe Paterno."

He ushered us into his office and we sat in two armchairs across a large desk from the coach.  He reached for a folder on the corner of his desk.  I don't think it had but a single sheet of paper in it and I'm guessing Joe Paterno had heard my name only in passing, but he did know (or was reading) my specifics.  He told me that I had "graded out" highly as a middle linebacker but that they were doubtful whether I was quick enough to play the position at Penn State.  They were, he said, very interested in my playing offensive center.

Just prior to winning his second National Championship, Coach Joe Paterno was selected Sportsman of the Year by Sports Illustrated.
Just prior to winning his second National Championship, Coach Joe Paterno was selected Sportsman of the Year by Sports Illustrated.

I never played football for Penn State.  But before we had even reached the parking lot outside Rec Hall, as we walked down the hall outside Coach Joe Paterno's office, my dad said to me, "I don't need to tell you where you're going to school, do I?"

And he didn't.

The man we had just spent 15 minutes with, who had made no promises—in fact, he had made the prospects of my ever playing in Beaver Stadium seem unlikely—had still seemed to have a genuine interest in who I was and who I wanted to be.

He knew the Penn State Journalism School was one of less than 50 such accredited schools in the country.  He knew a "city kid" like me would like the environment at Penn State even though it was hours to any real city.

And he was right.

I loved every day I spent at Penn State.  In fact, I did everything possible to extend my time there including substituting graduate credits for undergraduate credits so I wouldn't graduate quickly.

I have always been Penn State Proud.  I have never hesitated to inform people of where I went to college.

For 40 years myself and a guy who originally roomed three doors down from me as freshmen traveled out to State College a half dozen autumn weekends a year.  The cast of characters with us has changed through the years, but one thing that has never changed is our unwavering pride in our school.

It's so easy to sit here this morning and wonder how different the reactions worldwide would have been had Joe Paterno died three months ago.

Timing is everything.  Years from now time would have smoothed some or most of the rough edges that remain prominent in the public mind at this moment.

I was one of the people who, right on this website, called for Joe Paterno's dismissal.  It had nothing to do with a lack of respect or love for the man and everything to do with a respect and love for the university.

I like to think that even Joe Paterno would smile a wry smile at the Greek tragedy his life dissolved into at the end.  After all, he reputedly loved to study them at Brown.

This is a man who had a tremendously positive influence on an untold number of people. 

As embarrassing as the Sandusky episode has been to all Penn State grads, the Board of Trustees' turning of its back on the man who is responsible for most of the world knowing the difference between Penn State and the Iowa States of the world is even more disgraceful.

He may have been the head football coach, but to think of him like that is to think of the Taj Mahal as a tomb.      

Joe Paterno was Penn State.  Penn State was Joe Paterno.

The man made one mistake.  And yes, it was a horrible one with massive repercussions.  

But, for the university he gave his life to, for the university he put on the map, to turn a blind eye to everything else he accomplished is a display of arrogance by the Board of Trustees that I can only describe as repugnant.

Coach Paterno, thank you.  If I could do one thing to show my appreciation for starting me on the course my life has taken, it would be to erase the past three months from yours.

I'm sure if there's a final judgment you will fare far better than the one you're about to get here.      

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