The first time my mother saw my father watch a Penn State football game, she took off her engagement ring, threw it at him, and promptly left.
My father Wilson is a sweet, humble, kind, fun-loving, jovial man. So wonderful is dear old dad that when my mother continued dating other fellas back in the day (they met when they were teenagers, those kids!), my Grandma Cora told her daughter, “Go ahead. Date who you want. You’re young! But we’ll never love or welcome anyone into this family like we do Wilson.” Mom got wise soon after that.
Dad is so loving and accommodating that he has answered to any name even remotely like his own–as not to put anyone else out. Wilson, Will, Bill, Billy, William, BILLY JACK–you name it, or him, rather. Dad would never want YOU to feel uncomfortable.
But Penn State football takes the ease out of my easy-going father. Always has. He truly has a love-hate relationship with all things Nittany Lion. It’s a messy one, folks. Imagine that.
Needless to say, I grew up knowing Joe Paterno’s name–the one synonymous with some other not-so-nice names in the heat of the moment. At the same time, it was clear that Paterno was to be respected, as were his Nittany Lions. “We are… Penn State!,” after all.
We were (and are) a football family. Dad coached. My brother was a star player and even played college football. He attended football camps (though not the one in question) at Penn State. I can remember crying in the end zone the night by brother’s high school team lost their district game senior year by a two-point conversion. I was in eighth grade. To this day, I know what we’re all doing on a Saturday during football season, though we rarely get to spend them together anymore. Dad and Reid are no doubt watching “the game” (my brother may have even traveled to State College for the event), and Mom is out doing what she’s done every Saturday since marrying my father–shopping. Hey, if it ain’t broke…
I fought attending Penn State as a college student. It was so expected as a Pennsylvanian, you know? So, off I went to two other schools before transferring my junior year. Penn State is where I (finally, Dad would say) earned my undergrad degree. It’s also where I finally discovered a rich college experience. Happy Valley became my happy place. (Well, specifically, The Creamery did.)
Penn State is a truly great school, both academically and in its traditions. But you can’t separate it from football. And you can’t separate the football from the Paterno. He’s been there for over 60 years, 46 as head coach. HE’S the real school mascot, people. Paterno is the institution that built a collegiate institution. Generations of faithful fans have worshiped him for over half a century. He’s the winningest coach in football history. We should all be so lucky as to build a legacy like Paterno’s.
And yet… he’s only a man.
Paterno made a grav, life-altering mistake with regard to assistant coach Jerry Sandusky. He fulfilled his obligation, yes, but there is no getting around the fact that he could’ve done more to help stop Sandusky from violating other kids. He knows it too. While announcing his resignation, the 84-year-old legend said, “This is a tragedy. It is one of the great sorrows of my life.With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more.”
My heart is broken. (Hey, if I can cry over Mel Gibson and Robert Downey, Jr., ,you know this PSU alum is shedding a few tears.) Penn State football is a big part of my childhood, my college experience, my family. If you didn’t grow up in the tradition of loving the game through blue and white lenses, you do not understand. You couldn’t. There’s been no one like Paterno. Period.
But this scandal is not so much about Paterno, or even about Penn State University. (Nope. I promise–though the media would have you believe otherwise.) It’s about a very sick and disturbed man whose illness has threatened to ruin the lives of children, many of whom are now men. Those victims (Who knows how many?) have had to deal with the tragedy of Sandusky for years. They’ve had to redefine who they are and try to navigate relationships. They’ve had to work to move beyond being violated as children and to find another name for themselves besides “victim.”
The mother in me wants justice (NOW, already!). The alumnus in me wants truth. The Christ-follower in me wants mercy, and healing, and grace, and redemption. I want something that will make these things right. Someone who will make those boys, those men, whole.
There are so many whose lives and stories have no doubt been ruled and “ruined” by Sandusky’s sickness. He himself has been living in a sick, twisted, and deluded world for decades. A world of dark, evil, and exhausting secrets.
He has a wife. Did she know? Didn’t she know? (I so hope the latter.) Regardless of when she found out, imagine the humiliation as a wife. The fury as a mother–that is, if she had any fight left in her. Together, they’ve adopted six children and even been foster parents to three.What about them? Sandusky has been in the presence of thousands of kids. (Blood pressure is rising…) And here’s what’s crazy: His programs have somehow managed to help many of them. All while ruining the lives of others.
Did I mention this is messy, folks? That it’s complicated?
Sandusky will get his. He will face justice and take up residency in prison very soon. University president Graham Spanier has been fired. Paterno fired himself, essentially, still hoping to finish the season. The Board of Trustees felt that wasn’t enough and got rid of him with one swift phone call (yes, phone call) last night.
As an alum and a lifetime Penn State fan I am distraught. My feelings are not clear-cut because I don’t have all the facts (though, they might not fix how I’m feeling). I hope we get them, but frankly, we may not. This case has been shrouded in secret for years. Secrets grow in silence. They isolate those involved. Secrets lie to us and try to say we can’t tell the truth.
This is messy, folks. And the investigation is just getting started.
Last night, PSU students rioted. They’re young and impulsive. (Here’s hoping the Board hasn’t been as rash. I honestly don’t know.) Now, in my thirties, I don’t have those luxuries of time and naivete. This is messy, after all, and complicated. Therefore, my response is not black or white, but a very heavy, uncomfortable shade of gray.
And blue. Nittany blue.
We (still) are… Penn State. We just have to figure out what that means without Paterno, merely a man whom we never should have deified to begin with–regardless of his career record, and now, faults. The name “Penn State” will have to take on new meaning. Now, we’re charged with redefining what that name means.
One tired, confused, and deeply saddened Penn State alum
P.S. JoePa, I’m sad and disappointed you didn’t do more. Your name and power would have had more weight than you know. You could have made a difference–you certainly have with the rest of your life.
P.P.S. (On a personal note) JoePa, thanks for being so understanding that day when my little Ford gave you a little “love tap” on the leg that one time in that intersection just off campus. I know you apologized for stepping out in front of my car, but let’s be honest: I shouldn’t have been eating a burger while driving.