It is an inescapable complication of human nature that the same things that give you your most positive traits, also give you your worst. The same aspects of Joe Paterno's personality that made him such a beloved figure in State College, PA, and an admired sports figure around the world -- the same things that made him a leader of men, a wonderful coach, and someone who made a positive impact on the lives of thousands of young men and families -- also let him down. And in the end, both the positive and the negative will be part of a legacy that got infinitely more complicated, infinitely more gray, in the last three months.
Paterno was admired, in part, because he insisted on seeing the best in people. He was celebrated for walking from his house to work, with no bodyguards. He was loved for figuring out how to maximize a player's positive traits, both physical and personal. He believed in himself and his staff, and it gave him incredible perseverance through difficult times for his program.
That same set of beliefs made him ill-prepared to deal with the situation that unfolded regarding Jerry Sandusky. He told the Washington Post's Sally Jenkins the following in what would end up being the final interview of his life:
"I didn’t know exactly how to handle it and I was afraid to do something that might jeopardize what the university procedure was," he said. "So I backed away and turned it over to some other people, people I thought would have a little more expertise than I did. It didn’t work out that way." […]
He reiterated that McQueary was unclear with him about the nature of what he saw—and added that even if McQueary had been more graphic, he's not sure he would have comprehended it.
"You know, he didn't want to get specific," Paterno said. "And to be frank with you I don't know that it would have done any good, because I never heard of, of, rape and a man."
Many lit into Paterno for that quote, and perhaps justifiably so. But single-mindedness goes in both good and bad directions. He hadn't heard of "rape and a man" because he didn't want to. He didn't want to believe that such a thing could happen, and he didn't want to believe that he would ever have to deal with it. It is incredibly admirable to avoid a level of cynicism, at 75 years old (when the Sandusky incident occurred), or even 85. But it also isn't entirely realistic. Life is incredibly complicated, too complicated for a simple structure of beliefs.
Regardless, the good and bad are part of the legacy of a man who defined college football for damn near half of its existence. Paterno DID win all of those games, and lead all of those young men to better lives. And Paterno DID falter and pass the buck (morally, though not legally) when told about something truly awful. Whether you look to celebrate or denigrate the man, you have plenty of evidence on your side.
Life and legacy are complicated, and Paterno's is now proof of that.
And unfortunately for all involved, another inescapable facet of life is that you do not control when it ends. Paterno expressed the desire to fight, to tell his story, and to assist those who were hurt however possible. And I have no doubt that he meant that. But now the story will unfold without him.