Joe Paterno: Bury A Man, Keep The Statue

Patrick Smith

Joe Paterno the football coach may be gone, but Joe Paterno the institution remains. His passing leaves us with memories and questions too complicated to be summed up for quite a while.

A pair of smoky, dim glasses hovering on the sldeline. Herschel Walker in 1982 was high-socked invincibility to a six-year-old, but he met a miserable end in the 1983 Sugar Bowl against Penn State. By the way, If you wondered whether Herschel was already being Herschel(s) in his youth, the answer is yes.

"A lot of people look forward to tackling me," he said. "If I was a defensive player, I'd look forward to tackling myself. I can dish out more punishment than a defensive guy can dish out on me."

I was watching on my cousin's floor, six years old and convinced of Walker's invulnerability. He ran with this high-stepping ease, this casual violence. His silhouette is still the largest piece of any single tangram of athletic shape my brain recognizes. In every running back, there is some shard, some fragment of Herschel Walker. I can't really piece together a back without putting him somewhere in the formula, and I blame living in Georgia in the 1980s for the fixation.

Walker would rush for 107 yards against the Nittany Lions. This would mark a quality day for any other running back, but against Penn State this made for his lowest production since his freshman year. Walker and Georgia lost 27-23 to a swarming no-name crew of white hats, Penn State won their first consensus national title, and I would owe my cousin the lost bet of one scoop of ice cream.

I have never paid my cousin that scoop of ice cream, nor forgotten the simple image of the tiny man on the opposite sideline: inky black hair, pacing the sideline in a tie and button down, a wiry gnome invented to support his totem, a pair of smoky lenses hovering on the sidelines. That is one piece of Joe Paterno; half-sentinel, half-demiurge, watching his war machine lay siege to the greatest physical genius of my youth, and winning.


Related: Coverage of Joe Paterno's passing

A glass of whiskey. Coaches don't really drink like they used to, and they certainly do not do it in the presence of sportswriters. Joe Paterno liked to have one, maybe two cocktails on Friday nights with the sportswriters, probably because he needed it, and also because that was something men just did when you came from the 1940s, and wore ties, and accepted certain things as givens.

There was a fixity in Paterno. He had one house in State College. He wore the same shoes on game days, a pair of black Nikes. The roll in the khakis was, I'm guessing, at least three turns of the cuff, and never less or more. The hair stood in an immobile, sweeping bouffant. He spent 60 years of his life in one place doing the same thing every day, running the same route to stay fit, eating the same things, being married to the same woman, and writing the same longhand letters to recruits until 2011, when someone finally put him in front of a Mac and pointed him toward the camera. If he had lived to the age of 115, he would have used this same computer until the age of 115.

This may seem like a satisfying life. This may seem like utter hell. Either way know that this fixity, this centering, is responsible for so much of what is considered the story around Joe Paterno now, here, on January 23, 2012. A 90,000-student university does not rise out of the hills of the Alleghenies without an anchor point, and a tragedy like the Jerry Sandusky scandal does not happen without an institution to shelter it. Build a pyramid around a live pharaoh, and you have a palace. Have the pharaoh die, and it becomes a tomb. Buried with him are his servants and possessions. Among the things found most often with pharaohs: jars of alcohol, sent to keep the king company in the afterlife, presumably on Friday nights when they want one or two cocktails.

A playbook. The teams were always built along the same lines. The defenses played Cover-3, and flowed to the ball as one disciplined horde. The offenses relied on brute power combined with timely play-action, and always more so than one might think. Yet in operation, Penn State as a football animal lived with more daring under Paterno's watch than you remember, especially in his youth when the Nittany Lions, playing as an independent, essentially followed their own script to success. They went for it on 4th and 1 from their own 15. They onsided, they passed when others ran out the clock.

None of this fits the profile of what you assume about Paterno football and its musty, Lysol-scented geriatric mores, but then again, maybe that is the problem here. From Dan Jenkins' 1968 SI article on a 41 year old Paterno:

"We're trying to win football games, don't misunderstand that," said Paterno last week. "But I don't want it to ruin our lives if we lose. I don't want us ever to become the kind of place where an 8-2 season is a tragedy. Look at that day outside. It's clear, it's beautiful, the leaves are turning, the land is pretty and it's quiet. If losing a game made me miserable, I couldn't enjoy such a day.

I remember watching Penn State lose to Florida in the Citrus Bowl, sabotaged by Curtis Enis accepting a gift and voiding his eligibility, and facing a Florida team smarting from an entire season of regression to the mean. After the final whistle, Steve Spurrier and Paterno went to midfield, shook hands, and then fulfilled a pregame bet. Paterno smiled, pulled on Spurrier's trademark visor, and happily posed for pictures. The loss was no tragedy, and Paterno was probably already on to thinking about an Orlando steakhouse, and dinner, and all the other things I still can't even consider after a loss by my team.

It is a playbook, and not a workbook. This distinction seemed clear to Paterno, if less so to the rest of the world, but that did not stop Paterno from becoming a paterfamilias three times over: to his own large family, to the Penn State community that used him and his football teams as the foundation for the community and its growth, and to college football in general. Players who did not even get along with Paterno viewed him as the most important influence on their lives, and those who did admire him could not unfix him from that pedestal. Sons who became fathers sent their sons to State College to learn, to play, and in a sense, to worship at the foot of an icon -- one whose existence was accepted by believers and non-believers alike.

Build a statue of someone, and you have already confused the image with the man.

A copy of The Tempest. The common parallel between many eulogies of Paterno has been to call this a Greek tragedy. This seems accurate enough: there is an aging king figure at the end of a long reign, and then something horrible happens, and a satisfactory cataclysm occurs resulting in everyone's death and a kind of moral lesson. This would be reassuring in a sense: it would follow a pattern, and thus give some meaning to the Sandusky tragedy.

This seems like editing, the kind often done at memorials to make sense of the senseless. There is no sense, no comparison here. Joe Paterno the man became Joe Paterno the institution, a fundraising machine and brand so welded to the institution of Penn State that the two became inseparable. When the Sandusky scandal hit, the institution protected its own in the name of the institution, leaving all responsibility to a chain of command devoid of personal accountability. Cowardice prevailed, and evil skated along on the servility of those abdicating responsibility.

Paterno failed here, and failed badly. I don't believe in an ultimate judgment for the kind of pain Paterno allowed to happen. That too, seems like a fictional comfort drawn over the deep discomfort of reality. You could kill Jerry Sandusky a thousand times and it undoes nothing. That's why they call it evil, not "correctable injustice." It is why the word exists. That Paterno had some small part in fostering it, and allowing one of society's basic taboos against inhumanity to flourish under his nose, is undoable and unforgivable. Death does not redeem it, and time does not correct it.

That said, dismiss the finality of Greek tragedies. In his last months, trapped by his own creation, he seems more like Prospero from Shakespeare's The Tempest than any Greek figure. An old sorcerer in exile on his own island, Prospero uses his own magic to keep the spirits and beasts enslaved. The comparison is appropriate in several ways. Prospero is an Italian on his own island, much like the first-generation Italian-American Paterno. He had his own Caliban, a beast that got loose from his powers in the form of Sandusky. Like Prospero, he had to fend off the machinations of plotting subordinates looking to take over the kingdom in his later years.

The endings differ from reality to fiction. In The Tempest, Prospero renounces all magic, and intends to break his magical staff. Paterno could not do this: he had, like Bear Bryant before him, fused his instruments to his person. There was no difference between Paterno the coach and Paterno the person. He could not set his accounts straight at the end, too trapped in his own creation and too old to begin unfixing one from the other.

You may not know The Tempest, but you know a phrase from it, lifted from the song the spirit Ariel sings in the play.

Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell:
Ding-dong.
Hark! now I hear them—Ding-dong, bell.

A sea-change is already underway for Joe Paterno's memory and legacy. How rich and strange it becomes is only to be seen with time, and only once the bells have finished sounding his death knell. Given the number of mourners, they will ring for quite some time: five fathoms below, five fathoms above, and well beyond the hills of State College, Pennsylvania, where they will bury a man, and keep a statue.

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