Joe Paterno could outtalk anybody in that Brooklyn beat cop’s voice of his. But the lung cancer and the chemo had left him breathless, and what emerged in two days of conversations with him, the last interview he would give, sounded like a series of sighs. Some of them satisfied, some of them regretful, all of them aware that his life was drawing to a close and 85 years were being relentlessly and reductively defined.
Paterno studied his own end, and knew it wasn’t going to be storybook. So much for the old-fashioned narrative he had built, of bookish yet vigorous young men filling a stadium in the Alleghenies, men he had uplifted such as Franco Harris and Lydell Mitchell and Brandon Short, autumn leaves swirling softly over their heads.
“There’s the kind of stories I wish we could tell,” Paterno whispered.
But a modern grotesquery intervened, and there were too many other boys who allegedly had been damaged.
For most of his 61 years as a football coach at Penn State, Paterno built a record of thorough decency and good intention. He loved his wife, reared five nice children, taught his students well. He turned down big money for the role of a tenured professor, and strolled every day from his modest home to his unpretentious office. He acquired real power, and generally tried not to abuse it, and if sometimes he did, he covered for it by insisting on paying for his ice cream cones. He set out to prove that staying in one place could be as rewarding as climbing to the next rung. He meant to walk away sooner. He stayed too long.
He stayed so long that he became more of an ideal to his followers than a person. Then the horrific happened, and the quaint success story in the peaceful hamlet was destroyed by allegations that Jerry Sandusky, Paterno’s assistant coach for 30 years, was a serial child molester and that Paterno, when told of an incident involving Sandusky and a small boy in the Penn State showers, did his duty but no more, passing the report to his superiors. The only way to give the tragedy the gravity it deserved was to topple the icon who behaved so fallibly.
“You got what you got,” he says he told himself, after he was fired by the board of trustees in November. “You did about as much as you can do, on the field and off the field.”
Yet Paterno also understood he was the face of a terrible inaction. He had done more than some people, yet less than he should have when he failed to press his superiors about Mike McQueary’s report of seeing Sandusky doing something sexual to a small boy in the Lasch football building.
“I should have said ‘Hey where are we with this thing?’ ” Paterno said. He described himself as paralyzed by the unthinkable subject matter. He had “backed away,” he said, and trusted his bosses to handle it.
“I didn’t know which way to go,” he said. “And rather than get in there and make a mistake . . .”
A week ago, Paterno invited this reporter into his home because he wanted to defend his record and give his version of events in the Sandusky case. He often seemed to be trying to explain his actions to himself as much as to others. It was a difficult conversation because it was not only his first interview on the subject of Sandusky but quite possibly the last interview he would ever give. His health was clearly precarious, and his answers often trailed off or wandered. Shortly afterward, he failed badly, and slipped in and out of consciousness over the next few days.
The enraged who demand hard answers as to why Paterno didn’t do more will have to wait until eternity. Why didn’t he follow up? “I don’t know,” he said.
You will have to decide for yourself if Paterno could have reached the age of 85 in modern society without ever really knowing what man-boy sodomy was. “I had never heard of, of, rape and a man,” he said.
For what it’s worth, there was genuine distress in his voice when he said it. And it’s hard to overstate just how insulated Paterno was. His home was a time warp, all old wood and creaking floorboards. But he most likely overstated his ignorance. He did, after all, belong to a Catholic Church wracked by pedophilia scandals.
Still, I thought I understood what he meant. He seemed to reflexively recoil from such deviancy; it baffled him, and to connect it to a longtime colleague was almost impossible.
“It was shocking for me, and too, sadness,” Paterno said. “Was he sick? I don’t know. I don’t even know if he’s guilty.”
It would be a mistake to think that Paterno didn’t care enough about the potential victims. “I’m sick about it. I think about a 12-year-old boy, a 10-year old boy. In the shower, a physical touching, it’s sickening.”
According to Paterno’s wife Sue, the two of them spent agonized hours talking about whether, if Sandusky is guilty, they should have noticed something.
If nothing else, Paterno said, maybe the Sandusky scandal would help drag the subject out of its dark corner. It was one of the last sentiments he expressed. On the final morning he would ever spend at home, he sat propped in bed and insisted on answering a few more questions — that’s how important it was to him to talk. In just a few hours he would be taken to the hospital, and remain there until he died Sunday morning.
“I’m happy in one sense that we called attention, throughout this state, and throughout the country probably, that this is going on,” he said. “It’s kind of been like a hidden thing. So maybe that’s good.”
According to a family spokesperson, it was among his last lucid remarks to anyone outside of his immediate family.
Paterno’s critics will say his inaction in the Sandusky case ruined his legacy and that he had the power to do more. But Paterno denied he was the ultimate moral authority in Happy Valley. He had always tried to refrain from flexing his muscle, he insisted. “In all the years I’m here, we went the way the university wanted,” he said.
One reason I suspect Paterno decided to talk with me, as opposed to another writer, was because it brought his career full circle. In 1968 a Sports Illustrated writer named Dan Jenkins went to State College to do a story on a rising coach who had turned a cow college into a national football power, yet who emphasized academics like an Ivy Leaguer. No fewer than five times, Paterno asked, “How’s your father?” I replied that my father is 82 and still typing, and didn’t like the idea of retirement either.
Back in 1968, Paterno told my father, “We’re trying to win football games; don’t misunderstand that. 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.”
Had that perspective gotten lost? Did Paterno feel that somewhere along the line, football had become too important — and somehow allowed a real tragedy to go overlooked?
“Well, I don’t think it got lost,” he said. “I just think there was a series of situations that maybe people, a little bit, maybe they neglected something, and maybe they got a little bit frustrated. Whether they had good intentions or not, you’d have to ask them.”
His record will show that he was a great, indomitable champion who amassed a record 409 victories, as well as an intelligent advocate who worked tirelessly for poor and minority athletes his whole career. It will show that he was utterly devoted to his players, regularly graduated more than 75 percent of them, and had 47 academic all-Americans. It will show that he made mistakes and omissions, one of them possibly truly costly. It will show that he mostly maintained his perspective and remained true to himself.
“He didn’t preach one thing and live a different way,” Sue said.
It will show that he was not a statue made of bronze, and that he was defined as much by what he failed to do and say, as by what he did. Which merely made him, in the end, human.
For Sally Jenkins’s previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/jenkins