“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.