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