Penn State scandal: ‘It’s time to help the kids’

Mike Wise
Columnist November 11, 2011

Short and succinct, the text came at 10:38 p.m. as CNN blared on the TV screen across the living room. “Joe was just ousted!” it read. “It’s time to help the kids.”

It came from a person intimately connected to the Penn State football team, a man whose e-mail came in this week’s in box after a column I wrote last Sunday about the most egregious, awful tragedy in the history of big-time college sports — one of power, control and the abject evil it takes to prey on adolescent boys.

Mike Wise is a sports columnist for The Washington Post. View Archive

“Now it’s about the cleansing,” wrote Matt Paknis, a graduate assistant coach on Joe Paterno’s staff in 1987 and 1988. “Now comes the healing of the people who really matter.”

As Paterno was fired late Wednesday, as usual we focused on the coach and not the kids.

But this is a story about both — in one.

When Paknis was 11 and his mother was fighting cancer, a male neighbor in Madison, N.J., befriended and comforted him, inviting himself into a tree fort Paknis had built in his back yard.

“Looking back, it was all very calculating, planned out; that’s how they operate,” Paknis said Wednesday morning, now a married father of three. “He feigned interest in me at the same time my mom was sick. He knew I had hit puberty. My hormones were raging. He took me into his house and came into my own private sanctuary to prove his trust — right before he took that and my youth away.”

Paknis disassociated himself when he was sexually abused, believing he was someone else, he said. Until he grew up big and strong, one day summoning the courage to confront his abuser.

He went on to play football in high school and college and work through his rage and grief with a counselor, and he even tried out for a few NFL teams before the opportunity of a lifetime came along: a graduate assistant coaching job for the great Joe Pa.

His name wasn’t Michael McQueary, the former grad assistant and now recruiting coordinator who told a grand jury he witnessed Paterno’s longtime defensive coordinator rape a boy he estimated to be 10 years old, in the same showers where Paterno’s players soaped and scrubbed.

Paknis said that had he been in the position of McQueary, he would have responded differently. McQueary said he left the room and called his father.

“If what I read in the report is right, I would have ripped [Jerry] Sandusky off the child,” he said. “And I would have tried to make sure the rage in me was controlled so I didn’t do more.”

He added: “The crux of the whole case isn’t protocol or right channels or who took the fall. There was no consideration from Joe Paterno, from anyone at Penn State, over how we can help this kid. That was the last thing in their minds.”

The Penn State Board of Trustees was right in firing Paterno and university president Graham Spanier, for any other course of action would have shown they believed that senior day at Beaver Stadium on Saturday was more important than the stolen youth of those boys, the stolen youth of every adult survivor of child sexual abuse.

“It triggered so much for me,” Paknis said. “This is not some one-time traumatic moment. It doesn’t happen to ‘weak’ kids that weren’t strong enough to fend off their abuser. It happens to kids that are brainwashed with people who are professional manipulators. And those scars last; they become holes in people’s souls they work their whole life to fill.”

Paknis said he grew up without much of an attention span. His teachers thought he was dumb, unfocused. Angry for reasons he couldn’t comprehend, it took years of professional help for him to understand what happened.

After finishing his studies at Penn State, he pursued a master’s in architecture and received his MBA at Rhode Island. He now works as a consultant for high-end manufacturing companies in Massachusetts, where his primary job now is to help identify great leaders.

Paknis’s abuse as a child, he said, stopped as he grew into a muscled teenager, a bull of an eighth-grader, some 6 feet and 190 pounds. “That’s when I walked up to him one day and I said, ‘If you ever put your hands on me again. I’ll kill you.’ That was it. He never touched me again.”

Near the end of “Mystic River,” the dark 2003 drama based on Dennis Lehane’s novel, the character played by Tim Robbins laments what was lost when two pedophiles posing as cops abducted him and sexually abused him for four days until he escaped.

Of his youth, Robbins says, wrenchingly, “I don’t remember havin’ one.”

“That movie will do it: remind anyone who went through it what really happened, what was really taken,” Paknis said.

“That’s what Penn State needs to be about. It needs to be about every family member you thought was your friend, every person you thought was a great person but didn’t have the courage to speak up on behalf of someone who couldn’t protect themselves from evil. It’s about moral obligations that have nothing to do with football.

“I’m sorry, you don’t get credit for touching lives any more if you look the other way when grown men touch children.”

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