Perhaps it took an outsider, someone not of the insular world that is Penn State, someone who approached the spotlit microphone Thursday not from the blue chairs at the back of the stage, but from the darkness off-stage. Perhaps it took someone who still revered Joe Paterno, but who wasn’t bound by the old coach’s example of grace, to go where no one else who approached that microphone dared go.
It was left to Nike chairman Phil Knight, the only one of the 12 speakers at the memorial service for the late Paterno who was not part of the Penn State community, to say what everyone else probably wanted to, but were too respectful of Paterno’s own well-known sense of decorum to actually say.
“There is a villainous tragedy,” Knight said, staring out at some 12,000 mourners, “that lies in that investigation, not in Joe Paterno’s response to it. . . . It leads me to this question: Who is the real trustee of Penn State University?”
Knight’s words struck the Bryce Jordan Center like a thunderclap, lifting the entire crowd to its feet for a roaring, standing ovation that lasted for several moments. When Knight was done speaking, he turned and marched off the stage and back behind a black curtain.
In a 2-hour 15-minute service that otherwise touched all the expected notes — from the touching and humorous stories of a half-dozen of Paterno’s former players, to the heart-wrenching eulogy delivered by Paterno’s son, Jay — Knight was the only speaker who went anywhere near the scandal that, at least to the world beyond State College, tainted the 85-year-old coach’s legacy.
Elsewhere across the country, there may still be ambiguity toward Paterno, who died Sunday after a three-month battle with lung cancer.
Elsewhere, folks may associate Paterno, the winningest coach in Division I history, with the child sex-abuse scandal that ripped apart the university in November, when a former Penn State defensive coordinator, Jerry Sandusky, was charged with assaulting 10 boys over a 15-year span. Two university officials were charged with perjury in an alleged cover-up, while Paterno and university president Graham Spanier were fired by the school’s board of trustees for failing to act decisively enough.
But here, where Paterno coached football for 61 years, the last 46 of those as head coach, and where he and his wife, Sue, became known as surrogate parents to the entire community, there is no ambiguity — only love and reverence.
“He never took a compliment. He never thought he was the show,” Kenny Jackson, a former all-American wide receiver and assistant coach under Paterno, told the crowd to get the service started. “But today, my teacher, you have no choice. Today we’re going to show you how much we love you.”
The tributes that followed were pitch-perfect: Speeches from one player from each of the six decades Paterno’s career spanned. Four video tributes. Testimonials from two non-football-playing students and the dean of the College of Liberal Arts. Everyone managed to find some new way to illuminate Paterno’s impact on the world beyond the gridiron.
“He taught us how to compete with honor, how to compete with integrity,” 1980s-era quarterback Todd Blackledge said. “That’s what separated him from his peers in this profession.”
“He cherished honesty, effort, academics, sportsmanship and citizenship,” said 1960’s-era halfback Charlie Pittman. “I was forged from that crucible. The life I’ve lived is one of Joe’s thousands of gifts to the world. . . . Rest in peace, Coach. We’ll take it from here.”
“He took the sons of coal miners, and he took the sons of steel-mill workers and of farmers in rural Pennsylvania,” said Jimmy Cefalo, a wide receiver for Paterno in the 1970s, “with the idea that we would come together, and we would do it the right way, the Paterno way.”
Michael Mauti, a current Penn State senior linebacker, drew chuckles with an impromptu impression of Paterno’s nasally Brooklyn accent. “What’s it gonna be, kid?” Paterno asked him in his office at Beaver Stadium as Mauti, then a high school senior, was deciding among several scholarship offers. Mauti’s response: “I’m in!”
Thursday’s memorial service brought to an end a three-day period of mourning for Paterno, which also included two days of viewing that drew an estimated 40,000 mourners and a funeral procession through State College that had folks standing five-deep in some places to get a glimpse of Paterno’s hearse. There was also a private funeral for family and friends on Wednesday.
On Thursday at Penn State’s basketball arena, Sue Paterno drew a standing ovation just with the simple act of walking to her front-row seat in front of the stage. Five Paterno children and 17 grandchildren soon followed.
“Lord,” prayed Father Matthew Laffey of the school’s Catholic Campus Ministry, “thank you for this man, and the blessing to have lived when this giant walked the earth.”
Despite Knight’s well-received broadside at the university’s awkward handling of Paterno’s firing, the emotional high point of the service came at the end, when Jay Paterno strode to the microphone and delivered a masterful eulogy, full of poignant stories, literary and historical quotations and forceful declarations.
“Joe Paterno,” his son said, “left this world with a clear conscience.”
Jay Paterno spoke eloquently of his father’s final days, which he spent surrounded by his family.
“Faced with obstacles that would have left a lesser man bitter, he showed his true spirit and self,” Jay Paterno said. “He said he wanted to use his remaining time on earth to see Penn State continue to thrive. He never spoke ill and never wanted anyone to feel sorry for him.
“On Sunday morning, I . . . kissed him and whispered into his ear so only he could hear. I said, ‘Dad, you won. You did all you could do. You’ve done enough. We all love you. You won. You can go home now.’ ”
A lone trumpeter emerged to play a dirge-like version of the Penn State fight song.
No one knew quite what to do next. But finally, everyone headed for the exits, out into the cold and rain.
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