In the months after the Penn State scandal broke in 2011, my estimation of Joe Paterno changed. It went from “admirable” to “heroic.” To me, the combination of an over-reaching press and political correctness gone amuck thrust him into a place he didn’t deserve to be. The way he was treated burdened me so deeply that I sent the Paternos a note and copy of my book, Virgin Snow. I was prompted by the fact that I had actually included a quote from Joe in my chapter, “The Mark of Hope.” In that chapter, I relayed the story of former Penn State player Adam Taliaferro, who suffered a severe spinal cord injury during a game. His story had inspired me to persevere through hardship—and that’s the message I wanted to now communicate to Joe and Sue.
Imagine my surprise when a week later I received a hand-written note from the Paternos. They expressed gratitude for the book and my comments, and said it was their strong family, friends and a deep faith that was propping them up. There was not one hint of bitterness, just a quiet confidence that the truth would come out in the end.
Ensuing days continued to reveal Joe’s gracious spirit. Even when his nomination for the Presidential Medal of Honor was rescinded. Even when his name was removed from the Big Ten championship trophy. And amazingly, when he and Sue contributed $100,000 back to the university that had spurned them.
Through all of this, Joe and Sue remained steadfast. When he finally told his side of the story he neither complained of how he had been treated nor blamed others. Joe came from a generation that wasn’t comfortable talking about graphic sexual perversions. When told of Jerry Sandusky’s actions and Joe reported it to university authorities because he said he didn’t know what else to do, I believe him. It fits with his lifetime track record of integrity.
Joe didn’t live to see his name vindicated, but he has left a legacy that far surpasses trophies and plaques. He played this last game of his life with honor, dignity and ultimate “success” before the only Judge that matters. The words I recorded of Joe’s description of Adam Taliaferro echo in my mind today:
“…he has had an impact on everyone associated with the game, an impact that transcends any accomplishments he might have achieved…every time we hear of him we will contemplate the power…of a positive approach to adversity, of dogged determination, and of unconditional love.”
Back at ya’ Coach…