‘Joe Paterno was a Human Being Like the Rest of Us’
I’m not going to lie—it felt a little odd. Just over two months after I stood on the Old Main lawn along with thousands of students holding candles to remember the victims of child sexual abuse, there I was again Sunday night. Same place, literally, at the foot of the Old Main steps. Same songs by the Blue Band. Many of the same students, I’m sure.
But this vigil was in honor of Joe Paterno.
There were tears again, yes—football players Mike Wallace and Matt McGloin, in particular, choked up as they remembered their coach, who died Sunday morning of metastatic lung cancer. But there was some laughter, too. And a similar feeling of togetherness as the students linked arms and swayed as they sang the alma mater. I wasn’t surprised this time—as I was at the previous vigil—that all of the students know all of the words. That just wasn’t the case back in my day.
What stood out the most to me were the words of Stefen Wisniewski, a former All-America offensive lineman (and Academic All-America) from one of those storied Penn State families; his father and uncle played for Paterno, too. Now a lineman for the Oakland Raiders, Wisniewski was the vigil’s last speaker. This is what he said:
A lot has been talked about today about Joe Paterno’s legacy, and unfortunately, a lot has been said about how the recent events that have taken place over the last few months might affect that legacy. A lot of supporters of Joe Paterno say that he really didn’t do anything wrong and that it shouldn’t have any effect on his legacy. Others say that all the good he has done and his time at Penn State should overshadow what he may have done wrong.
In my opinion, what happened in the recent events and the firing of Joe Paterno is that this figure who we looked up to as this super-human figure, this super legend, that he was kind of reduced to the level of a human being, like the rest of us. And that’s why we hated to see it. But the reality is, Joe Paterno was a human being like the rest of us. He did make wrong decisions. He did maybe fail to make right decisions. Like the rest of us do. Like the rest of us do, he’s done things in his life that require forgiveness, and he’s done things in his life that require redemption.
But when I think back over Joe Paterno’s legacy, the events that have happened over the last three months won’t even cross my mind. When I think back on Joe Paterno’s legacy, I’m gonna remember sitting at his kitchen table as he recruited me five years ago, eating cookies made by SuePa. And I remember leaving that meeting both excited about the prospect of playing at Penn State for Joe Paterno and simultaneously terrified at what he might do to me if I didn’t go there, the same place where my father and uncle both played.
I’m also going to remember …. Whew, so many memories. I’m also going to remember when Coach, at age 82, got down in an offensive lineman stance and showed me how to snap a football. Because I was terrible at it. I’m better now.
I also remember, as a Penn State student, walking through Paterno Library, a library that exists only because Joe Paterno loved the university enough to donate millions of dollars for it to be created. Because he was committed, not just to Penn State football, but to Penn State as a university. He was committed to education. He loved his place, and all of us who are part of Penn State are better as a result.
I also remember as a player, two years ago, playing against Northwestern, being down three touchdowns, coming back to win JoePa’s 400th victory. Watching players carry him off and seeing that No. 400 up on the screen. A number that is never gonna be touched by any coach ever again because no one has the commitment that Joe Paterno does.
I also remember that Joe Paterno taught us about success with honor and that it wasn’t enough for him just to win football games. He wanted to do it the right way. He wanted to do it with players who were going to graduate and players who would go on to be leaders in their communities and great husbands, great fathers. And he really did care as much about his players’ character as he did about what kind of football players they were going to be. Because he knew that our football careers were very short, but that we’re going to be husbands and fathers and leaders the rest of our lives.
And finally, when I think of Joe Paterno, I’ll remember that after every game he ever coached, whether it be a great loss or a great victory, that Joe Paterno knelt down with his players after the game and prayed the Our Father with us. We love you, Joe. And it’s my prayer that that father God you prayed to after each and every game will grant you rest and let his eternal light shine upon you.
Lori Shontz, senior editor