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Joe Paterno: Telling the Story of a Legacy

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How do you really measure a person's legacy? Is it apportioned by how many buildings are named after him or her? Is it the dollar figures on a ledger? Is it the amount of wins on a sheet or the quotes in a book? Of course not. Our personal legacies won't just be remembered for how many ridiculously long articles we put out on the internet or how many Red Bulls we drink in a day. When we talk about something such as legacy, it is about more than just numbers. Legacy is about the emotions evoked when we tell the story of a person. Legacy is the full narrative - both good and bad.

In the days following Joe Paterno's death, I have read multiple accounts of the late, great Joe Paterno. Paterno Ave had an excellent write-up here at OTE in which he gave us a great insight into what made Joe so great to so many at Penn State and abroad, "Joe Paterno will be remembered as an historically extraordinary man, the rare individual who stepped into our lives and made our community a family." Across the entire interweb and in every major newspaper near and far, accounts of JoePa's everyman greatness shined even though the lingering effects of a scandal hung over everything like a black cloud that was hard to describe.

Let me stop everyone ready to comment me to death about defaming the name of JoePa. This piece is not about the negatives or positives alone, but rather about the symbiosis between both. This is about how we need to look at the story of a man who was literally regarded with such great esteem that even in the midst of a scandal involving the rape of children, we could empathize with an old coach who might have made a grave mistake. This is looking at the story about Joe Paterno being larger than life and yet approachable at the same time. Legacies are cemented in the stories, and for us to really evaluate how we see Joe Paterno, it is important for everyone to consider the good, the bad, and everything in between. After all, we cannot understand a whole without understanding the pieces.

The Context

A story cannot be understood without context. Joe Paterno ended his career with more wins than any other coach. In a staggering 60 year carrer, his coaching legacy became synonymous with longevity and generational transcendence. To put that into more digestible terms, think about Joe Paterno's coaching career next to historical events. He coached across 12 presidents, the Civil Rights movement, the admittance of Hawaii and Alaska, Vietnam, Korea, the Gulf War, 9/11, the Cold War, a Man on the Moon, the discovery of DNA and the H-bomb, every type of video playback you can imagine, computers of all sorts, cell phones, and the list goes on and on and on. Most of us cannot fathom the amount of change he continually endured to be relevant in a sport that likes to highlight the flavor of the week like JoePa did.

Beyond that, he embarked on the Great Experiment that believed so strongly in creating an environment of education that he and his wife literally donated $3 million of their own money to create a library where students would pursue greater knowledge for generations to come. By all accounts, the story paints Joe Paterno as a saint. Of course, if this was all we knew about him, an article on how should we really remember JoePa wouldn't be necessary, right?

Up to a few months ago, we all would have stopped the story there, but then the stories of Sandusky's child rape came out and we were all stunned by the realization that Paterno might have known enough to do more. That realization meant more to the school, the fans, and the alumni than anyone because it meant that maybe Paterno's 'legacy' was nothing more than a sham. As I look back personally, I am less surprised by the rioting at PSU in light of the identity attached to Paterno. Why was there such an identity attachment? Because as I have now come to understand, everyone had a story about Joe.

The Stories

Penn State fans are not much different than fans of any major college football team. They live and breathe their school, they believe most of what administration is doing is wrong until it's not, and ultimately, they love their icons. As a Nebraska fan, I get this. Osborne and Devaney are universally worshiped in the state of Nebraska. If Pelini wins a MNC, he'll probably get the king treatment as well. Of course, that is what I thought up to when this story broke. Joe Paterno is unlike any figure I have really come into contact with from a fandom standpoint. He was transcendent in a way. That is not to say he was perfect, but more that he managed to be the identity and the bedrock that was Penn State.

This is not to short the school. Penn State is doing and has done amazing research in medicine, has one of the greatest philanthropic viewpoints, and remains a place where students go to learn and expand their knowledge. I am a fan of higher learning and places that emphasize that mission. Still, it would be ridiculous for anyone to overlook the immense importance football had at Penn State. In the days following the uncovering of the Sandusky scandal to the public, I was initially outraged at how sports had managed to be taken more serious than allegations that children were harmed. I was truly heartbroken at a system that I was a part of had been so bastardized to the point where I, along with others, believed that following a game seemed somewhat meaningless.

However, that was probably a skewed point-of-view. That ignored the countless stories I have read on ESPN, CBS Sports, here, BSD, local and national newspapers, and anywhere else where people who truly knew Joe Paterno and the culture he believed in that effused praise on a man who did something bigger than life. I was struck by the reality that the story of Joe Paterno is not some digestible sound byte that we try to put in a box between minute 4 and 5 on the top of SportsCenter. His story was much more complex, and the full narrative spoke volumes to me - it proved that Joe Paterno deserves the adoration and respect he has been getting. Also, it means that the one story that has hung over the memorials around JoePa's passing this week deserves its turn to be told.

The Disaster

"The minute you think you've got it made, disaster is just around the corner" Joe Paterno

In many ways, Paterno had it made before the Sandusky mess came out. He was a hero both locally and nationally, had trophies, awards, and records that would never again be matched, and he loved what he did. When we all heard about the stories of child rape and the timelines proved Paterno's culpability, it was a moment that was hard to believe. As Penn State alum, Michael Weinreb, wrote about his childhood town and hero on Grantland in the days following the scandal, "Our leaders failed to cover, and while they deserve the benefit of due process, they deserve to be held accountable for whatever mistakes they made." Weinreb was heartbroken, but the damage was done and regardless of all the good that had been done, it was important that wrongs were righted. We all make mistakes, but we all must pay for those mistakes one way or another.

The scene following that fateful day will be etched into a lot of our memories throughout our lifetime. I was recently talking with a good friend of mine about the idea of legacy and how Joe Paterno will be remembered and we instantly brought up the stories of riots on campus, media circuses, and the Nebraska game the following weekend where people were practically worshiping outside of his house. Truly, it was unlike anything I have ever encountered, and while everything good about JoePa still existed and does in fact exist, it would be even more sad for us to act like none of this ever happened. Regardless of what Paterno knew, didn't know, did or didn't do, he was responsible for his organization and should have done more. It's just the way these things work. CEOs, Presidents, Mayors, Managers, and others who are in charge of organizations will be held responsible for things that happen on their watch - fair or unfair. Think about the stories you tell about leaders you've encountered. The ones who ended with a thud will always be remembered for that even if they did other great things for the group. Fair or unfair, the story is the legacy.

The Legacy

So what is Joe Paterno's legacy? What is his story? Many believe that JoePa's story will end up focusing on the good more than the bad. I think that is true, but for now until I am gone, I'll always think about his statement, "With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more." There are a few moments in our lives where we have an opportunity to actually shape the stories that are told about us when we are gone. For most of Joe Paterno's life, he did more to create a positive and lasting image of greatness than any one of us can imagine. From a strict standpoint of success, honor, dedication, and genuine goodness, Joe Paterno seemed to do everything the right way. In one moment, that legacy was tarnished, and I feel like he knew that his actions would stick with him as an undertone to all the good he did. I think that was a regret he probably thought about until his final day.

Personally, I believe Joe Paterno was a great man. He was a man who lived by his instincts and believed that people deserved to be treated with utmost respect. He created a place at Penn State where the campus was his family. He was successful at all that he put his mind to, and he was good for football and made it a much better game. Coaches would do well to model their programs after him, and I would only hope to have a coach that related to generation after generation like him. Still, I will never see him the way he could have been remembered. The story will always have a chapter that includes Sandusky and child rape and the regrets of not doing more. As we write the legacy - the full narrative - of Joe Paterno, we must remember both the greatness of his career and fallibility of his humanity. That is not a bad thing, but it can definitely be a difficult thing. Still, the fact remains that his story is a legacy worth remembering and telling to the following generation, and maybe that is something that will not change.