The End of an Era

Hey everybody! For weeks I’ve been trying to write a blog entry about the issue that has enveloped Penn State Football, Coach Joe Paterno and the Sandusky scandal. I haven’t been able to find the right words to express the appropriate outrage over the child abuse allegations, sorrow for the victims, and hope that they can get their lives back together. I haven’t been able to come up with a way to show my immense sympathy for the Paterno family, and to tell how JoePa has forever influenced me and my university in so many positive ways. I wrote the following story for an English class this semester and it just tells my story. It shows what happened to me as the Paterno era ended at Penn State. Thanks for reading and as always WE ARE…

We Are Because You Were

Just seconds are left on the scoreboard. The score is 10-7 Penn State. My entire body is frozen. The flakes of snow have turned into freezing rain and the field is covered in grey slush. The Illini drive the football down the field knowing they need only a field goal to tie, a touchdown to win. They’re on Penn State’s 25-yard line, with time for only one more play. It all comes down to Illinois kicker Derek Dimke. Suddenly, I look behind me and see thousands of Penn State students running across the emptying bleachers to stand behind the goal post, hoping to distract the kicker. The only thing I can hear is the cheering of the best student section in the country.

It’s time. I hold my breath as the kicker winds up for the field goal attempt. The football flies through the air in slow motion. It looks like it’s going in. Suddenly I’m leaping off the bleachers yelling. Did that just happen? He missed it! Penn State wins! The stadium erupts into a frenzy of Penn State pride. Silas Redd runs up to the railing at the edge of the student section to celebrate the victory. I’m screaming and jumping up and down, unable to control my enthusiasm.

I look toward the tunnel to watch as the team exits the field. At the back of the wave of blue and white, I see JoePa, who has just won his 409th game. He’s smiling, proud of his players and gratified by the love for PSU that is emanating throughout the stadium. He looks at the team, the students, his coaching staff, and I can see his love of football in his expression, but I imagine there’s more; for Joe Paterno, it’s always been about more than a win. I watch as he walks off the field. That’s a good person right there. That is an honest, humble, loving man who happens to be, in my opinion, the greatest football coach in history.

That was the last time Joe Paterno walked off the field at Beaver Stadium.

***

“Have you heard about what’s going on?” my mom asks me over the phone on Saturday morning.

“Yeah, I heard some guy that used to coach here molested kids,” I say as I’m walking toward town, wondering about its importance. I read an article online about some ex-football coach, Jerry Sandusky, being a pedophile.

“It’s more than that. It happened in the football building and Tim Curley knew about it. It doesn’t look good.”

“Yeah, but at least he’s not a coach here anymore,” I brush it off thinking it has nothing to do with the Penn State I currently attend. It’s in the past.

My mom tries to break the news to me softly, “Some news reports are saying JoePa knew too.”

“Yeah, but he reported it. JoePa isn’t being investigated or anything. He’s not in trouble; he didn’t do anything wrong.” I disregard the importance of this phone conversation as I walk across the now calm campus.

***

It’s Tuesday when I throw on my Penn State football hoodie and head to class. Evidently a girl wearing a Penn State football sweatshirt during the current crisis is the perfect target for reporters. I dodge them when I see them coming. I overhear some talking to students around campus, trying to catch the students crying or cursing Sandusky.

As I’m walking across the Old Main lawn towards the HUB, I notice the excessive number of news vans lining College Ave. Is this really necessary? Tents are set up on the lawn. There are camera cords and wires all over the sidewalk with extension cords tangled around bushes and trees, blocking my path as I walk. I feel as though my home has been invaded by reporters who are contemplating how to quote or photograph me so that I look like I’m Sandusky’s number one supporter. Suddenly everything I do, everything I say, and every face I make might be broadcast on national television.

I wish I could just “accidentally” trip over these and “accidentally” unplug their dumb cameras. “Oh I’m so sorry”…no I’m not. “I didn’t mean to do that”…yes I did. “I hope I didn’t mess up your taping just now”…I hope I did and that it was live.

***

I spend the day being bombarded with tweets, Facebook statuses, emails, and newspaper stories telling me how horrible Penn State is; supposedly unbiased reporters are questioning our morality as a university. I’m sick of it. Every time I pass a reporter or a news van on the street, I glare disapprovingly.

It’s Wednesday night and I am getting ready to leave my THON committee meeting, trying to celebrate 100 Days Till’ THON. Of course, not one article or report mentions that it is 100 days until the largest student run philanthropy in the world, one that raised $9.5 million last year. The depressing fact is that the public is drawn to tragedy more than triumph. Apparently sex scandals sell more newspapers than conquering pediatric cancer.

“Joe Paterno was just fired,” a committee member says aloud as we are closing the meeting.

What is going on? This can’t be happening. How did it get so bad so fast? Didn’t he just say yesterday he was retiring after this season? Is that not enough for the Board of Trustees? For the five hundredth time, he reported it! Why can no one see that? Why is JoePa being punished for something he didn’t do? He has supported the university for the past 46 years and this is how the Board treats him? People are acting like he committed the crime.

I get a text from my sister, “Please be careful tonight. Don’t get caught up in anything that could get out of control on campus or in town.”

I don’t even know what to think.

***

“JOE-PA-TEEER-NO! JOE-PA-TEEER-NO!”

Students are everywhere. Beaver Ave is lined with police and what looks like the SWAT team. I see officers on horses trotting down the middle of the street. I’m heading back to my dorm from my friend’s apartment and turn off Locust Lane onto College Ave. The sound of student voices is growing, and as I turn the corner, I see the crowd.

People are all around me, some crying, some chanting “Joe Paterno.” Everyone is sad, hurt, confused and looking for answers. I watched the news earlier and saw reporters calling this a “riot.” It’s not a riot; we just want to be together, to share our sorrow. Nothing’s being torn down or destroyed; windows aren’t being broken; there are no fires. We just don’t know what else to do.

I push my way through the crowd, wanting desperately to go home. I know that the media is portraying this as a wild, angry and vicious act of rebellion against the Board of Trustees, and it angers me. I just want to be away from the news reporters, away from the judgment, away from the scandal.

Suddenly, I reach an opening. There is a solitary news van parked on the side and I hear some guy yell, “Tip the van!” I’m looking around, trying to find the easiest way out and see cops on the move toward the van. One is reaching for the can of mace on his belt.

I foresee what is about to happen and know I need to leave now.

I see a path for me to squeeze through and get across the street. I make it onto the campus and have to climb over a partially collapsed fence. As I get to the Old Main lawn, I look back and see the van tumble onto its side. I already know this isn’t going to look good. Here’s one more thing for the media to twist, making all Penn Staters seem like heartless savages. More lies; more inaccuracies.

***

Tears slowly fall from my eyes onto the frozen ground. I quietly wipe them away with the sleeve of my jacket. I sniffle a little, wishing I had a tissue. As I listen to the voices of the a cappella group, I look around. My friends expressions are somber, but I’m the only one shedding tears.

I suddenly think back to everything that has happened in the past week. In just five days, the media has made Penn State into a villain. Five days ago, I didn’t know about the tragic victims of horrible child abuse. Five days ago, there weren’t any news vans parked along the streets with reporters combing every inch of the campus looking for students to interrogate. Five days ago, we had a president, an athletic director, and a football coach. Five days ago, JoePa was prepping for the Nebraska game tomorrow. Five days ago, Jerry Sandusky hadn’t infected my university with its now tarnished image, making everyone at Penn State look like child molester supporters. Five days ago, my faith in Penn State was firm and unwavering. Five days ago, as a journalism major with a future career in reporting the news, I had respect for the media.

Now, as I look around and see tens of thousands of people with candles burning for the victims of child abuse, I can’t help but get distracted by the click of cameras and the glare of lights from video cameras. Are you serious? Right now? Can’t you even let us do our part to help the victims begin to heal? Can’t we be left to show our support for them?

As we sing the alma mater together as a community, I hope that everything will start to get better. I hope, most importantly, that the victims are able to begin to get their lives back together. I hope Joe Paterno’s voice is heard and everyone sees him for the man he really is. I hope Penn State will move past the scandal and regain the honorable reputation it’s always had.

***

“May no act of ours bring shame,” the student section sings solemnly before kickoff. This statement suddenly means so much more than it ever did.

The team takes the field hand in hand led by the senior captains. Just two weeks ago, I was standing in this exact spot cheering as loudly as I possibly could as Illinois missed the field goal, ending the game with Penn State as the victors. Just two weeks ago, Joe Paterno was on the sidelines.

I look around at the famous student section that is a giant mass of blue, for the Blue-Out to Stop Child Abuse. The week has culminated in this game, which many argued shouldn’t have taken place. But why punish the current football players for something out of their control?

As the game begins, the atmosphere is not one of a typical Saturday in Beaver Stadium in the fall. There’s an air of sadness and a desperate desire to win to show the world we aren’t going to let this bring us down. As the clock winds down and the score doesn’t reflect this sentiment, there’s a feeling of exhaustion among the crowd of spectators. We are all tired of being judged, tired of being harassed.

I hug my friend as we sing the alma mater one last time in Beaver Stadium. We leave and all I can think is that I hope JoePa knows that the students are behind him.

***

“They just took JoePa off his respirator,” my friend Lindsey says as we are sitting in D.P. Dough on Saturday night.

I realize I didn’t even know he was in the hospital.

The next five hours are a mixture of sadness and confusion. I hear he’s gone. Then he’s not. He’s hanging in there. Facebook and Twitter explode with RIP statuses. I don’t know what to believe. I look down; I’m wearing my “Joe Knows Football” t-shirt. JoePa’s a fighter. He’ll make it. He has to.

I wake up to the news on Sunday. Sometime when I was asleep, Joe Paterno passed away. I can’t focus on anything. I find myself watching video montages of my role model for a large portion of the day.

I read some of the articles, one of which says Joe Pa died of a broken heart. It says that recent events led to his passing.

I choose to believe JoePa didn’t die of a broken heart. I want to believe that he knew the students of Penn State, the alumni all over the world, his true friends, his loving family never doubted him and never will.

***

“Every time I look at you, I see myself. I’m so proud of you. For you have made me what I am, a better man. I’m just so proud of you.”

The song “Father and Friend” resounds over the speakers in the BJC as pictures and videos of JoePa flash on the scoreboard. Clips of him walking his children to school and photographs with SuePa fade in and out on the screen. The images show his Penn State family as well, JoePa with the players he coached, the young men he inspired. Past players, family members and close friends of Joe sit on the stage, taking their turn to speak about what Joe Paterno meant to them and how he influenced their lives.

“As a coach he shaped bodies and minds. He taught us all in life, itself, to be a team player,” says Father Matthew, leading the prayer.

“He taught us how to compete; how to compete with honor; how to compete with integrity,” says former player Todd Blackledge, adding his favorite JoePa quote. “Success is never final and failure is never fatal.”

Another former player, Jimmy Cefalo begins with, “Joe didn’t recruit us; he recruited our moms.” After a speech full of sentimental and humorous anecdotes about good old Italian cooking, he adds, “The world is a whole lot better for my having known him.”

Of course one of the crowd favorites, Phil Knight, CEO of Nike, tells us, “Never once did he let me down. Not one time…. There was a villain in this tragedy; it lies in that investigation, not in Joe Paterno’s response to it.”

Throughout the ceremony, I look down to the Paterno family in the front row at the memorial and see both Scott and Sue Paterno wipe tears from his eyes, and I find myself doing the same. Everything these past players and friends of Joe are saying solidifies what he meant to me. They put my feelings into words right now, from what I, and so many others, have learned from him, to preaching of his innocence regarding the scandal.

Finally, it’s Jay’s turn to take the stage and share with the audience what his father truly meant to him. The crowd becomes silent as we await this emotional speech.

I grab a tissue knowing I will need it soon. Jay talks about the love between his parents. He describes their relationship, “Once while listening to the U2 song, ‘Sometimes You Can’t Make it on Your Own,’ I heard a beautiful lyric. It said, ‘You’re the reason why the opera is in me.’ I shared that lyric with my dad. He smiled with that same smile you see in that picture and he said, ‘That’s your mother for me.'” At this point, I can’t control my tears.

I look around and there isn’t a dry eye to be seen. One thing, however, is different than all the other moments of honoring Joe during the week. From the candlelight vigil, to the viewing, to the procession through campus, every moment was enveloped in sadness. This moment right now, although still heartbreaking, is also filled with the celebration of JoePa and the commemoration of his truly amazing life. Instead of remembering the past two months, everyone in the BJC is recalling the championships he won, the buildings on campus he built, the young men he yelled at to study harder and get to class. We think about the players he molded into doctors, lawyers, and respected fathers, the children he raised, and the wife he loved. This is the real Joe Paterno. This Joe Paterno has always been and will always be a part of Penn State.

We are because you were.

I am because you were.

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