Joe Paterno died today. The official cause is cancer, but even from the significant distance of someone who never set foot on the Penn State campus, never played college football, high school football, or anything but street ball (pretty badly, too, I have to admit), it seems likely that a broken heart might have been at least a symptom.
And I would have respectfully kept my mouth shut, except a part of the population is cursing the man even in death. Yes, I know about Sandusky, and the victimized children, and my heart goes out to those victims deeply. And it is impossible to separate the heinous crimes from the death of an iconic coach. And those horrors do cast an ominous shadow across Paterno’s career. I understand that and accept it as right and true.
But I heard something else that forces me to withhold judgment, something I believe worth sharing. I hope I am allowed to do so.
Today, one of Paterno’s legions of former players was on WFAN eulogizing the man (I wish I had caught the man’s name, my apologies). He spoke of Paterno remaining at Penn State for 61 years, from the 1950’s, despite many offers. About him staying on that campus, protected in its seclusion. About how even the furniture in his home looked like it came from the 1950’s. And then he discussed a quirk of Paterno’s, reporting a naïveté, an innocence about things outside of football. He said this was something Paterno retained throughout the years, as if he was disconnected to anything besides football.
This is not absurd to believe. As a teacher and former journalist, I’ve observed sports programs and the fanatical focus it breeds. That does not absolve anyone from anything, does not wash away the tears, does not forgive the sins. It merely suggests Joe Paterno may not have been engineering a cover up; he may have been what so many of us are, a limited man distracted by his passions.
I am in no way suggesting anyone should anoint anyone a saint. I am merely saying this interview made me think, and may be worth considering in wake of this man’s death.