On My Hero’s Doorstep
They say that every hero has one single moment above all others in their life that defines them.
For Joe Paterno, a man with 2-national championships and 409 career wins, that moment may have come outside of a small ranch house at the end of McKee Street instead of on the football field.
When I heard that students were planning an impromptu support rally at Coach Paterno’s house after practice Tuesday evening, I wasn’t sure what to expect. With the lack of transparency the University has been giving the public for the last few days, I didn’t expect any type of comment from Paterno. In the back of my mind, I may have even expected an ugly scene with the media circus, police, and angry students. What happened next, however, will stay with me for the rest of my life.
I can’t imagine what was going through the old coach’s head when he pulled up in that car to face 750 endearing students, but at least for me, reality finally hit. Only three days ago, this man was the face of college football and represented all that was right in the world. And now, here I was, watching that same man fight for his job.
But as Coach Paterno stepped out of the car into the crowd and raised his fists in solidarity, I realized that we weren’t all that different. Suddenly, that 84-year old man felt the same way this 20-year old student has been feeling for the last 72-hours. I could see it in his eyes; the look of heartbreak, the look of betrayal, the look of someone who built an elite program from scratch for 62-years and watching it all crumble in front of him.
Something must have clicked while Paterno worked his way through the crowd, and for a moment, he paused. To the surprise of everyone, he began to speak.
“We are Penn State. We are always Penn State. I’m proud of you. I’m always proud of you.”
How fitting is it that Paterno’s first public words since this story broke were not to the media demagogues but instead directly to students, the students he has dedicated his life to for the better part of a century?
As Paterno entered his house, a chorus of cheers rang out amongst the student supporters. How surreal it must feel to have hundreds of people chanting your name out of love even during your darkest days.
And here we remained, believing in our coach who had first believed in all of us. Before I knew it, we had formed a circle in the yard and began to sing the Alma mater. Just like out of a Hollywood script, Coach Paterno appeared in the window. Except this time, it was different. This time, behind those old coke bottle glasses, there were tears.
“I’m happy to see all of you. I live for this place. I live for people like you.”
I doubt I will experience something so moving ever again. Even if only for a moment during these troubled times, we all bonded together in tears in support of something greater than ourselves, something greater than even Joe Paterno.
That something is Penn State.
No matter what happens with this investigation, no matter how many more days Coach Paterno leads this football team, Penn State will live on.
As Joe Paterno stood in his window crying with the rest of us, his actions reminded us that we are all in this together. The emotions we are all feeling, he is feeling even stronger. He reminded us that there are still dark times ahead, but that together, we will get through them. He reminded us of the phrase, “Penn State forever.” He reminded us that no matter what evil lies behind the sacred walls of Old Main, We Are (still) Penn State.
But most of all, he reminded us that even heroes can be vulnerable.
Earlier this week, I wrote that when I sing the end of our Alma Mater at the game on Saturday it will seem fake. What I didn’t realize was that I will be wiping away tears instead of singing.