A Memorial for Joe Paterno: Goodbye to a Legend

Thursday afternoon’s “A Memorial For Joe” brought a mourning Penn State community together to remember a man who has meant more to the university than anyone else in the past half-century.  Students, current and former players, fellow coaches, and fans alike filled the Bryce Jordan Center to hear stories and to remember the life and legacy of Coach Joe Paterno.

The event started with a prayer from Father Matthew Laffey, which was followed by words from players spanning all six decades Paterno coached at Penn State. Other speakers included a current student, former student, faculty member, and, of course, Nike co-founder and chairman Phil Knight.  Interspersed were a number of emotional video montages which featured Paterno as a player at Brown, as a coach leading his team onto the field and being hoisted on his players’ shoulders, as well as many other scenes from Paterno’s illustrious career as a coach, husband, father, and friend.

After a short introductory speech by former Penn State wide receiver Kenny Jackson, Todd Blackledge, the first quarterback to lead one of Coach Paterno’s teams to a national championship, represented teams from the 1980s.  Blackledge shared his impression of Paterno’s version of TLC, which he elaborated as “Team, Loyalty, and Competition.”  Charlie Pittman, representing the 1970s, spoke highly of Paterno’s “Grand Experiment,” claiming that he “was forged from that crucible.”

Lauren Perrotti, an undergraduate student representing the Paterno Fellows program, and Susan Welch, Dean of the College of Liberal Arts, underscored Joe and Sue Paterno’s commitment to education and, more specifically, the liberal arts.  Dean Welch recounted Joe’s encouragement to a group of undergraduates, quoting him as saying “we can lick the world with the liberal arts” with regard to the Paterno Fellows program.

Phil Knight, Nike co-founder and chairman, spoke about his experiences with Coach Paterno over the last two decades at a Nike-sponsored retreat for college football coaches.  Knight told stories of Paterno’s playful manner, referring to a sketch where Joe once played a “swaying palm tree” and an annual tradition where Paterno would perform a “loud and enthusiastic” rendition of “Wild Thing.”

Knight went on to explain that his hero Paterno “never let me down, not one time.”  Referring to the Sandusky scandal, Knight defiantly stated, “some people would say Paterno is their hero for eleven of the last twelve years. Joe is my hero for twelve of the last twelve years.”  Knight asserted his belief in Paterno’s innocence of any wrongdoing, proclaiming, “If there is a villain in this tragedy, it lies in that investigation, not in Joe Paterno’s response.” Knight spoke critically of the Penn State Board of Trustees, questioning their decision to fire the coach over the phone. “Who is the real trustee at Penn State University?” Knight asked rhetorically.

Jimmy Cefalo spoke as a representative of the teams of the 1970s, and recalled that Joe did not recruit players, but rather their mothers.  Cefalo recounted that during his recruitment, he walked into his kitchen to find Coach Paterno proclaiming his mother’s cooking to be “better than Mrs. Cappelletti’s” (John Cappelletti won the 1973 Heisman Trophy at Penn State).  Cefalo reinforced Paterno’s commitment to education, explaining that Paterno “took the sons of coal miners, steel mill workers, and farmers, and taught them the right way, the Paterno way.”  Cefalo stressed that Paterno’s legacy lies within the lettermen and current players. In the lettermen, Cefalo explained, “you find doctors, you find lawyers, you find police officers, you find firemen… because of Joe.”

Christian Marrone, representing the 1990s, spoke of Paterno’s commitment to him even after his career prematurely ended due to a number of knee surgeries.  Marrone recounted Paterno’s advice to “continue to make an impact, continue to do the right thing, and you’ll do just fine.”  Marrone credited Paterno with much of his success, including “rising through the ranks of the Department of Defense” to become a high-ranking official under former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.

Current NFL Pro-Bowler Michael Robinson flew all the way back from Hawaii to eulogize Paterno. He shared a story about his recruitment, saying, “when I met Joe Paterno, there was something different about him.  He didn’t lie to me.  He didn’t offer me any money, any cars, like some other schools had done.”

Robinson was followed by current Penn State linebacker Michael Mauti, who spoke of his family’s connection to Penn State through Coach Paterno–both Mike’s father and brother played under the coach–and also shared a humorous story about how Paterno tricked him into committing early.  Mauti went on to explain that he and his teammates have a duty to continue the football program’s tradition of excellence in the name of Coach Paterno.

Finally, Joe’s son, former Penn State quarterback and quarterbacks coach Jay Paterno spoke.  Jay recounted the lessons of unity instilled into Joe by his father (Jay’s grandfather) Angelo.  Jay shared his the gratitude expressed to him over the last week by mourning Penn State fans as well as  his memories of growing up with Joe Paterno as his father.  “There is no greater honor than Joesph Vincent Paterno Jr. being on my drivers license,” Jay said.

Jay commented on his father’s deep love and commitment to Sue and his family.  Jay recalled his time coaching at the University of Virginia, where buildings are marked by the symbols of the secret societies which funded their construction.  “If we were to paint the names of Joe and Sue Paterno on every building they helped build, we’d need a lot of paint,” Jay quipped.

Jay concluded by repeating the last words he said to his father. “Dad, you won. You did all you could do. You’ve done enough. We all love you. You’ve won. You can go home now.”

Following a recitation of the Lord’s Prayer and a single Blue Band trumpet salute to “Hail to the Lion”, the mourners departed the Bryce Jordan Center following an afternoon that will stay with them for the rest of their lives.

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About the Author

Dennis McNamara

Dennis McNamara is a senior studying International Relations. The product of a long and muddy Irish lineage, Dennis blames that sour heritage and his Boston area upbringing for the flaws in his character. The only paid writer for Onward State, Dennis has never been described as a team player as he often thinks of himself as “the smartest guy in the room.” In addition to contributing to Onward State, Dennis is also Creative Director for Full Ammo Improv. Dennis isn’t sure when he’s kidding either.

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