The Joe I Knew
Joe Paterno’s passing and State College’s heartfelt response has come at an unfathomable time in my life. The first 20 years of my life were spent almost entirely at my parents’ house, just around the corner from the Paterno home. As a lifetime townie and Paterno neighbor, I have admired the coach for many years.
Earlier this month, I left State College to study abroad in London, and as fate would have it, eight days after I left State College, Joe passed away—something that had been discussed ad nauseum for my entire childhood. In lunchrooms and on bus rides, questions frequently arose about not only retirement, but also the eventual passing of a man more highly regarded in the State College community than a single post can explain. Joe Paterno was State College, just as he was Penn State.
In the wake of Paterno’s passing, I have been trying to reconcile the emotions that I have never been able to anticipate. There will never be another Joe Paterno.
Joe is a true icon. I will forever remember the interactions, albeit brief, that I had with the national figure who had been my neighbor since childhood. These interactions, however small, have stayed with me…
On one occasion my father had a conversation with Joe. The two were friendly acquaintances from decades of living in College Heights. In this encounter, Joe asked specifically about how my athletics had been going at school. First, Joe was aware that I had been active in sports growing up, as evidenced by the regular games of catch my father and I had on the street in front of our house, which Joe must have witnessed on his frequent walks in our neighborhood. My father responded to Joe’s question by stating that in high school I had been pursuing extracurricular activities that weren’t athletic, but academic or artistic.
The most famous football coach collegiate athletics responded:
“Good for him…he has a whole life ahead of him to play athletics.”
My dad and I will always remember that response.
I will never know, but perhaps he responded that way because Joe himself was an individual who defied expectations. Expected by his parents to pursue law, he instead elected to coach at a small school in the middle-of-nowhere Pennsylvania. Expected to be a mere football coach, Joe made the decision, dubbed the “grand experiment,” to do so much more.
When Joe spoke, people listened. There is something we can all take away from the way Joe spoke. Yes, he was an unforgettable character, but he was also someone who always had the kindest things to say. The words he used to discuss opposing teams’ players and coaches were emblematic of his character and sportsmanship. I will never forget how complimentary Joe was about a team Penn State had defeated, even when it was a squad we had made a mockery of on the field. Joe was never one to gloat, even when he had every right to.
Joe Paterno first impacted my life when I was a young kid. Joe was aware, likely due to a conversation with my dad, that my seventh birthday was approaching. He sent a gift to me on my birthday, a photograph of himself, with the signed message;
It’s been fun to watch you grow up.
Something so simple, yet so meaningful, can signify so much to a young Penn State fan.
Joe took the time to impact people’s lives, just as he took the time to find high character student athletes, occasionally passing on those who were more highly touted.
Before I joined a sea of die-hard JoePa supporters as a Penn State student, it didn’t even occur to me that he would still be coaching for my tenure at University Park. Again, Joe didn’t let me down.
There was another occasion: I was tossing a football back and forth with my dad, and I heard Paterno’s voice, shouting from around the corner “Hey toss it here!” Before I could comprehend the thought of tossing JoePa a football, he quickly amended, “Ah never mind, I’ll probably just drop it.”
It was through these incidents– a casual hello on an autumn afternoon, or the fact that he took the opportunity to remember the kid around the corner– that I knew Joe was a caring man, and a character unlike any that there ever was or ever will be.
Perhaps these sentiments cannot be conveyed to someone new to Happy Valley, or perhaps they can. Through the rough years of the early 21st century, going to a game at Beaver Stadium meant pleas for JoePa to retire. Despite those who suggested he was far over the hill, I remained a strong supporter, and trusted in his integrity and ability to know when it was time. Anyone who is from this region will understand the amount of respect this man garnered. A conversation would emerge from time to time about Joe’s eventual passing. It was easy to shrug off the thought of his death. Easy, because it was impossible to fathom a State College without Joe.
I still can’t.
Being abroad will give me a three-month reprieve from reality. As a photographer, I understand the emotion that powerful images can have. And yet, I doubt I will be able to comprehend what has taken place in Happy Valley until I return this spring.
Paterno’s passing, the topic of hundreds of conversations over my lifetime, cannot yet be fully grasped. Maybe it will take a walk down familiar McKee Street to Sunset Park behind the Paterno’s home. Maybe it will take a few minutes outside Beaver Stadium at the JoePa statue.
It is difficult to explain the impact that Joe had, and will continue to have on those he touches… this is what I struggle to explain to those who refer to him as “just a coach.” I’m not partial to hyperbolic praise, but I truly believe that the words needed to describe the man that Joe Paterno was, and how I remember him, do not exist.
He had a charm about him that garnered respect and admiration. I will carry with me Joe’s example of how to treat others in my life, particularly those with whom I disagree. Paterno respected everyone, and supported people’s choices in life, even if it differed from what he believed. Paterno has stressed many times that he was open to his son’s political views, even as they ran contrary to his own.
Paterno encouraged me to find pursuits that fit me even if they were not athletic, something that most legendary athletic coaches might not say with any kind of genuineness. He left behind many such stories.
I am aware that my minor experiences with Joe are not unique. Thousands have had similar, equally unforgettable experiences with Coach Paterno. The fact that Joe’s memorable character and allure have touched so many is a testament to the profound impact he has had on the Penn State family.
The kid around the corner will always remember the legacy that Joe left behind, and I am grateful to have been impacted by this State College legend.