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Recounting Joe Paterno’s Speech At THON 2009

Throughout former Penn State football head coach Joe Paterno’s 61 years as a mentor in Happy Valley, the Brooklyn, New York, native graduated nearly 90% of his players, sent over 350 to the NFL ranks, and garnered 32 first-round draftees.

But, between all of Paterno’s accomplishments in helping morph Penn State from a small, land-grant institution into a renowned brand, the head coach believed the development of THON truly defined the university’s encompassing spirit more than any raucous crowd at Beaver Stadium ever could.

Following a lengthy hiatus from the THON spectacle after enduring several injuries manning the sidelines, including a hip injury while attempting to demonstrate an onside kick in 2008, Paterno returned to the Bryce Jordan Center stage in 2009 to fire up nearly 700 dancers who graced the venue’s floor.

While Paterno certainly generated his fair share of impassioned proclamations during his six-decade tenure with the Nittany Lions, his speech at THON 14 years ago stands high among the rest.

Immediately upon taking the stage, the full-capacity BJC crowd broke into an audible “Joe Paterno!” chant before the head coach took over the microphone. Within seconds, the stands went from utter jubilation to silence, with audience members hanging on Paterno’s every word from start to finish. 

“There’ve been very few times I’ve been speechless in my life, but I am right now,” Paterno said. “I wish the whole world could see, and feel, what’s in this room right now.”

Penn State’s Dance Marathon officially began in 1973, right before Paterno kicked off his eighth campaign heading the Nittany Lions. The first event of its kind started as a 30-hour, no sitting, no sleeping celebration in the HUB Ballroom. The event raised $2,136, which is equivalent to roughly $14,400 adjusted for today’s inflation. 

In 2009, however, the total morphed into a $7,490,744 mark, setting a former fundraising record, which was perpetually snapped during each consecutive cycle until 2014.

“In 58 years at Penn State, I’ve never been more proud than I am right now…,” Paterno said. “When those families come up, I have a tough time keeping my composure.”

While it’s unclear how much Paterno donated to THON or Four Diamonds during his reign in Happy Valley, he and his family were benefactors of over a $4 million donation to the university library, and another $200,000 addition just weeks after his firing in 2012. 

Upon his passing, his family honored his giving legacy by asking supporters to donate to the Special Olympics of Pennsylvania or THON in his honor. 

As a marquee figurehead to the student body, Paterno encouraged dancers to keep fighting through the complete 46-hour duration. He reiterated the impressiveness of the tall, physical order, typically endured by just 1.5% of the university’s undergraduates annually. 

“I hope that you will never forget what you can achieve later on in life,” Paterno said. “What you’ve achieved here, [for] yourselves, as well as the people you’ve helped, how proud you’ve made everybody with your connection to Penn State. God bless every single one of you.”

Paterno exited the stage’s point upon his final line of encouragement, helping the crowd erupt into an emphatic “We Are!” chant. 

While Paterno didn’t mention the importance of the “We Are” adage during his three-minute dialogue, he formerly connected the phrase with THON in a standalone, clearcut manner. Although the battle cry was started by members of the Nittany Lions’ 1947 football squad, the two-word adage takes school-wide unity to an entirely different level.

“When they say, ‘We Are Penn State,’ this is what they are talking about,” Paterno said. 

To watch the entirety of Paterno’s 2009 THON appearance, click here.

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About the Author

Connor Krause

Connor Krause is a senior from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania double majoring in journalism and business. He is a lifelong Penn State football and basketball fan and enjoys rooting for Pittsburgh sports teams. In his free time, Connor can be found playing golf or pick-up basketball. You can follow his Twitter and Instagram @ckrause_31.

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