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Game Over: Mike McQueary, the True Hero of Penn State

Photo by Dave Cole


“…Penn State University, currently in the spotlight for unspeakable violations of children by university employees and a subsequent cover-up from their administration…” were the words written to me by an Assistant Dean of Stanford University — one of the most highly respected institutions in the world — in response to an ad my company ran at Stanford that featured Penn State. I tried to imagine someone in a similar office at Penn State being angered enough to put that vitriol in writing…

And yet, that is how the rest of the nation feels about my home, my friends, my fellow students, my faculty advisor, my future fellow alumni — and my father — someone who works in the administration.

Stunned. Appalled. Betrayed. Hurt. Angered.

That was my reaction; not to his words, but yesterday afternoon as I sat and read the book: Game Over: Jerry Sandusky, Penn State, and the Culture of Silence.

For months I was afraid to write these words. To write how I felt. I remembered the words of my trusted advisor, who warned me about the virtues of email etiquette in this 21st century — where word written at the young foolish age of 24, might come back to haunt someone decades later. I considered that I, as flawed and sinful as any man, had no right to stand up and boldly proclaim truth and justice. I thought to myself, “be quiet, David: watch, listen, observe — don’t offer your opinion, even when asked — it can only bring trouble in such a volatile situation. Who am I to offer an opinion that goes against the thoughts of the most powerful people ever to walk the lands of this little town in the middle of Egypt they call State College?” If I sound angry, it is because I am. As anyone who cares about Penn State should be; it is not the innocence or presumption of guilt that is at stake here with Sandusky; this is about people with the power and authority of a billion-dollar institution at their back who did nothing.

Perhaps that is what Mike McQueary said to himself a decade ago…”Who am I?…”

Maybe McQueary thought: we live in a nation of ad-hominen attacks and character assassinations, where press and policy-maker alike gleefully dig up sins of their rivals’ past to avoid ideological or theological debate. Maybe he thought: we have forgotten the definition of civil discourse; where it is easier to an attack a man for what he did, then what he believes. Maybe he thought to himself: We live in a world where Barack Obama is a muslim terrorist who isn’t a US-citizen,  Mitt Romney a racist who believes in marrying many women, Rob Bell a Satan-worshipper who doesn’t believe in God, Jesus or heaven and hell —  and where this statement would later be used to claim that David Adewumi is unpatriotic, intolerable and unChristian — with my words brazenly taken out of the context with which I meant them.

Maybe McQueary, as I did, grew up inspired by the folk and legendary heroes; the Eric Liddells, the William Wallaces, the General Maximus’, the Nathan Algrens…and instead as he claimed adulthood, realized that too often it is the Robert the Bruce’s, the Commodus’s, the Omura’s of the world — the men who either failed to act when their moment came for them, or triumphed and profited through their avaricious behavior — that receive the honor, the wealth, and the glory.

Maybe McQueary was not ready to face the vicious assault on his character that he would face a decade later after he witnessed horror beyond any of us can imagine. He is not perfect. I am not perfect. Yet the absence of moral perfection does not serve as a prohibition to truth.

September 11

They say they remember where they were when they heard the news ‘The President was shot” or “The President is Dead,” after that fatal motorcade drive down Dealey Plaza in Dallas, Texas. They also say they can remember where they were when we landed on the moon, or when Ali defeated Frazier in the “jungle,” or when Jordan hit the game-winner over Russell.

I can remember where I was. I was in my 9th grade Geometry class with Mrs. Detwiler. A voice came over the loud speaker. We turned on the Television set.  A second plane had flown into the World Trade Center tower of New York City.

And the “We” that make up the “We Are” might remember where we were when we first heard news of the scandal that would shake an institution to its core.

I do not.

I do; however, remember where I was when I read the 23-page grand jury presentment.

I was in Hillsborough, Oregon visiting my brother, sister-in-law, niece and nephew. My nephew, all of 8 years old, peeked in the door to check on me. It was a Sunday morning, and I was late getting ready for church. My 10-year-old niece was calling my name.
10 years old…

As I read the report that would usher in the end of a dynasty, I could barely hold back the tears. Those boys, those young men…”Victim X was 10 years old in 1997…;” “Victim Y was 14 years old in 2001;” “Victim Z is now twenty-three years old…” Men. My peers. My brothers. Some of whom might have been my classmates, my fellow runners in track and field, or teammates on the gridiron on the football field…had been at the mercy of an alleged monster, and there were people who knew and did nothing.

I quietly closed my computer, regained my composure, walked downstairs and told my brother: “They’ll both be gone by the end of the week.” And he says, “what are you talking about? Who?” And I say: ” Dr. Spanier and Coach Paterno.” After reading the report, it was not a moral judgement, it was not a feeling of righteousness or justice; only sadness, depression and betrayal. A sense that we had finally begun to see just how deep this dark rabbit hole had gone.

I just started and read: “Game Over” at one sitting in Barnes and Noble yesterday afternoon. It should be required reading for Penn State freshmen to understand not only the horrors and crimes of a minority, but of the appalling inaction of the majority. Perhaps that would demonstrate the university takes seriously its commitment to not only the alleged sexual abuse victims, but also to telling the story of leadership with ethics, a la Dr. Spanier’s famous “shades of grey.” The book writes that Dr. Spanier told colleagues that his moment in November was a “teachable lesson.” The authors write that Dr. Spanier told them he would stand by his colleagues under fire — even at the cost of his job. I admire him for his loyalty. I believe he was right; this was a teachable moment. But not in the way he thought it was. This is a teachable lesson for every single student who ever dons the blue and white, chants the fight song, or quietly hums the alma mater at their graduation.

This “teachable moment” would serve as a reminder of the dangers of the corruption and abuses of power and the responsibility of those who have power to intervene on behalf of the defenseless.

Never once do the authors claim that Paterno knew in 1998, regardless of the vehement and vitriolic defense by the Paterno family representatives. It makes you wonder. They keep reminding us of all the money he gave to the university, while they receive in payment one million dollars more than he ever donated — and still reserve the right to sue the university. They tragically condemn anyone who would beseech the honor of our beloved football coach, and yet they continually cast blame amongst the favored Penn State scapegoat: the trustees. They would ask us to honor his memory and all that he stood for, and they speak precious little of honoring the young men who possibly may never know peace from the trauma that forever stole their honor, their manhood and their dignity…

However the authors do cite a number of other credible sources from a former college football head coach to even his own former star player — Charlie Pittman — who claim that he must have known. Pittman, the first black player Paterno recruited, and a man who as a starter (and while his son was a starter) never lost a game while donning the blue and white is quoted as saying that “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”  Pittman, who spoke at Paterno’s farewell ceremony, who loved Paterno as a father, says that Paterno had absolute power at Penn State and hired his own boss, Curley. Pittman believes he must have known. That is as far as the book goes in damning Paterno; not for the author’s words, but through Paterno’s own words: “I wish I had done more,” and those of his former colleagues, contemporaries, and players.

Regardless of what he knew or didn’t know; regardless of the innocence or guilt of Sandusky — who deserves his constitutional rights, as any would; regardless of what this person would have done, or I would have done, or you would have done…I can only talk about how I feel.

Blood Money

I was once told that during the “Joe Must Go” era of the early 2000s — the losing era that began almost immediately upon Sandusky’s departure from the program — that literally, senior administrators calculated how much monetary value and worth there was in the group of benefactors who supported Coach Paterno, versus the group of benefactors who — whilst they had nothing but praise and love and honor for their beloved coach — believed his time had come.

It truly disgusts me to consider the lengths people took to protect a man, a legacy and an institution. Was the pride of a few folks really worth the destruction it led to for the lives of the young men — several of whom are my peers? Was it really worth a new library addition, or millions of dollars of funds raised for that program just to protect the false-pristine image? How many Penn State diamonds were created upon the backs of young, defenseless, helpless men who even when they spoke up — to their mothers — were ignored for a decade?

One cannot forgive an institution. Institutions don’t harm people; it is people with names and faces who either acted or did not act. It is not “Penn State” the institution who allegedly assaulted victims and it is not “Penn State” the institution who allegedly hid the truth — both from police investigators and from grand jury officials. It is specific people, in a specific place, with a specific knowledge who lacked the will to act. Remember, the police officer who initiated the investigation after the Clinton County incident read on the internet about the 2002 incident that led him to talk to Mike McQueary. One wonders, if folks on football forum boards were openly discussing these shameful acts…

And to the now (in)famous CEO of a major sporting goods company, I consider his words little more than an acknowledgment to the blood money his company paid. To my peers who were in the Second Mile — a few of whom are most assuredly victims or at least meet the profile of the kind of young men targeted by the accused — we would always wonder how they could afford all of the precious sporting good company’s gear…they were decked out as fastidiously and ostentatiously as said sporting goods company-sponsored Penn State track and football athletes.

This CEO, who is now a folk hero in the eyes of myriads of Penn Staters, might as well have admitted that vicariously, he and his company were a sponsor to these vicious acts. For was it not their gear and their money through the lucrative several millions-dollar college sports contracts that allow college football — specifically Penn State football — to bring in tens of millions of revenue; revenue that would allow folks like Sandusky access to game tickets, thousands of dollars worth of said company’s cleats, uniforms, and other gear, bowl game tickets, NFL tickets and every other kind of attraction that a ten-year-old boy could want.

We would say to ourselves as teenagers: how can this person —- Jimmy or Zane or Roger (not real names) — afford all of this “sporting good company’s gear.” We were accustomed to see the sons of football and track coaches’ don hundreds and thousands of dollars of worth of said gear; but not kids who we were sure were on the affordable lunch plan offered by the school. We did know one thing, they were involved in the Second Mile, and apparently through Jerry Sandusky had gifts showered upon them. That is actually why I walked down those stairs after reading the 23 pages that would alter my perception of my childhood forever and utter those words: “They’ll both be gone by the end of the week” to my brother; Penn State, and specifically Penn State Football had been the bait that lured kids into one of the most deviant sexual traps in the history of Pennsylvania; it did not take a righteous man to know that whoever was responsible for Penn State — and Penn State Football — could not possibly survive a week on the job with these revelations made public.

I thought, as I read that report: What if I had not grown up in a two-parent home? What if my father were gone, or my parents divorced, or my father deceased — and I the perfect profile, as the other young men — my peers — were. An athlete, who lived and died by college football, taken up and admired and given attention by one of the gods of Happy Valley? I can only thank God that he did not allow me to suffer that fate…

My siblings went to school with Sandusky’s children. I went to school with Sandusky’s alleged victims. Perhaps that explains how differently we think on the matter. As I wrote emails to them defending my position — not that the folks who failed to act were bad men, but that the trustees did what they had to do — I cowardly would include the line “Do not Publish or Forward this email.”

I will not include those words in this email.

In the America of 2012, it is our hope that money cures all ails.


I believe if there are any heroes in this sordid affair, they are the police investigator who single-handedly launched a formal investigation, the eleven courageous young men who have stood up in the face of shame, disgrace and pain beyond belief to face their alleged tormentor, the parents — all of them mothers — who stopped at nothing until justice would be demanded … and Mike McQueary for sacrificing his livelihood, the regard of two of his former beloved coaches, and the wrath of a nation … to do the right thing 8 years after the fact and testify the truth.

Mike McQueary represents all that is good and true about Penn State; in the face of perhaps the single most difficult challenge of his life, I believe he did the right thing. Some may argue that it was years too late, but I would offer that in waiting as he did, the sacrifice and risk to him and his family only increased as he decided to tell what he believes to be the truth.
Although I’ve never been anywhere near a battlefield, they say that in combat, some men “freeze up.” They go to someplace deep inside themselves, and they seek to avoid what they’ve seen, what’s going on around them — they become paralyzed. It’s the famed “fight or flight response.” Many call McQueary a coward; they question his bravado and his manhood asking why he did nothing. But I ask myself, what more could he have done?

The police were called in 1998. They did nothing. They compiled a 95-page report, and nobody acted. If he calls the police in 2002, the police arrive, Sandusky and the boy are gone, and then what? Many of us can say that the police would have arrested Sandusky; but a mother had gone to the same folks but four years earlier with the testimony of her son, and had been turned back. Who is Mike McQueary that they would listen to him in 2002?

Instead, he goes to his best friend — the man who brought him into this world — and he consults him. They decide not just to go to his boss (who was adamant at the time he would not be offered a full-time coaching position), not just to go to his hero, not just to go to his former coach — he and his father decide to present what they saw to the most powerful man in the state of Pennsylvania; arguably the most powerful man in the entire history of college sports.

Can you imagine, what it must feel like, as a 27-year-old pawn — to go to the King — present your case to both he and to the highest superiors at the University, and…nothing. What more could he possibly do? If the King does not and will not act on your behalf; if the men who give the king his power will do nothing…what more could he have done?

The 44th President of the United States of America, Barack Obama, and the long-reigning head coach of a college football team, Joe Paterno, walk into a crowded room in 2011 — the ovation for the football coach was louder; by far. This man walked on water. Grown men — Penn State administrators and VIP even — fought amongst themselves to get through the guard that was Jay Paterno to get a picture with the beloved god who had deigned to walk in the annals of men. I can never forget that moment that I realized, to the people of Penn State, Joe Paterno was more important, more loved — more powerful — than the current President of the United States, arguably one of the most powerful individuals in the world.

And Mike McQueary goes to that man — not the old, seemingly doddering man who interviews with Sally Jenkins and says he has never heard of such a thing — McQueary goes to that man who receives the ovation, coronation, and funeral fitting for a head of state — and he presents what he saw.

Nothing happened.

I believe McQueary did all that he could do, that he won’t be the one uttering “In hindsight, I wish I would have done more,” and that he — not on his deathbed, but with half-of-a-century ahead of him risked everything; his dreams, his desires, his livelihood, his name, the name of his father, the name of his children, perhaps even the dream of his wife and extended family — he risked it all when they came for him in 2009, and instead of denying it like every single other person who had come before him had done, he stood up and said “yes, I have information, I saw something, and I will testify the truth.”

If not for McQueary, there is no case against Sandusky. Both the prosecutors and the defense have said that a myriad of times.

If not for McQueary, like in 1998, or in 2000, or in 2002, or in 2008 the children would not be believed. A 15-year-old boy against one of the most powerful figures in central Pennsylvania? When you read the reports; incident after incident, they did not find one child credible enough to condemn such a powerful and beloved community figure.

If not for McQueary, we might never know the eleven tragic stories — and possibly countless others — that needed to be told.
If not for McQueary, an alleged predator still might be on the loose, his secret safe guarded by the millions of dollars of value he and his former boss provide to the university, safe-guarded by the self-righteous image of an institutions, and his secret sage-guarded by the men to this day that we claim are the true heroes.

As all the politicians jockey for the place to speak for the voice of hundreds of thousands of alumni everywhere, and “restore the glory” they will sing and utter their praises to the wrong hero, as they seek to curry the favor of the faithful. They will seek the power of kingmakers. They will seek to discredit the men and women, who in the face of one of the biggest challenges of their lives — did what they believe to be was the right thing — and they will say nothing; not of the victims, not of the officer who pursued this case, not of the mothers who took the word of their children against the word of an icon, not of the last true hero at Penn State — who not at the end of his professional life said “I wish I had done more,” but at the beginning of his said “I am going to do all that I can.”

Truly, as Naploeon once said, we are either kings or pawns of men.

I am thankful, that when the king’s speech was eerily silent, the king’s own pawn collected his voice — and when the tide and time came for him to speak — he fervently sung the truth.

If and when I run into Big Red — Mike McQueary — on the streets of State College or of another town, I will thank him.

I will say to him, “Thank you for making the hard choice. Thank you for standing up for those who had no voice. Thank you for enduring the wrath of a nation — both the faithful of Paterno and Penn State and the defenders of sexual abuse victims everywhere. Thank you for doing the right thing. Thank you for doing what nobody else could do. Thank you for having the courage, the honor, and the glory of an institution — ahead of your own — not by hiding in darkness, but by coming forth in light.  You gave the powerless, defenseless and the marginalized — a voice — and a whole nation that ought to be grateful has spurned you. Thank you for at 36-years-old being the man that men a half-century could not and would not be. Like Maximus, Liddell, Wallace and Algren — you are the end of an era, a man who selflessly gives himself up for a cause without thought to the personal sacrifice he might bear.  Thank you for reminding this once-dreamer soul that true heroes still live. You are my hero…You are Penn State.”

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