There’s a deflated Adidas football sitting on a bookshelf inside my parents’ house a few miles outside Philadelphia.
“To John, Joe Paterno.”
He wrote it twice; once in gold and a few inches below in silver. The gold version is a little hard to read — I suppose he realized this after the first inscription and wanted to make sure I could see his name. I don’t know that for sure; I’ve never met the man. I’ve never even really seen him up close. Why does Joe Paterno even have a gold pen?
The football was a gift from a friend of my dad’s on the first night of a weekend trip to Happy Valley 13 years ago, back when I was 10 years old and had already decided where I wanted to go to college.
On game day, my dad and I sat in the south end zone of Beaver Stadium and watched Penn State play Ohio State. I have no idea as to the outcome of the game. All I can remember from that weekend is my obsession with the football, signed and personalized by the biggest man on campus, the campus I was destined to attend. As that football now gathers dust next to participant trophies and yearbooks and souvenir cups, it’s very much a relic of my childhood.
For PSU alumni, Joe Paterno is no longer the coach, the collective grandfather and the physical manifestation of an ideal that once separated Penn State from other schools. And even now, as Joe Paterno, the figurehead, the statue, the ice cream flavor, transitions into Joe Paterno, the private citizen, it’s the institution around him that’s crumbling.
None of this is about football. The truly dramatic moments never are. And while the political, bureaucratic, social and moral aspects of this story have been discussed ad nauseam over the past week, nearly all of the pundits have neglected to account for the pain and sadness that the Sandusky scandal has brought upon individuals farther and wider than the farm towns of central Pennsylvania. I have intense empathy for the victims and their families, of course, but also for the hundreds of thousands of students who have lost faith in the once iron-clad connotation of the phrase “Penn State.”
Virtually none of those controlling the discourse know that stagnant, fish-food smell of the Phyrst as you descend the basement stairs from Beaver Avenue on a Tuesday night for $6 pitchers of Yuengling and free fries. Or the puke-breath aftertaste of Canyon Pizza’s dollar slices at 3 a.m., or the way Beaver Stadium’s metal bleachers rumble toward eruption under the soles of your feet in the moments before kickoff. Or what the once mythical JoePa looked like from high up in those bleachers year after year.
My father arrived in State College in September 1967, one year after Paterno first became head coach of the Nittany Lions. He was a grad student and rented a single room in a large brick house a few blocks from where I would live on Locust Lane, some 40 years later. Most nights, my dad would drive 15 miles outside of town to shovel heaps of dog food at an Alpo factory in Centre Hall. It was the only way he could afford to go to the school that an undergraduate professor in St. Louis had once described to him as “the fondest memories of my life.”
You can’t know Penn State until you’ve lived Penn State. The same goes for Paterno. Until you see the dozens of Paterno masks in the parking lot on game day, the life-size Paterno cardboard cutouts in the student bookstore, the Paterno T-shirts and coffee mugs and various framed photographs that litter downtown State College. Until you’ve walked home late at night on crunchy snow, having just written a term paper in Paterno Library. Until you’ve sat next to a half-gallon of Peachy Paterno ice cream in a freezer bag on your Greyhound bus ride home for Thanksgiving.
Like many, I’ve spent this past week wondering how a grown man could sodomize a prepubescent boy against the wall of a locker room shower and live with himself behind closed eyes. Wondering how his colleagues and his superiors — and JoePa, in particular — could not do more to stop it when given the chance.
More than anything, though, I’ve wondered how my school and the institution of Happy Valley, of White-Outs and Diner sticky buns and McLanahan’s subs and seemingly endless games of beer pong on moonlit front porches, can ever return to the way it all once was.
In the court of public opinion, for better or worse, Paterno is the center of this scandal, perhaps because his legacy made for a more compelling media narrative, because his name was quickly a worldwide trending topic on Twitter. Or because of the values he championed as a Penn State employee for 61 years, or because he, more than anyone or anything, was Penn State. And if he’s now just a bronze statue outside the field, just the old man in the modest house on McKee Street, what becomes of the rest? Joe Paterno’s exonerated tenure and his Shakespearean fall from grace will have ripple effects in realms far beyond NCAA football, this much is clear.
Deflated or not, the brown piece of rubber on my childhood bookshelf still retains some value. It’s just the inscription that’s become harder to appreciate.