After hearing the steady stream of coaches, players and fans reflect on the life of Joe Paterno Sunday, the most poignant and solemn comment for me was the thought that the Penn State icon died in sadness or of a broken heart.
I heard that commentary by two of his close friends and peers Hall of Fame coaches Lou Holtz and Mike Ditka. Of the thousands of players Paterno recruited over his six decades of coaching, Ditka was the one Paterno reportedly felt worst about losing when Iron Mike chose Pittsburgh over Penn State out of high school. That was in 1957, just a few years after the Brown University-educated Paterno told his father he was choosing the coaching profession over law school.
On hearing that news, his dad's primary advice to his son was to "make an impact."
With Paterno's 409 wins now the gold standard for college coaches, JoPa left us yesterday knowing that he had more than exceeded his father's advice.
Over those six decades in coaching, someone calculated that there were some 900 coaching changes in college football. Remarkably, he missed just three of 731 games he coached. One was the Army game in 1955 after his father died; the second was the 1977 game at Syracuse after his son, David, was seriously injured in a trampoline accident; and the last was the 2006 home game against Temple, following a sideline injury he suffered week earlier at Wisconsin.
As many reflected on Sunday, football was indeed Paterno's life, but the legacy goes far beyond his coaching longevity and the victory total. Because he made sure his players went to class and then graduated, many Paterno players have become leaders in society.
He donated more than $4 million to the school and used his fame as a coach to raise countless millions that have been used for, among other things, the Paterno Library, the Mount Nittany Medical Center, the endowment of faculty positions and student scholarships and Special Olympics. Paterno put Penn State on the national map and helped mold it into the great Big Ten school it is today.
Like Ditka, Lou Holtz, who coached against Paterno more than a dozen times, also felt JoPa lost the will to live after the Sandusky scandal rocked his beloved university. Some persons even drew a parallel to the immortal Paul "Bear" Bryant, who lived just a short time after leaving the Alabama coaching sidelines.
One thing that always impressed me about Paterno was the great discipline he instilled in his players, a product of his early Jesuit training in Brooklyn. The plain vanilla uniforms and white helmets speak much to the Paterno way. When asked why the players' names weren't on the backs of the jerseys, his simple reply was that it was the name on the front of the jersey that really matters, not the name on the back.
And as for the end zone theatrics we're used to seeing from pro athletes on Sundays, Paterno had a simple rule for his players who scored a touchdown: "Act like you expect to get into the end zone."
He once said publicity is "like poison. It doesn't hurt unless you swallow it."
As for JoPa dying of a broken heart, we were heartened to hear a report from his son Jay that during his dad's last hours, he was aware that there were a great many people congregating and praying for him at the university. Hopefully, that vision replaced the cloud of uncertainty that has consumed the campus, causing Paterno so much sorrow over these last three months.
No person deserves to die with a broken heart, especially one with the character of a Joe Paterno, the man who positively affected so many others during his time with us on earth.
By Jim Zbick