Joe Paterno's sons recount final days
Jay Paterno Moved By Support
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- The line of Joe Paterno's former players and managers stretched around the sidewalk on two sides of the Pasquerilla Spiritual Center. Inside, on the stage of the Worship Hall, the body of the former Penn State coach lay in a closed wooden casket, a few dozen white roses splayed across the top.
"There were 17 years of guys I coached," Jay Paterno, an assistant on his dad's Nittany Lion staff, said Tuesday afternoon. "Four years of guys I went to school with. Ten years of guys I watched play."
"And then," his brother Scott chimed in, "there were guys we heard stories about."
The brothers sat in a pair of oversized chairs in Room 118 of the center. A table of sandwiches, cookies and drinks for the Paterno family were lined up against one wall. Judaic prayer books filled the shelves. The Islamic center is across the hall. The ecumenical center was a personal project of Joe and Sue Paterno. In the Worship Hall, a figure of Christ on the cross, a white cloth hung over his hands representing a shroud, hung on the wall behind Paterno's casket. It is not a permanent fixture.
For the previous four hours, Jay and Scott, their three siblings and their mother, Sue, had greeted six decades of Joe's other sons, men he had coached on the field for four years and off the field ever since.
Beside the casket, a current player and a former player stood watch in 45-minute shifts. Outside, the queue of public mourners stretched several blocks down Curtin St.
The morning was reserved for his players.
"It was very moving," Jay said. "From the time they started with our current team, all the way through all the lettermen, I didn't sit down. It was just really moving to see guys flying in from Texas, the West Coast. John Cappeletti [the 1973 Heisman Trophy winner] flew in from California with his whole family. He came with his mom and his brother, who played here. It was very, very moving to see that.
"They all kept saying, 'I wouldn't miss this for the world.' 'Your father convinced me to go to law school.' All these stories about things Joe had done for each of their lives, and how much they felt they owed to him."
Every former mourner would recognize the look on Jay Paterno's face. Adrenaline is damming the flood of fatigue and heartache. It is a short-term solution. There's something about seeing a casket being taken from a hearse that brings home the finality of it all. In this interim before the funeral Wednesday and the memorial service Thursday, the love and support from friends and family provides warmth and light.
As Tuesday morning showed, Joe Paterno had a very big family.
"As a kid growing up," Jay said, "my dad spent a lot of time away from us, because this job does demand a lot of time out of you. It really does."
Last year, the Penn State Letterman's Club published a book, "Captains' Letters to Joe." It is one page after another of gratitude. At his last Christmas, Joe Paterno gave each of his five children a copy of the book.
"He signed it, 'This book is about all of us, Love, Dad,'" Jay said. "When he gave them to us, he said, 'Look guys, you guys paid a price for that.' He was very honest about it. He said, 'You gave up a lot of our time.'
"Having coached myself, I get it. Seeing this [turnout] reinforces it. And all the questions about legacy, and how he will be remembered, watching hundreds of former players come with all the stories and anecdotes, that's the legacy."
Since Joe Paterno died Sunday morning at age 85, many of his former players, not to mention a few columnists, have suggested that he died of a broken heart. The university that he and his football program put on the map fired him last November in an attempt to stanch the wound of scandal, and Paterno couldn't summon the will to fight the cancer that had invaded his lungs.
"No," Jay Paterno said. "He didn't have a broken heart. I think his 85th birthday [Dec. 21], he was in a really good place. He had all five kids, five spouses, 17 grandkids, and he was smiling like I haven't seen him smile in a long time. He wasn't worried about getting to the film. It was almost like he said for a minute, 'You know what? This retirement may not be so bad after all.' He was in a really good place. I don't think it was a broken heart."
"You want to show him the picture?" Scott Paterno said.
He punched up a shot on his phone of Joe, surrounded by his grandchildren, a birthday cake aglow before him. The candles failed to match the wattage of Joe's smile.
"That's the moment," Scott said. "When they all walked in, he said, 'I'm the luckiest man I know.'"
Jay said, "It's almost like Lou Gehrig. It really is. 'Some people say I got a bum deal. I'm the luckiest man in the world.' It was almost that kind of moment."
Cancer is worse than its treatment, but not by much. Radiation and chemotherapy did a number on Joe Paterno. He entered the hospital on Jan. 13. Over the course of a week, his body began to fail. His faculties did not. Paterno spent the last hours of his life surrounded by his family. A ventilator prevented him from talking. But he could communicate.
"He wasn't sitting around the hospital Thursday night, Friday, Saturday, feeling sorry for himself," Jay said. "He was listening to all the kids talk to him. My son [Joe, 12] was telling him stories."
Scott said, "It was clear. He knew what was going on."
"Saturday afternoon," Jay said, "I got a pad and started drawing out plays for him." He reached into his bag and pulled out a legal pad. The top page had a half dozen plays drawn up side by side.
"I said, 'Remember this? I Right 643 against Georgia, Greg Garrity down the left sideline,'" Jay said. "That's the play that won the 1982 national championship in the Sugar Bowl.
"A smile would crease his face. He'd nod his head yeah. I started drawing out a whole list of stuff. He's watching me draw them.
"There's Slot Left 62Z Post, Bobby Engram's touchdown against Michigan, we won the game in '94 out there.
"There's a touchdown, Mike Robinson to Derrick Williams, Northwestern in '05.
"There was a touchdown pass to Kirk Bowman, Nebraska in '82, 27 Boot.
"42 Z Post was against Ohio State in '01 to go ahead when he broke Coach [Bear] Bryant's record."
There was a reason that Jay Paterno picked those specific game-winning touchdowns. His dad had made every one of those game-winning play calls.
"They were all plays he had pulled out of his back pocket," Jay said. "I was kidding him about it. He'd keep a yellow sheet in his back pocket. He'd pull it out, and hold on to your hat. These were all plays he had called, and he had this big grin. That was really fun. That was fun to do."
"He was listening," Scott said. "You definitely knew he was listening. It was nice to have the opportunity to tell him what you needed to."
"I'll say this," Jay said. "I was very careful. I did not tell him everything. I figured he was going to know eventually."
"You see?" Scott said, his voice raising. "That's the difference. I wanted to get my spin on it, on earth. I told him everything."
But Jay Paterno said he held back for a reason. "This guy has come from behind waayy too many times in life," Jay said.
Both sons smiled at the memory.
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com and hosts the ESPNU College Football podcast. Send your questions and comments to him at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN.com.
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Legendary Penn State coach Joe Paterno, NCAA Division I's all-time winningest coach, has died at the age of 85. He ended his historic career mired in scandal, leaving the question of his legacy unanswered. Maisel and Schlabach »