Commentary

Memorial brings Penn State together

Originally Published: January 26, 2012
By Ivan Maisel | ESPN.com

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- They spoke at Joe Paterno's memorial Thursday the way that his teams played and represented Penn State for the last 46 seasons: simply, with little flash and great focus.

[+] EnlargeSue Paterno and grandchildren
Patrick Smith/Getty ImagesSue Paterno was consoled by her grandchildren.

They emphasized academics every bit as much as football. They played fierce defense, as his teams always did, defending Paterno's reputation in the wake of the child abuse scandal that caused the university to fire him in November. They remembered Paterno as a teacher more than a coach, a philanthropist with straightforward values, and a man who prized the competitive instinct.

And at the close of the ceremony at the Bryce Jordan Center, right across the parking lot from Beaver Stadium, Jay Paterno, his son and former assistant coach, spoke for nearly half an hour with an emphasis on Paterno as a husband, father and grandfather.

The heavens provided a typical late-season Saturday of weather for the memorial: rain, leaden skies, temperatures in the mid-30s, pretty much a copy of Oct. 29, the day of Paterno's last game as a head coach.

The emotion that hums close to the surface at any memorial surged forth the instant this two-and-a-half-hour presentation began, when Paterno's widow Sue was escorted to her seat on the front row. Each of her five children and their families followed. Seeing a weepy grandmother embracing her grandchildren piled two deep within her embrace, would melt the frostiest heart.

Among the dozen speakers were one player from each of the six decades in which Paterno coached the Nittany Lions. The players poked fun at how Paterno didn't like anything or anyone showy. Take the famous Penn State uniforms.

"He always talked about how the name on the front of the jersey was more important than the name on the back," ESPN commentator Todd Blackledge, the quarterback of the 1982 Nittany Lion national champions, said. "I always thought that was odd. We never had anything on the front of the jersey, either."

Seattle Seahawks running back Michael Robinson, the quarterback of the 2005 Big Ten champions, described himself as a boy whom Paterno recruited out of Richmond, Va.

"Something was different about him," Robinson said. "He didn't lie to me. He didn't lie to me at all. He didn't offer me any money."

Robinson couldn't finish that sentence without laughing about a coach known for his lack of interest in money.

"He didn't promise me a car. He didn't promise me I would be starting quarterback my freshman year. He didn't even promise me I would play quarterback. He promised me my education would be second to none. He promised me I would have the opportunity to compete for a starting position."

[+] EnlargePhil Knight
AP Photo/Alex BrandonPhil Knight didn't mince words in his defense of Joe Paterno.

Robinson said Paterno once told him he would be a Pro Bowl running back or fullback.

"As God is my witness," Robinson said, "three hours ago, I got off the plane from Hawaii, because I have been voted to my first Pro Bowl. Again, Coach Paterno could not lie to me."

As for his decision to fly 11 hours to be at the memorial, Robinson said, "I told the [National Football] League: Don't make me choose."

A few of his former players hinted at the scandal that engulfed Paterno in the last weeks of his life. "No one individual," Blackledge said, "has ever done more for any university in the country than Joe Paterno did for this school."

Charlie Pittman, who represented the teams from the 1960s, Paterno's first teams, said in regard to the concept of team that Paterno held so dear, "Family brings comfort. Family survives hard times. It outlives controversy."

But when Nike chairman Phil Knight took the stage, he hinted at nothing. He carried with him a ration of red meat for every Paterno lover in the arena. Knight is a ferociously competitive man who is loyal to his friends, which may be why he felt a kinship with Paterno.

"I am a man who has always needed heroes," Knight said. He explained how Paterno had been the second hero of his adult life, whom Knight had looked up to after the death of Bill Bowerman, his track coach at Oregon and partner in Nike, in 1999.

"Never once did he let me down," Knight said. "Not one time. The conventional wisdom dictates that I would phrase it a different way. It would say, in 11 of those 12 years, he never let me down. And those years outweighed this last one. But nobody ever accused me of wisdom of any kind, let alone the conventional kind."

Knight detailed how Paterno had told his superiors what he knew and that the information went to the proper campus authorities. And then he pounced.

"This much is clear to me," Knight said, "if there is a villain in this tragedy, it lies in that investigation, and not in Joe Paterno's response."

Knight received a standing ovation, complete with whoops and hollers, that lasted 50 seconds. And then the Nike chairman twisted the knife.

"It does leave me with this question: Who is the real trustee at Penn State University?"

The subsequent speakers didn't take to the ramparts quite like Knight, although Jay Paterno made the feelings of his family clear: "Joe Paterno," he said, "left this world with a clear conscience."

[+] EnlargeJay Paterno
AP Photo/Alex BrandonJay Paterno led the crowd in prayer to end the memorial.

He also reminded everyone of the priorities in the "magnificent daylight" of his father's life. Joe Paterno believed that teamwork could solve any dilemma, on the field or off. Jay said he once asked his father why the team joined hands and said The Lord's Prayer after every game. Joe told him because every pronoun in the prayer was "we" or "our." Jay then asked everyone in attendance to join hands and say the prayer.

"Bound by a common cause," Jay said, "our differences would melt away, whether it was the Middle East, Northern Ireland or Sudan. When the world would get crazy, Joe would say to me, 'If we could just get them all in a locker room before a game, to get them in a huddle, to hold hands for a common cause.'"

Joe Paterno thought big. And even at the end, when his university fired him, Paterno continued to think big, his son said.

"He told me he wanted to use his remaining time to continue to see Penn State thrive," Jay said. "He never spoke ill and never wanted anyone to feel badly for him."

In the waning minutes of his father's life, Jay Paterno said, in closing, he thought of all that his father had given to his family, to his players, to his school. He leaned over and whispered into his father's ear, "Dad, you won. You did all you could do. You've done enough. We all love you. You won. You can go home now."

Joe Paterno is home and the rest of Penn State has the warmth of the memorial service to remind them of who and what he meant to the university. They will remember their coach. As the scandal continues and a new coach who is not of Penn State begins his tenure, the question is whether they remember what he taught.

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.

Ivan Maisel | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com