Commentary

Statue of limitations

As Penn State has learned, statues last forever, but reputations don't

Updated: July 25, 2012, 2:15 PM ET
By Chris Jones | ESPN The Magazine

Paterno IllustrationIllustration by Edel RodriguezThe man who created Joe Paterno's bronze built it to stand the test of time.

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WHEN SCULPTOR Angelo Di Maria was commissioned to make a bronze statue of Penn State football coach Joe Paterno in 2001, he thought about it in terms of forever. Time has a way of winning just about every fight, but not against bronze. Even when bronze looks as though it's corroding, even when that patina begins to take hold on its surface, it's only getting stronger. The 65-year-old artist -- born in Sicily, now a resident of Reading, Pa.-- was going to help keep the memory of Paterno alive long after he was gone, and Paterno would return the favor. "Part of me is in this statue," Di Maria says. "It's my heart and soul. Everything I create I do with such a deep passion, I can't express it in words." For him, sculpture is the easier art.

Because the statue was a secret, a happy surprise when there were such things in State College, Di Maria never got much closer than 50 feet from Paterno. First, he took hundreds of photographs during a football game to try to capture the spirit of his subject. Next, he made an 18-inch-high model out of clay. In those moments, the statue was only his; it could be whatever he wanted it to be. Di Maria experimented until he was satisfied: a smiling Paterno running onto the field, his index finger raised high into the air. Four football players would be running through the wall behind him, flanked by Paterno's own words: "They ask me what I'd like written about me when I'm gone. I hope they write that I made Penn State a better place, not just that I was a good football coach."

Then two Colombian-born cousins, Yesid Gomez and Wilfer Buitrago -- they didn't even know who Paterno was at the time -- welded together a seven-foot steel frame, wrapped it in clay, made a rubber mold, cast the sculpture in wax and then finally cast it in bronze. They too were pulled through nearly a year's worth of work in the heat of their foundry by the lure of immortality. They looked up at their final product and smiled. It was not a nuanced portrait. It depicted only joy and victory. A thousand years from now, future generations would look at Di Maria's statue and have no doubt.

Only 11 years later, we remain doubtless, but ours is a much more terrible certainty. Paterno died before he could answer fully for the unfathomable sins that have, at best, left him only a good football coach. Now we know what we know, and in the absence of the man, the monument has become his proxy.

In the days after the scandal first broke, Di Maria feared for the statue; when Paterno died and it became a shrine, he thought it might be saved, and he felt something like relief when it seemed as though it would be. Then, after the Freeh Commission's damning report -- in which Paterno and other key leaders at Penn State were found to have "failed to protect against a child sexual predator harming children for over a decade" -- Di Maria knew that the statue wasn't his anymore. "I've come to be able to let it go," he said from his home, while the debate over his work continued to rage. "I see only a terrible mess."

He knows better than most that time will not take care of this problem for us. There is a mural in State College that featured Paterno with a halo. The halo has since been painted over. Bronze isn't so easily altered. Di Maria built that statue to last forever; he built it hoping that it would keep our memories clearer for longer. He succeeded, only now those memories have changed. His statue's permanence became its greatest flaw.

It's nice to think that this is our chance to be like bronze, somehow strengthened by the damage done, but that's just hopeful poetry, and there's no room for poetry at Penn State anymore. There is only that terrible mess and hard choices, how best to make things closer to right, starting in that plaza outside Beaver Stadium. It's never really been about the statue. It's bigger than that. It's about whether we choose to remember or try to forget.

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Chris Jones is the back-page columnist for ESPN The Magazine. He is also a Writer at Large for Esquire. Follow him on Twitter @MySecondEmpire.