Commentary

The sacred narrative of Joe Paterno

It isn't easy now, and it'll be harder later to separate the truth from the legend

Originally Published: January 24, 2012
By Jeff MacGregor | ESPN.com

Students of the classics like Joe Paterno know mythology is cautionary. Greek or Roman, folk tale or epic poem, those old stories can be a warning.

As I write this, the story of the late Mr. Paterno and how he fits into modern American mythology is being argued over everywhere. His past won't really be decided until far into the future. In fact, those arguments will likely never end.

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Patrick Smith/Getty ImagesThe mourning began on Sunday. The making of the Joe Paterno mythology began long ago.

This week, though, in the hyperbole of obituary, you'll read the word "legendary" again and again and again. A legend can be simple or complex, sacred or profane, black or white or every shade of gray. Some offer the false clarity of a fairy tale. Others a dense tangle of moral compromise. But it's worth remembering that the defining attribute of a "legend" is its casual relationship to the facts.

It has long been impossible to separate Joe Paterno from his legend. Or to easily separate that legend from the truth; or to separate it from its tending and retelling, or from the well-meant stage management of those he leaves behind.

His life, his deeds, his thoughts, his living and breathing flesh, were fixed in legend decades before he died. No living man or woman can live up to that.

Over the next few days and then out across the years, we'll read and hear and see a mountain of fictions about Joe Paterno. This is legend-building and storytelling and the necessary making of our mythology. In our sadness at his passing, we'll want the legend to be very big and very simple.

This is the reflex of our best intentions.

But a man is a small and complex and contradictory thing. Hard to see, hard to find. Even Joe Paterno. And even in our mourning, the truth cuts in every direction at once. He took some of that truth with him when he died, but enough was left behind that people are fighting over it now. What's at stake is how he'll be remembered.

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AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarThe Joe Paterno story connects to us in a uniquely American way.

Maybe there's comfort in knowing that while history can be indifferent to facts, it usually succumbs to a larger truth. And that the larger truth of Joe Paterno's story is our story, too, and our story has been told and retold by every generation from the days of Augustus to a night at the movies.

"For over a thousand years Roman conquerors returning from the wars enjoyed the honor of triumph, a tumultuous parade. In the procession came trumpeteers, musicians and strange animals from conquered territories, together with carts laden with treasure and captured armaments. The conqueror rode in a triumphal chariot, the dazed prisoners walking in chains before him. Sometimes his children robed in white stood with him in the chariot or rode the trace horses. A slave stood behind the conqueror holding a golden crown and whispering in his ear a warning: that all glory is fleeting."

Maybe apocryphal, it still has about it the antique ring of pride and vanity and warning. In some ways, it mirrors an old installation rite of the newly chosen popes, in which a prelate walked before them whispering Sic transit Gloria mundi ("Thus passes the glory of the world.") -- a reminder and a warning which itself might derive from Proverbs 16:18: "Pride goeth before destruction and a haughty spirit before a fall." Which has at its heart the story of Narcissus and the killing risk of self-regard.

The verifiability of these things matters not at all compared to the absolute truth of their insight into human weakness. These lessons persist in so many forms, no matter how ancient the source or correct the factual circumstance, because human folly persists as well.

All mythology is cautionary. Every story is a warning.

No man living can bear for very long the weight or the impossible cost of his own legend. Mark 8:36: "For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?"

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Chris Gardner/Getty ImagesHow can we know the truth of a man who lived and worked in the shadow of his own statue?

The first draft of our imaginary Joe Paterno, the character from our collective American story, the football legend, was lost to us on the morning the grand jury presentment was made public. In a way, that legend preceded the man in death.

After which, an accounting was easy. Forty-six years a head coach, 409 wins. But a reckoning of the true cost was suddenly beyond any one of us.

Was the sin of pride his? Was the vanity ours?

He was a husband and he was a son and he was a father. He was right and he was wrong, and like most of us, he did his best. A hero to millions, in his own telling he failed his greatest challenge.

If it came to that, could you do right if it cost you everything? Would you sacrifice yourself and all you've built to save a stranger?

Joe Paterno was no more and no less than human, and no living man can contend with his own legend. No man can live in his own shadow.

A bronze statue of Joe Paterno standing seven feet high and weighing 900 pounds was swung into place at Penn State on Nov. 2, 2001.

Four months later to the day, March 2, 2002, Mike McQueary stood at Joe Paterno's door. He had a terrible story to tell.

Jeff MacGregor is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. You can email him at jeff_macgregor@hotmail.com, or follow his Twitter.com feed @MacGregorESPN.

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