Commentary

No easy answers for Mike McQueary

So who should we believe? And how did Mike McQueary get here?

Updated: November 15, 2011, 9:05 PM ET
By Wayne Drehs | ESPN.com

I am sure there will be days where I say to myself … "What would Coach Paterno say or do right now?" -- Mike McQueary in "Captains Letters to Joe"

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- About a year ago, Mike McQueary, like just about every other former Penn State captain, sat down to write a letter to head coach Joe Paterno. In a project started by the Penn State lettermen's club, each of Paterno's former captains penned a short note to the coach that were presented to him after his 400th victory and published in a book to benefit the Joe and Sue Paterno Scholarship.

"Captains Letters to Joe," it was called, and McQueary's 266-word entry seemed to gel perfectly with the others. The former quarterback joked about throwing a controversial touchdown pass against Rutgers in his second season and thanked Paterno for the opportunity to be his quarterback, his captain and, later in life, a trusted member of his coaching staff.

But that was before everything changed. That was before the 23-page grand jury presentment that accused former coach Jerry Sandusky of sexually abusing eight boys, including one incident that McQueary said he witnessed. That was before Penn State's board of trustees told Paterno, arguably the most popular coach in college football history, that he no longer had a job. And that was before Mike McQueary became one of the most polarizing figures in the biggest scandal to rock college sports.

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Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesJoe Paterno began his football coaching career as a Penn State assistant in 1950. Mike McQueary began his as an assistant in 2004.

Ten days ago, McQueary was simply known as "Big Red," the hometown boy who had made good. He was the first State College High School graduate to start at quarterback for Penn State and later had blossomed into one of the program's most important and trusted assistants. Football fans recognized him as Paterno's ginger-haired confidant on the sideline. Insiders knew him as a key player in helping Penn State's resurgence in the mid- to late 2000s, when the Nittany Lions won 11 games three times and played in two BCS bowl games.

But now, in the wake of the sexual abuse scandal and McQueary's role in it, it seems everyone from South Beach to Seattle is evaluating his moral compass. There are questions about why he supposedly didn't intervene when, on March 1, 2002, according to the grand jury report, he said he saw Sandusky raping a boy in a shower at the Nittany Lions' practice center. Why didn't he stop it? Why didn't he call police immediately? And furthermore how he could idly sit for nine years after the incident and see nothing happen to Sandusky?

Everyone has an opinion. Pennsylvania governor Tom Corbett said McQueary failed his "moral obligation" to help the boy. President Barack Obama said, "Where we see something that's wrong we've got to make sure we step up." And then there are the venom-filled Internet message boards and social media sites, which include cracks like, "If McQueary is scared about his safety he should just hide in a Penn State shower. Apparently you can't get punched in there."

On Monday night, ESPN's Tom Rinaldi reported that a source familiar with the Penn State investigation said McQueary actually stopped the alleged 2002 attack he told a grand jury he witnessed in the shower. McQueary said something similar in an email he sent to former teammates, according to a report by NBC. "I did the right thing … you guys know me," McQueary wrote.

Numerous attempts to reach McQueary for this story went unreturned. In addition, many of those close to him declined to comment. In a brief interview with ESPN.com last week, McQueary's father, John, hinted there was more to the story than what had been reported. It is not unusual for a grand jury to leave certain details of its investigation out of its report.

"There is nothing I would like more than to tell you about all the great things my son has done," John McQueary said by phone. "There is truly another side to Mike than what's out there. But at this point he doesn't have the advantage of trying to respond. That's our assignment. We'll do it and get through this. And at some point when things loosen up we will be able to say more and people will gain a better understanding."

Last week, Paterno issued a statement that acknowledged McQueary came to him with information about Sandusky, but that it didn't include graphic details of what McQueary said took place in the shower. In their grand jury testimony, athletic director Tim Curley and administrator Gary Schultz raised similar points. And Sandusky has denied the allegations, saying he merely "horsed around" with boys and never had any interactions of a sexual nature. In an interview with NBC on Monday night, Sandusky called McQueary's allegations "false." His lawyer added, "What McQueary said he saw, we have information that says that never happened."

So who should we believe? How did McQueary even get here? And what might have been going through his mind that day in the shower and in the nine years since? Perhaps a sliver of insight can come from that 266-word letter.


Coach, Simply … you have afforded me every opportunity since I have been 18. There is no way I can express to you how fortunate I have been to be a quarterback, a captain and one for your assistant coaches, it truly defines the word 'lucky.' -- Mike McQueary in "Captains Letters to Joe"


On Oct. 10, 1974, when Mike McQueary was born, his father called the Notre Dame football office to inform coach Ara Parseghian that the starting quarterback for the 1992 Fighting Irish had just arrived. Six years later, the family moved to State College. But growing up in an Irish Catholic family, Mike McQueary's love for Notre Dame never waned. He attended a Fighting Irish football camp as a teenager. He could recite the starters and reserves for every position on Notre Dame's 1988 national championship team. And on the football field he wore No. 9 in honor of Tony Rice, the quarterback who led the Irish to that 1988 national title.

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AP Photo/Paul VathisMike McQueary was a senior quarterback for Penn State in 1997.

McQueary had every intention of following his idol to South Bend until his junior year of high school, when the Irish focused their recruiting on another Pennsylvania high school quarterback, a kid by the name of Ron Powlus.

That's when Paterno came calling. McQueary had never seriously considered the Nittany Lions. Despite playing his high school games four blocks from the Penn State campus, he wasn't much of a fan. But one night, Paterno came by for an in-home visit. After giving his pitch as to why Penn State was the best place for McQueary, the coach asked if the teenager had any questions. He didn't. He committed to the Nittany Lions on the spot. His family and friends were stunned.

At Penn State, McQueary waited behind Kerry Collins and Wally Richardson before getting a chance to play and begin to reveal his intangibles as a leader.

"He's just so sure of himself," then-offensive coordinator Fran Ganter said in 1997. "He's a man … he's real mature. He's the type of guy that will look you straight in the eyes. And he approaches his job with a fervor. He's a perfectionist."

They were traits he had learned from his father, a former medical corpsman with the Navy special warfare operations and later the chief operating officer of a medical group in State College. John McQueary was among the first graduates from Duke's Physician Assistant Program in 1968 and helped pioneer the concept of the physician's assistant on a national level.

In a 1997 story in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Mike McQueary remembered waiting on the front porch for his dad to come home from work so the two could play catch.

"And even if it was a long, long day at work," Mike McQueary said, "he always threw the football a few times with me. He'd just take off his tie and give it to Mom. And he'd be out the door."

For McQueary, staying home for college meant staying near his closest friend.

"There's a few things I don't tell my dad," McQueary said in a 1997. "But not much."

In college, McQueary visited home plenty. Sunday mornings were a time for brunch and laundry. And whenever the Lions played on the last Saturday in November, McQueary would invite as many as 25 teammates to his parents' house for Thanksgiving dinner. One year the McQuearys went through two turkeys, one ham, 15 pounds of mashed potatoes and 10 pies.

In 1997, he became the first State College High School graduate to start at quarterback for the Nittany Lions. Ranked No. 1 in the preseason, Penn State went 9-3 that year and McQueary was one of five finalists for the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award, given to the nation's top senior quarterback.

After failing to get selected in the 1998 NFL draft, McQueary spent a year toiling around with the Oakland Raiders and in NFL Europe before giving up on his dream of playing professional football.

That's when Paterno called again, offering McQueary a job on his staff as an administrative assistant.

"I couldn't be any happier," McQueary said at the time.


Loyalty, perseverance and commitment are sometimes rare qualities in today's world; I have learned those qualities from you. It is not through your speeches or lectures or teachings, however through your actions in relation to me and others that I have observed the aforementioned traits."-- Mike McQueary in "Captains Letters to Joe"


Just after 9:30 on the night of March 1, 2002, Mike McQueary walked into the Lasch Football Building to drop a pair of gym shoes in his locker and pick up some recruiting tapes. According to the grand jury report, McQueary heard rhythmic slapping sounds in the shower that he said sounded like sexual activity. When McQueary went to see what was happening, he found Sandusky raping the boy, according to the report.

In the grand jury report, McQueary was described as "distraught." But until we hear from him, we'll never know what he was thinking, feeling or experiencing at that moment. There are few people in the world who can relate. Few who can truly say they know how they'd respond.

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AP Photo/Jim MoneJane Turner

Jane Turner is one of them. For 25 years she worked for the FBI as a psychological profiler and an expert in child crimes. She would get child molesters to crack and confess. Law enforcement agencies would bring her in to teach investigators criminal profiling, crime scene assessment, the profiling of sexual offenders and how to interview child victims.

In 1999, she blew the whistle on a series of failures in the bureau to provide protection for child sex crime victims on North Dakota Indian reservations. Her allegations included the cover-up of a rape of a 2-year-old child by declaring her injuries the result of a car accident, and failure to follow-up on evidence that a television personality was sexually molesting children on the reservation. She also caught a fellow agent inappropriately touching a boy at an FBI firing range.

The moment she took her claims to her boss, her life forever changed. She now observes what McQueary is going through as eerily similar.

"Whether you have Penn State, the Catholic Church or the FBI, it's the same phenomenon," said Turner, now a featured speaker for the whistleblowers center's speakers bureau. "An insular culture and a hierarchy where the reputation of the institution is often more important than anything else.

"All of them give you a tremendous amount of power, adulation and glory. There was nothing better than to flash my creds and say 'FBI.' [McQueary] had the same things. The power. The glory. People think you're something special. And it becomes your family. The FBI was my substance, my identity. It was everything. He had the exact same thing."

While it isn't known what happened in the shower between McQueary and Sandusky, Turner said that given her expertise it would have been "100 percent normal" for McQueary to freeze, panic and shut down after seeing what he said he saw.

Turner said most adults have never even seen a photo of a man having sexual relations with a young boy, much less witnessed it. Further complicating things, Turner said, was the fact that Sandusky was seen as a role model in the community and someone McQueary had known nearly his entire life.

"You're trying to comprehend something your brain can't handle," Turner said. "You can't rationalize it. Compute it. Handle it. Most people turn around and walk away. And then they try to figure out, 'Oh my God. What the hell did I just see?' The people who say they would go in there and break it up? They're wrong. Nine times out of 10, that's just not how the human brain works."

In Turner's case, when her superiors disregarded her claims about her colleagues, she took them higher and higher up the FBI ladder, all the way to then-director Louis Freeh. According to the grand jury report, McQueary told Paterno, Curley and Schultz but stopped there. He was never questioned by police. And there is no mention in the report of McQueary approaching the police on his own. Tuesday, The Morning Call of Allentown, Pa., reported that McQueary e-mailed a friend that he "did have discussions with police and with the official at the university in charge of the police."

It also has been reported that even after the incident, McQueary continued to be a supporter of Sandusky at various charity events. Despite all the uncertainty, questions and criticism, Turner understands why a whistleblower might choose to go silent.

"As time passes, you're not going to rock the boat. You're not going to do that. It's your family. Your life. Your career. Your self-identity. Put it on the line and you're going to get destroyed," Turner said. "You walk away from everything. How many people have a moral compass in which they are truly willing to do that? Damn few. Because they get vilified."

The Pennsylvania Child Protective Services Law, instituted in 1975, declares that any individual who comes in contact with children in the course of his her work and believes that a child has been abused is required to notify a person in charge, but not the police. Corbett, Pennsylvania's governor, has said in the wake of this scandal he'd like to see the law strengthened to require witnesses to contact police.

McQueary is believed to have whistleblower protection, which likely is one of the reasons Penn State has placed him on paid administrative leave rather than firing him.

Turner was fired from the FBI in 2003 and four years later won a $1.4 million settlement against the bureau that included back pay and her lawyer's fees. With the information that has been made available to the public thus far, Turner said she doesn't view McQueary as a hero or a villain. Like many whistleblowers, she said, the answer is somewhere in between.

"He's a whistleblower with feet of clay," she said. "He's not perfect. He's not a saint. He's a human being. And he has to live with that."

Turner did give McQueary credit for testifying before the grand jury knowing the potential fallout.

"He had to know that day, sitting in that room, that this ride was going to be a bumpy one," she said. "And now he's learning that."


I will someday be a head coach of a program. I know that and believe it to be true … you might say, 'I will it to happen every day.' -- Mike McQueary in "Captains Letters to Joe"


As they gathered as a group and listened to McQueary say goodbye last Friday night, the Penn State wide receivers could hear the emotion in their coach's voice. He had been that way for much of the week, captain Derek Moye said, and yet when it came time to get to work on the practice field during the week, McQueary had somehow been able to shove the distractions aside and help his players prepare for Nebraska. "Business as usual," Moye said.

But given the tone of this phone call, the players knew it was likely the end. There would be no more business. The university had placed McQueary on administrative leave and for his own safety asked him not to coach or attend Saturday's game. He joked with his players that he was in protective custody, but the reality was he had left State College for a few days on his own.

For the players who knew him best -- the ones like Moye, who McQueary had frustrated, screamed and yelled at and pushed to greatness -- none of it seemed fair. Not the criticism. The anger. The hatred. And especially not the fact that he was no longer there.

"It's tough," Moye said. "Really, really tough. We know him as players. We know him as a person. And anybody you talk to would tell you he's a great person. It's just so hard to see someone you know like that and you care about so much go through something like this. You can't help but be upset."

Offensive coordinator Galen Hall echoed those emotions. When asked after Saturday's 17-14 loss to Nebraska about McQueary, the 71-year-old could barely speak.

"I think it's … I … you know … I can't … I just feel very bad for Mike," Hall eventually said. "And the victims. Don't get me wrong. I feel horrible for the victims."

McQueary had become receivers coach and recruiting coordinator in 2004, when Paterno shuffled his staff after the Nittany Lions went 3-9, the worst season ever at Penn State. In the eight seasons since, McQueary coached three of the top four all-time receiving leaders in school history. His work as lead recruiter has helped bring numerous blue-chip recruits to State College. Before the scandal broke, Penn State was in line for a top 15 recruiting class. And McQueary was being mentioned as one of the up-and-coming assistant coaches in Division I.

"Eight years is a long time to be a recruiting coordinator," McQueary told the Reading Eagle this fall. "It's extremely demanding. I'd like to move up and maybe give up that role, but I think the day they come and tell me, 'Mike, you're not the recruiting coordinator anymore,' I'm going to be kind of PO'd about it.

"I love it. I'm addicted to it. I'm always checking on it. You have to, but it's a great deal of time. You better like it if you're going to do it and do it well."

Moye insisted that what makes McQueary different is the relationships he builds with his players. If you polled the team and asked which coach was closest with the players, Moye said McQueary would undoubtedly win. The bond doesn't come easily. Nearly every receiver goes through a period, Moye said, when they despise McQueary for the way he's constantly screaming, yelling and demanding perfection.

"At first you hate him," Moye said. "Literally hate him. You go home at night and complain about him to all your friends, to anybody who will listen. But then you learn that he has your best interests in mind. He wants you to be the best receiver you can be. The best person you can be. Eventually you come to accept that without him you wouldn't be the receiver you are.

"I know my story is that way."

Every couple of weeks, Moye said, McQueary would walk into the wide receivers' meeting, turn off the game film, turn on the lights, pull up a chair and have a "life night." Smack in the middle of the season, while other positions were preparing for the likes of Iowa, Ohio State or Wisconsin, McQueary and his group would talk about life. How's school? How's home? Are you having trouble in your classes? With girlfriends? How do you feel about your role in the program? Nothing was off limits.

"Everything is on the table," Moye said. "Inside the program, outside the program. He's truly there to help us. And I can tell you we've always had a great respect for him because of that. He knows how to relate to his players. He truly cares about us. That's what makes him a great coach."


Lastly, I am not sure I have ever said thank you. Thank you, coach! -- Mike McQueary in "Captains Letters to Joe"


Though McQueary is supposedly away from State College, life has not stopped at his home. One night over the weekend, several lights were on inside. And Monday morning, the garbage and recycling containers had been brought to the curb.

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Michael R. Sisak/Icon SMIIn his letter to Joe Paterno, assistant coach Mike McQueary, left, wrote, in part: "You have afforded me every opportunity since I have been 18."

Meanwhile, strangers send flowers to the home of Joe Paterno, a few blocks away. Students walk past hoping to spot Joe or his wife, Sue, through a window. They want to wave, give a thumbs up or yell, "We support you, Joe Pa."

For now, Mike McQueary is a man in the middle. On one hand, he's a witness in the prosecutors' case against Jerry Sandusky. On the other hand, depending on whom you believe, he's a flawed character who might have failed when he had the chance to stop Sandusky.

His dreams of someday being the head coach at Penn State are likely dead. And who knows if he will get a chance to coach anywhere else again. He's become a household name and a familiar face in America's living rooms, and depending on the house and depending on the living room, that isn't necessarily a good thing.

Before this week, one of the most popular questions asked of McQueary was what Paterno says to him when yelling at him on the sideline.

"It's really everything under the sun. It's something different every time," McQueary told the Reading Eagle this fall. "Coach has a knack for saying things or thinking about things during the course of a game that some of us aren't thinking about.

"And he's animated. It's like anything you do in life. If you're not emotional, animated or intense about it, then why do it? I have a lot more respect for a guy like that than for a guy who's soft-spoken on the sideline."

Nineteen years ago, it was that level of respect and admiration that prompted McQueary to sign a letter of intent to play football at Penn State. That day, McQueary tied his future to that of the legendary coach. Seven years later, when he agreed to join Paterno's coaching staff, the two were linked even tighter. Now those ties are forever bound together in a series of tightly-wound knots that will be impossible to ever undo.

Wayne Drehs is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at wayne.drehs@espn.com. Follow him on Twitter: @espnWD.

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