We were ...
Penn State was a place from another time, in a self-proclaimed Happy Valley. Now, scorched by scandal, the town that Joe Paterno built struggles to define its icon and itself.
This story appears in the Dec. 12 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- A light glowed in the long front window of the last house on the left. It cast a soft yellow halo on the drapes. The mood on this chilly Sunday night felt somber, and people kept exiting the front door crying. A group of Penn State cheerleaders left in tears. Two other women did the same: deep, heaving sobs disappearing into the shadows of McKee Street. In the window, Sue Paterno's face filled the glass. She watched them vanish and turned away. Her husband never appeared. It was impossible to know what he thought about all that had fallen apart in the past week, and if his Catholic upbringing led him to believe he deserved it. "He's home," a pilgrim standing outside said. "He's just resting."
The yard looked like someone had died. People left blue and white balloons. They spread out messages, planted them on stakes. One sign read: World's Greatest Dad. Another said: Forever in his Debt. Nobody mentioned the little boys or their alleged rapist. The pilgrims came here to celebrate Joe Paterno and mourn his end, and perhaps to celebrate and mourn some piece of themselves. They left flowers. Someone spread out a T-shirt: In Joe We Trust. Pom-pons littered the grass.
A man pulled up in his car. Bill Fairer, 58, played in the Penn State Blue Band in the 1970s. Once, in college, he and some friends borrowed a spatula from the Paternos. They'd been cooking burgers in the park next door.
He held an arrangement of flowers in one hand and a letter in the other. He began to read, standing in front of the two television cameras still left from the 30 or so that had been there the day before. Only, the cameras were off and he wasn't looking at them anyway. He was reading a letter to a house. When he said "Joe," addressing the coach directly, his voice cracked. Crazy stuff, a grown man crying in the dark, saying "Part of me has died." In a few minutes, Sue would pick up Bill's flowers and take them inside. These were the scenes in the last hours of the worst week in Penn State history, and if there was a hopeful spot, some symbolic halo of light in the long dark window, it was the knowledge that no matter what happened tomorrow morning, it couldn't possibly be worse.
It rained the next morning, the first day of the new normal, whatever that might turn out to be. People in State College wore blue ribbons to honor those who'd suffered child abuse. They took cell phone pictures of the three humming satellite trucks on College Avenue. They flipped over a truck and chanted "F--- the media!" during the first week; in the Week After they managed only to mutter "Eat s---" at a passing reporter. They held prayer vigils, and candles, and town hall meetings. In their classrooms, they looked at words written on chalkboards: Love Notices Wet Hair do not erase. They passed along rumors, texting to see if the school had really removed the statue of JoePa at Beaver Stadium. People stopped to take pictures in front of that shrine, flashers blinking on idling cars. Just in case. One woman patted JoePa's arm, and her wedding band echoed on the bronze. The statue of Joe Paterno was hollow.
It rained on Tuesday, and Wednesday, too.
Many things appeared typical. Students walked down Curtin Road in the rain. They illegally parked near the HUB. They gave blood and ate free pretzels in the IST building. They wore North Face jackets and every imaginable iteration of Penn State gear. Townies drove down South Atherton to Meyer Dairy; the smart ones ordered Grape-Nuts ice cream. Nobody rioted. Nobody screamed into the wind. Some people in town, it's important to note, didn't care at all; some were even happy about Paterno's demise. Others felt the dull ache of division for the first time. Paterno's house seemed like the exile villa of a deposed head of state. Who was the head football coach? Tom Bradley had the title, but his public relations guy hadn't heard Tom call himself that. Bradley didn't move desks. Paterno's office in the football building remained locked. It is still his office to the men who now coach his players.
The sun came out on Thursday, shining on a time in between. The actions already had occurred: the indictment, the resignation of Paterno, the firing of Paterno, the riot, the candlelight vigil, the way the team locked arms and walked slowly out of the tunnel on Saturday afternoon. But that was all finished now, and the repercussions -- the final knowledge of what Jerry Sandusky did with those boys, and what Paterno knew, and what those things would mean -- lived in some distant future. The Week After was shrouded by an uneasiness. Something was off in State College, the way people started most interview sentences with a clause about the alleged victims, never really articulating how they felt. Something remained unsaid, just beneath the surface, covering the town and the school like a cloud waiting to rain.
The cult of JoePa didn't go away even though the man did.
The Creamery sold Peachy Paterno ice cream, and the shops on College Avenue sold Joe Knows Football shirts and collectible banners proclaiming his famous quotes: "Believe deep down in your heart that you're destined to do great things." He really is all over State College, with fancy stores even selling artsy photographs of his black shoes. But it's more than the pop culture tchotchkes, more than the statue by the stadium, or the fellowship that bears his name, or the library he donated millions to build. It's even more than his years of being a fund-raising closer for the university itself, he and Sue hosting home-cooked dinners for star-struck and cash-heavy executives, vital for a state university that gets only 6.6 percent of its funding from the state.
His sensibility is everywhere.
He arrived when this was a college instead of a bona fide university, and there was no Interstate system shortening the distance. Pitt was a powerhouse. So was Penn. This cow college sat in the middle of empty Pennsylvania. Penn State grew up with him, and in some ways because of him. Without Joe Paterno, says Penn State sports journalism professor Malcolm Moran, this is Rutgers. With him, it's Notre Dame. It's impossible to separate him from the place.
This paragraph will prompt hate mail, but it's true: State College is an ordinary college town. No more. No less. The campus looks like most campuses. The strip of bars and restaurants isn't particularly unique or specific to this place. There's nothing that makes it really different. It's Auburn, Ala., or the part of Baton Rouge near campus, or a sort of bland Lawrence, Kan. When you hear it described by students and alumni, they talk of a magical valley, riding down through green hills, to a place apart from the world. In most descriptions, the town is painted as a last outpost of a spirit that the rest of America has lost. The 1950s live in Happy Valley. But if you look closely, and have no emotional ties, something becomes quickly apparent: The thing that makes State College different, or in any way a time machine, is the fact that Joe Paterno lives in it. He didn't just build a football program. He built the town's idea of itself.
He had help. Penn Staters turned Joe the man into JoePa the myth, and then used that myth as Exhibit A in the creation story of their beloved State College and the transformed Penn State. Most fans don't remember, but until the Nittany Lions won the 1982 National Championship, Paterno was just another citizen of this town. The most famous one, yes, but he went where he pleased. He bought olives for Sue with little fuss. Then that changed, and he became the embodiment of a value system. An idea. It wasn't a one-way street; he talked of his Grand Experiment plenty on his own, and crowed about integrity, seconding the nomination of George H.W. Bush for president. He shares blame in his deification, but once it began, it couldn't be stopped. In 1989, he sat in Washington National Airport with journalist and friend Lou Prato, who is now the retired director of the Penn State All-Sports Museum. They sat and talked about the old days, and before leaving the table, Paterno signed a copy of a new biography: "To Lou, I hope this brings some good memories. We were young once. Fondly, Joe Paterno."
Looking at the autographed book a week after Paterno was fired, Prato begins to cry. The past days have hurt him. He's had trouble sleeping, and when his limp worsened, he wondered if it was his mind expressing existential pain. The other night, his wife asked if he was having a heart attack. Like many people, his emotions are complex. There's a picture of his mother in his den. She raised him. His biological dad had an alcohol problem and used to beat his mom before he left. Well, his mother saved her money and paid for Lou to go to Penn State, giving birth to his dreams. In 1986, the year of the second national title, he brought her to her first game. She stood in the roaring canyon and believed. One of her last requests before dying in 1998 was to return to Beaver Stadium. So all the attacks on Penn State this week, and on Paterno, however deserved from the outside, have been processed through his head and heart as assaults on his past. He looks at his mom's picture and says she is crying, too, somewhere.
"Sorry, mom," he says.
His memories have been changed, and thoughts of little boys raped -- the "who knew what and when" -- have crept into his beautiful snapshots. Camelot has crumbled.
"It's gone," he says. "It's never going to go back. There's no way. In fact, there's no way there's ever going to be anything like this anywhere, this idyllic myth."
The myth about Paterno was based on reality -- Joe did value education, and following NCAA rules, and going to class, and he did make much less than other coaches of his stature, and he did raise millions for the library, and he did walk to work many days -- but JoePa carried an added infallibility that could never last. Maybe he knew it. People close to him say he hates talking about his legacy. Maybe he was humble. Maybe he was scared of dying. Or maybe he knew that someday his human flaws would bring all of this crashing down. If he did put his program above the safety of children, it would suggest that a life of good decisions doesn't really prepare a man for the moment when he can put that practice to work and do the right thing.
Many details are murky. But when faced with the choice that would color everything that came before it, Joe Paterno never went public and Sandusky was never banned from the world Paterno controlled. Knowing why is impossible, and part of the point, really. He is unknowable. That's why Prato's inscription is so poignant. It's jarring to see emotion, especially melancholy, from Paterno, since he's become a Hallmark card of black shoes, thick glasses and pithy 1950s wisdom. It's hard to imagine him sad, or lonely, just as it's now hard to envision him capable of such brazenly human self-preservation. Most people here can't picture him keeping such a selfish silence, even in the face of 24-7 cable news speculation that he did.
In the week after, the scrubbing began. Paterno's name was taken off the Big Ten championship trophy. Franco Harris, one of his former players, was removed from a marketing job for supporting his old coach. The university ran from Joe, too. E-mails went around among faculty members, asking if the Paterno Fellows should be renamed. In a quiet bar overlooking College Avenue, professor Moran sipped a glass of wine and considered all that was gone.
"All the walls are gonna be painted white," he says. "Everything's on the table. Is somebody panicking? Is some faceless wonk being guided by legal eagles saying you need to distance yourself right now? Do they paint all the walls white because they're scared s---less?"
At Tom Bradley's first weekly press conference as head coach, the sports information staff put out a stack of game notes, the thick collection of the inane and slightly important. Joe Paterno is referenced 16 times. A year ago, in the same week's packet, he was mentioned 119 times. "The sanitizing is happening," Moran says.
By Tuesday night, after Sandusky and Mike McQueary, the coach who testified he had witnessed Sandusky raping a child, had both given brief television interviews, something seemed to have changed. A walk down College Avenue brought bursts of skepticism. No way Paterno could've done this. There had to be a mistake. Duke lacrosse all over again. "I just don't want to believe that if Paterno was told they had sex in the shower," sophomore Kevin Horne says, "that he wouldn't go to the police. I just have a hard time believing that."
Suspicion ran wild. A guy, talking to a friend, said, "One of the biggest conspiracies in college football is going on right now." In the dark corner of Zeno's, an underground bar across from campus, the bouncer and two customers talked about the swirling facts, taking them apart and putting them back together in a way that suited their beliefs. It was fascinating, to see competing narratives being formed, in real time. Somebody said that he heard some of the victims had dinner with Sandusky not long ago, and that didn't make sense. What if none of it was true? "What if it's all a snow job?" "What if McQueary is a nut job?" "There were a lot of decisions made prematurely." "It's murkier and murkier."
Near the end of the Week After, the unspoken uneasy feeling revealed itself. The scrubbing away of Joe Paterno was also a scrubbing away of the past of anyone who loves Penn State. Almost nobody said this out loud -- for fear they'd be seen as comparing their loss to the loss suffered by those boys, because they didn't trust themselves to articulate their thoughts, and because they didn't trust the visiting media to understand and get it right. The university was running from Paterno, which made sense. He had become toxic, and if the reality was that he put his program above protecting boys, he deserved whatever would come.
Still, the relationship between Penn State and Paterno never had much to do with reality. He's always been a myth, in the way the town itself is a sort of myth, so why would facts suddenly come into play? The unease in State College is the beginning of a split. There is the way the university views Paterno, and the way many fans will always view him. "That's also one of the most heartbreaking things," Horne says. "He's not leaving. He lives down the street. He's gonna be around. It's hard to fathom Penn State football saying, 'Sorry, Joe, we don't want you here.' Penn State fans don't want that to happen."
There might soon be dual histories, if both parties cannot reach an accord. That's why a piece of hope in the Greek tragedy of Paterno's lung cancer diagnosis was the statement of support released by the athletic department. But if the scrubbing continues, the split will be permanent. There will be the official, factual version, one that deals with who knew what and when, with the awful details of showers and dark basements. Then there will be the mythical one in people's memories, where Paterno remains great for what he did, and for what they need him to mean.
This entire sad affair has been about things unspoken. Children suffering in silence. Rich men not raising their voices to help them. And, in the week after, a thought lurking just under the surface of a rainy State College: Of course we care about the victims, but we also care about what Jerry Sandusky took from us.
As the students left for Thanksgiving, and the Week After finally ended, the sun set on the statue outside Gate F. He's standing there in his old man glasses, his tie flapping in an imaginary breeze. To his right, in big letters, are the words: Joseph Vincent Paterno. Educator. Coach. Humanitarian. Those words hang around his neck now.
His own kids don't like that his finger is raised in a bronze taunt: I'm No. 1! Try to find a picture where he's running onto the field with his index finger raised, they'll say. He might raise his fist, but that wasn't good enough. Joseph Vincent struggles for victory. JoePa proclaims that victory before it happens. Paterno himself never even wanted this statue. Walking past it probably felt like attending his own funeral. He has worried for years that, like Bear Bryant, he'd die whenever he stopped coaching. Being diagnosed with cancer on the weekend his team played its first game without him in six decades must be the realization of so many closely guarded fears.
Once, this was where people left offerings. After Paterno broke his leg in 2006, fans covered this statue in cards and bandages, and people who drove by realized this is what it would look like when the end finally came. This is where the last pieces of Joe the man would slip away, replaced completely by JoePa the myth. Well, the end has come, and there are no cards here, just a few strands of discarded pom-pon confetti.
But look closer. There are two patches of melted wax. Candles burned here not long ago, but someone took them away. The university can't do anything about the front yard on McKee Street, but it can keep this place from being a shrine to someone it is trying to erase, furthering the new divide between Paterno and Penn State. Go there and leave something. Park across the street and see what happens to the flowers, or the mini football, or the note telling the former coach what the past 61 years meant. A red cart will stop, and a Penn State employee will pick up your offering and carry it away. Only the statue will remain, and even it might be gone one day, too, carried away in the same red cart, leaving behind a hill of freshly sodded grass. That will be the reality, at least. In the memories of the fans walking past, there will always be a statue outside Gate F, honoring the man they wanted Joe Paterno to be.
Wright Thompson is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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