What a fool I was.
In 1986, I spent a week in State College, Pa., researching a 10-page Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year piece on Joe Paterno.
It was supposed to be a secret, but one night the phone in my hotel room rang. It was a Penn State professor, calling out of the blue.
"Are you here to take part in hagiography?" he said.
"What's hagiography?" I asked.
"The study of saints," he said. "You're going to be just like the rest, aren't you? You're going to make Paterno out to be a saint. You don't know him. He'll do anything to win. What you media are doing is dangerous."
Jealous egghead, I figured.
What an idiot I was.
Twenty-five years later, when former Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky was accused of a 15-year reign of pedophilia on young boys, I thought Paterno was too old and too addled to understand, too grandfatherly and Catholic to get that Sandusky was committing grisly crimes using Paterno's own football program as bait.
But I was wrong. Paterno knew. He knew all about it. He'd known for years. He knew and he followed it vigilantly.
That's all clear now after Penn State's own investigator, former FBI director Louis Freeh, came out Thursday and hung the whole disgusting canvas on a wall for us. Showed us the emails, read us the interviews, shined a black light on all of the lies they left behind. It cost $6.5 million and took eight months and the truth it uncovered was 100 times uglier than the bills.
Paterno knew about a mother's cry that Sandusky had molested her son in 1998. Later, Paterno lied to a grand jury and said he didn't. Paterno and university president Graham Spanier and vice president Gary Schultz and athletic director Tim Curley all knew what kind of sick coach they had on the payroll in Sandusky. Schultz had pertinent questions. "Is this opening of pandora's box?" he wrote in personal notes on the case. "Other children?" "Sexual improprieties?"
It gets worse. According to Freeh, Spanier, Schultz and Curley were set to call child services on Sandusky in February 2001 until Paterno apparently talked them out of it. Curley wasn't "comfortable" going to child services after that talk with JoePa.
Yeah, that's the most important thing, your comfort.
What'd they do instead? Alerted nobody. Called nobody. And let Sandusky keep leading his horrific tours around campus. "Hey, want to see the showers?" That sentence alone ought to bring down the statue.
What a stooge I was.
I talked about Paterno's "true legacy" in all of this. Here's his true legacy: Paterno let a child molester go when he could've stopped him. He let him go and then lied to cover his sinister tracks. He let a rapist go to save his own recruiting successes and fundraising pitches and big-fish-small-pond hide.
Here's a legacy for you. Paterno's cowardice and ego and fears allowed Sandusky to molest at least eight more boys in the years after that 1998 incident -- Victims 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 8, 9 and 10. Just to recap: By not acting, a grown man failed to protect eight boys from years of molestation, abuse and self-loathing, all to save his program the embarrassment. The mother of Victim 1 is "filled with hatred toward Joe Paterno," the victim's lawyer says. "She just hates him, and reviles him." Can you blame her?
What a sap I was.
I hope Penn State loses civil suits until the walls of the accounting office cave in. I hope that Spanier, Schultz and Curley go to prison for perjury. I hope the NCAA gives Penn State the death penalty it most richly deserves. The worst scandal in college football history deserves the worst penalty the NCAA can give. They gave it to SMU for winning without regard for morals. They should give it to Penn State for the same thing. The only difference is, at Penn State they didn't pay for it with Corvettes. They paid for it with lives.
What a chump I was.
I tweeted that, yes, Paterno should be fired, but that he was, overall, "a good and decent man." I was wrong. Good and decent men don't do what Paterno did. Good and decent men protect kids, not rapists. And to think Paterno comes from "father" in Italian.
This throws a can of black paint on anything anybody tells me about Paterno from here on in. "No NCAA violations in all those years." I believe it. He was great at hiding stuff. "He gave $4 million to the library." In exchange for what? "He cared about kids away from the football field." No, he didn't. Not all of them. Not when it really mattered.
What a tool I was.
As Joe Paterno lay dying, I actually felt sorry for him. Little did I know he was taking all of his dirty secrets to the grave. Nine days before he died, he had The Washington Post's Sally Jenkins in his kitchen. He could've admitted it then. Could've tried a simple "I'm sorry." But he didn't. Instead, he just lied deeper. Right to her face. Right to all of our faces.
That professor was right, all those years ago. I was engaging in hagiography. So was that school. So was that town. It was dangerous. Turns out it builds monsters.
Not all of them ended up in prison.