My Take: JoePa was a Fair-Minded Man
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If you're like me, you've read countless columns following Sunday's death of Penn State's Joe Paterno, and each is compelling in its own way. Tom Shatel gave his provocative view of the legendary coach's passing, and Omaha World-Herald teammate Dirk Chatelain wrote a memorable piece about the mutual respect JoePa shared with Nebraska's own legend, Tom Osborne.
Nationally, the best columns I've read about JoePa's 85-year life and legacy are:
1) Paterno's final days: no bitterness, just marveling at his fortunate life, written by Sports Illustrated's Joe Posnanski and published this afternoon. This is a must read. It's short, to the point and explainis how JoePa did not die of a broken heart like so many have written. "JoePo" should know. He was with JoePa in those final days because he's writing a book called PATERNO, which will be published in September.
2) Joe Paterno's true legacy, written by ESPN.com's Rick Reilly, the 11-time National Sportswriter of the Year. Published Monday, this is another must read because it tells a touching story about what JoePa did to keep the fighting spirit burning inside Adam Taliaferro, a freshman defensive back who crushed his spine tackling an Ohio State player in 2000. Read and you will realize why JoePa is much more than his failings.
Capturing the full measure of a good man who made one catastrophic mistake, Reilly is a multi-talented creative force who has his own TV show, plus a series of interviews posted online, including a poignant 4-minute, 15-second video called Curt Warner's Battle. It features the Penn State running back (third video down) and describes how he and his wife, Ana, use a faithful approach to a beautiful life with their three sons, including autistic twins.
Warner Video Triggered Windmills of My Mind
I was fascinated when I stumbled onto the Warner video because it triggered something in the windmills of my mind and turned the clock back to 1983 and my only personal experience with JoPa, whose funeral is Wednesday in State College, Pa.
Twenty-nine years ago this April, I was in State College covering Nebraska's fifth consecutive NCAA Men's Gymnastics Championship for the Lincoln Journal-Star. Two Nittany Lion football All-Americans were sitting across the room watching it - quarterback Todd Blackledge and Warner, the running back who permanently etched his name in Nebraska's collective psyche the previous fall.
Surely, you remember the Paterno/Osborne battle royales during a five consecutive-year stretch in 1979-80-81-82 and '83.
Nebraska won the first two games decisively in that series (42-17 in Lincoln in '79 and 21-7 at State College in '80). Penn State won the third game in Lincoln because Warner ran through, around and over the Blackshirts for 238 rushing yards in a 30-24, come-from-behind victory in the fourth quarter. The next year, in State College, Blackledge passed for 295 yards and three touchdowns and Warner again led the rushing attack in the Nittany Lions' controversial 27-24 come-from-behind win, paving the way to JoePa's first national championship.
I digress with overly trivial facts simply to explain why I walked across the gym floor between sessions of that '83 NCAA gymnastics meet just to shoot the breeze with two players that commanded Nebraska's highest level of respect, not only because of the way they played, but also because of the way they handled themselves afterwards.
All-Americans Encouraged Interview Request
Blackledge and Warner were both first-round NFL draft choices in the same month of that gym meet, so when I approached them they were immediately conversational and, in fact, seemed to enjoy a chat with a Nebraska writer. I thought then and still think now that both reflect the class of the head coach they played for. After talking to them for a few minutes, I headed back to the other side, but asked them a question: Do you guys think JoePa would grant an interview to a visiting writer during spring football? They both said he was pretty stretched, but probably could find a chunk of time. They thought he'd agree to an interview because he had such great respect for Nebraska in general and for Osborne in particular.
Reinforced by their reaction, I called Paterno's office. His assistant transferred me right into the living legend himself. I used a Bob Devaney line about Nebraska having two seasons - football and spring football - and wondered if he might have time to share his thoughts about the evenly matched series between the two schools.
JoePa told me he had one time slot available. "What are you doing tomorrow at noon?"
"I'm open," I said.
"Good," he replied. "Meet me at the Nittany Lion Inn. I'll buy lunch."
I remember thanking JoePa and telling him how much Nebraska fans would appreciate him sharing his thoughts.
I also remember him telling me how much he appreciated Nebraska fans applauding All-America wide receiver Kenny Jackson's acrobatic catch in the South end zone. "I owe 'em one," he said.
Can I Join You Guys for Lunch Tomorrow?
A few hours later, Michael Kelly, then the Omaha World-Herald's sports editor who was also covering the NCAA Men's Gymnastics Championships, called my hotel room and asked me what I was doing for lunch the next day.
I told him I was having lunch with Joe Paterno at the Nittany Lion Inn.
"I know," he said. "Can I join you guys?"
Sure, I said.
I remember him responding with something like "Really?"
I assured him again, and then he said great minds must think alike because he, too, had called Paterno, asking for an interview.
"Then it'll work out for both of us," I said.
"Actually, Coach Paterno told me that I could only join you guys if you say it's okay," Kelly confessed.
"Then we're good," I said.
"No, seriously, that's what he told me," Kelly said. "That's the only time slot he had open."
I told Kelly I'd meet him in the lobby of the Nittany Lion Inn at 5 till 12.
Kelly said he wasn't sure he'd do the same for me if the shoe were on the other foot.
"Sure you would," I remember saying, admitting that I did think about saying no for a second or two. Then, I thought about growing up in Alliance and soaking in every word the World-Herald wrote about Nebraska football. I knew, without a doubt, this would be a missed opportunity for the majority of the state. I even remember thinking how losing to Penn State didn't hurt so much because Joe Paterno was such a class guy and his players reflected his class, just like Nebraska players reflected Tom Osborne's class.
Paterno Showed His Respect for Frank Solich
Through all the years, even when the Nittany Lions nailed Nebraska 40-7 in 2002, I never lost my respect for Penn State. I remember seeing a photo of JoePa putting his hands on Frank Solich's neck and shoulders that day, encouraging him, I believe, to keep his head up. And Solich did. He hired a new defensive coordinator, and a year later, Bo Pelini's Blackshirts shut down the Nittany Lions,18-10. We sat next to a one-time Blackshirt and watched that 2003 game perched high in the South Stadium. For a former player and a one-time Husker beat writer, it was an emotional win. We both thought Nebraska was headed back to the future.
No wonder Paterno could empathize with Solich a year earlier. He knew how it felt to be on the wrong side of a lopsided loss. The year after Blackledge and Warner left State College for Kansas City and Seattle, respectively, Nebraska won the rubber match of that five-game set, 44-6, in the first-ever Kickoff Classic at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J.
The night before that game, I remember seeing JoePa and his brother, George, a member of his staff, in the Kickoff Classic's hotel hospitality room. JoePa didn't stay long. I shook his hand. He remembered having lunch with me, and I reminded him how appreciative Michael Kelly and I were that he made time for us. "I enjoyed it, too," he said. "We can all learn from Nebraska."
Here we are, three decades later, Nebraska and Penn State ... two agricultural schools in the same Big Ten Conference - the only two additions to the nation's oldest league since Michigan State in 1950 ... Nittany Lions (1990) and Cornhuskers (2011) ... designated cross-division rivals that will play each other every football season from now until who-knows-when. What an honor that is. What a man Joe Paterno was, living simply, giving generously and touching countless lives in countless ways. I will never forget my one brush with JoePa, a great man and a fair-minded man, even when it came to the simplest decision.
May he rest in peace and may his legacy shine through that one catastrophic mistake.
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