Defending Joe Paterno’s Legacy With Franco Harris

The former Steelers star and Penn State alum is determined to prove Joe Pa's innocence in the Sandusky scandal. Is he crazy, or the only one telling the truth?

There’s no debating that Harris is a conspiracy theorist. The problem with trying to have a conversation with a truther of any variety—9/11, birthers, Sandy Hook—is that there’s always at least one essential fact the two sides can’t agree on. Reach that point, and it’s the conversational equivalent of pulling the parking brake while you’re driving 80 on the Schuylkill. In this case, for Harris, the fact in question is whether assistant coach Mike McQueary really saw something sexual occur between Sandusky and the child known now as “Victim Number 2” in the football facility’s showers, and if so, whether he clearly expressed that to Paterno. The coach himself testified before the grand jury that McQueary told him he “had seen a person, an older [person] … fondling, or whatever you might call it … a young boy. … It was of a sexual nature. I didn’t push Mike to describe exactly what it was because he was already upset.” In a statement following his firing, Paterno expressed regret about his lack of action: “With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more.”

That was the moment, most people agree, when Paterno took on a share of blame for not stopping Sandusky. But Harris doesn’t believe McQueary. The grand jury presentment stated that McQueary “saw a naked boy … with his hands up against the wall, being subjected to anal intercourse by a naked Sandusky.” McQueary would later back away from that exact account, although he agreed with Paterno’s recollection that he’d informed his coach he’d witnessed something “sexual.” Harris tells me he spoke with McQueary after Paterno’s viewing and grilled him about what he saw: Intercourse? Sodomy? An erection? Harris says McQueary answered, “No.”

The board of trustees acted on the belief that after Paterno learned Sandusky raped a 10-year-old, he did little more than call his boss. But Harris doesn’t even believe the “sexual nature” version of what Paterno himself said he was told. He suggests that Paterno’s memory was influenced by the narrative built by prosecutors around their only witness—McQueary. “There’s also a theory,” Harris tells me, “that Joe called Mike and said, ‘Mike, I cannot remember, what did you tell me?’”

That we can’t agree on how much Paterno really knew about what happened in those showers creates a divide that Harris and I, struggle as we do for hours, can’t bridge. From there, he spins a narrative of conspiracy that’s supported on websites like (Penn Staters For Responsible Stewardship), where the Freeh Report—which labeled Paterno among those who “failed to protect against a child sexual predator harming children for over a decade”—has been picked apart, line by line, and rebutted with a 57-page brief. Some of Harris’s postulates strike me as nuthouse ranting—including murmurs of ve­ndettas against Paterno by relatives of board me­mbers and collusion between Tom Corbett, then-state attorney general Linda Kelly and then-board vice chairman John Surma Jr. to use Paterno and the athletic department as scapegoats. “Isn’t it amazing that they don’t have any new evidence on the other side?” Harris says. “The only thing they have is Mike McQueary.”

Harris says the real failure to stop Sandusky was in 1998, when the Centre County district attorney’s office declined to press charges despite Sandusky’s own apology to his victim’s mother and his statement that “I wish I were dead.” That failure, H­arris insists, created a false sense of security concerning Sandusky. He wonders if by the time of the shower incident, a logical explanation had already been established in Paterno’s mind—“Jerry’s weird with kids, but he’s not doing anything il­legal.” Paterno was also 75 years old then. Say what you will about what you would have done in his shoes; folks of Paterno’s generation are as familiar with handling sex predators as they are with interpreting hip-hop lyrics.

I realize that I never ordered lunch. We’ve spent hours debating, poring over evidence. Harris knew his talking points so well that he never opened his notebook. For a minute, he almost had me convinced that I’ve got Paterno all wrong.