Paterno had met his fate, apropos of his beloved Virgil: He fulfilled his duty. A molder of a team, of men, of a university, of a new place in a beautiful valley.
But along the way, he’d forgotten his own fallibility. On a winter night back in early 1983, just hours after Paterno had won his first national championship, he stood in his hotel suite in New Orleans, overlooking the Mississippi, and said to a writer: “I know I can be a real pain in the ass. … The best thing any person in authority can do is make sure he has enough people around him to tell him when he’s acting like a pompous jackass. I’ve always tried to surround myself with people who can soften my impact.”
Joe Paterno was either kidding himself or blowing smoke. Perhaps his wife Sue would tell him when he was a jackass at home, in their humble rancher just north of campus. Perhaps his brother George could write him a letter, though George died of a heart attack in 2002. In fact, there was no one.
JoePa got so big that when evil lurked, hiding in plain sight, no one saw it. Because he couldn’t let go. It was new president Rod Erickson who unwittingly damned the culture Paterno had created when he said: “Never again should anyone at Penn State feel scared to do the right thing.” In the end, Paterno succumbed to the most human of all traits: The wonderful thing that he created became him, and no one could touch that.
Still: On the day of JoePa’s funeral, Jimmy Cefalo—Paterno’s former player—cried a little as he remembered something much more recent: He saw Joe at a luncheon a year ago, and his old coach asked how Gertie and Charles were doing—he remembered Cefalo’s parents’ names after almost 40 years. When Gertie died months later, Paterno called him: He was very sorry to hear about Jimmy’s mother’s passing. “Do you have any wonder why we are so loyal to him?” Cefalo said.
The same goes for students, and the vast number of alumni: He cared enough to give us an idea about ourselves. And we, too, became part of the power of the culture surrounding Joe Paterno.
After his funeral on campus, students, and alumni who had driven in, and a few hundred players current and past lined the streets of campus and College Avenue; thousands watched, on a cool gray day, as Joe Paterno’s hearse slowly rolled by.
When it slipped past Old Main, there was silence, save for the tolling of the tower bell. Then he was gone, and the crowd dispersed slowly, still silent, all the JoePa mourners returning to lives that he had, in some measure, helped create.