It may seem like a pretty crooked train of thought to start out wondering who the hell Joe Paterno is and work through Muhammad Ali, but that’s where I’m going. I’m thinking about myth-building.
Paterno, well, it’s pretty obvious why I’m thinking about him. And I didn’t realize it, not until the Sandusky mess hit, but I’ve been obsessed with the JoePa thing for about 40 years, from the first day I landed at Penn State. There were two goons in the dorm room next to me. One was an offensive guard. The other, the more lively of the two, was a linebacker with a bad back. Eddie couldn’t play. He was in JoePa’s doghouse a lot. He also liked to tell me if I was going to smoke dope, I better be sure I put a towel under my door, because RA’s were sniffing out guys like me.
Eddie was just rattling my chain, but I thought I left dicks like him behind in high school. I admitted to Eddie once in passing that I didn’t know who dear ol’ State was playing that weekend, and he looked at me like—you know how he looked at me. I wanted an alternative Penn State. The sort of college where the point was to figure out who the hell I was. It’s there, and I found it eventually. But I had to first wipe away the gooey lather of Nittany Lions and JoePa, the putative self-definition. I never went to a football game. I never cared two figs for Joe Paterno.
Suddenly, though, he’s pretty interesting. We’ll get to that.
Last week, at Joe Frazier’s funeral in East Mount Airy, there was Ali, in a dark suit and sunglasses, looking hunched and frail from Parkinson’s. I can’t get that image out of my head, because even nearing death, or especially nearing death, Ali is riveting. As Frazier was dying, Ali had released a statement:
“The news about Joe is hard to believe and even harder to accept. Joe is a fighter and a champion and I am praying he is fighting now. … Joe has a lot of friends pulling for him, and I’m one of them.” At the service, Jesse Jackson asked the mourners to get up and applaud for Frazier. Ali rose and clapped hard.
But, of course, Ali took a different tack a long time ago. He and Frazier fought three epic battles in the early ’70s, Ali winning the last two. And he also danced on Frazier’s head in that wide-eyed, worked-up way of his, calling him an Uncle Tom, white people’s champion, ignorant, a gorilla, ugly. He imitated how Frazier talked. He once told a British reporter, “He’s the other type of Negro, he’s not like me. There are two types of slaves. Frazier’s worse than you to me…. One day he might be like me, but for now he works for the enemy.”
At the funeral, boxer Larry Holmes and promoter Don King talked about how much Ali’s attacks had hurt Frazier. Frazier hadn’t talked about it. “But I will,” Holmes said.
Frazier, the workmanlike guy, the son of Southern sharecroppers, simple and direct, reached the top on sheer power and will. His post-fighting life was messy, but a lot of people say he was a decent guy.
Ah, but Ali: He was beautiful and brave—sacrificing his career to take a stand on Vietnam—a showman impossible not to watch, to wonder at. And his cruelty, the merciless public drumming over Frazier’s simpleness, was part of the theater. Frazier was a prop, a shadow punching bag to create Ali’s idea of himself, and to play us, on the trip wires of race and patriotism and ultimate manhood. He won. The aura lives—even as a trembling old man last week in Mount Airy, simply paying his respects.
And now we turn to Joe Paterno, a very different-seeming great man near the end of his life. I’ve had a complicated reaction to him, the last couple weeks. How angry I’ve been, as if I’m right back in my dorm room, next to Eddie and the other big doofus, those guys who defined my school. Or seemed to. I thought I was long past all that.
But this, the level to which Paterno held the university captive to his power and ego: Did he really pick his idea of Penn State football—of JoePa—over the lives of children?
I don’t think we know—at least not yet. Paterno’s players, current and ex, have been saying wonderful things about him, how he took them on as boys and molded them into men. Maybe they buy into the myth. Maybe they are simply telling us their truth. So there’s the question: Who is Joe Paterno?
Lord Acton, that great arbiter of power, keeps bubbling up, when our very American brand of myth-building runs smack into a brick wall of humanity: Great men are not good men.
As for Ali, standing and paying his respects to Joe Frazier with everyone else, in the simplest way possible—I can’t get that image out of my head because it brings me into the genius of his game, to marvel, even now: He’s still a moving target, a mystery. Large.