Joe Paterno’s Death Reminds Me of Losing Harry the K

You don't have to be a Penn Stater to get it: Both men were adored and flawed.

Even if you’re not a sports fan, it’s been impossible to miss the coverage of Joe Paterno’s death and the outpouring of grief from the Penn State community. From ESPN to Action News, we’ve seen the candlelight vigils, the tearful students, and the families bringing their young children to lay flowers at the Paterno statue in State College and touch that outstretched bronze hand one more time. Regardless of your feelings in the aftermath of the school’s recent child sex-abuse scandal, it’s hard not to feel moved by the love and appreciation he inspired. The day Penn State played its first football game without Paterno this past season, I was at the gym and an older woman stopped to ask me for the final score. When I told her the Nittany Lions lost, she let out a joyous cry of relief. As critical as I’ve been of Penn State and Paterno in the wake of the charges against Jerry Sandusky, her reaction repulsed me. The players on the field that day had nothing to feel ashamed about. They deserved better. I wonder what that woman is thinking today—and I hope I don’t bump into her near the treadmills this week.

I didn’t attend Penn State, but while I can’t fully relate to that community’s overwhelming sense of loss this week, the Paterno tributes remind me of another legend whose passing hit closer to home. When Phillies broadcaster Harry Kalas died from heart disease in 2009, there was a similar reaction from fans all across the Delaware Valley. Harry the K was the voice we heard in our heads when we replayed our most cherished baseball moments—Mike Schmidt’s 500th home run, Chase Utley’s coronation as “The Man,” the final three outs of the 2008 World Series, and many more. In the days following his death, fans spontaneously gathered at Citizens Bank Park, covering the Schmidt statue with flowers, signs, trinkets and personal notes. Thousands turned out for his public memorial at the ballpark, some lining up before sunrise for a chance to place a hand on his casket. Of course, Harry Kalas was flawed—his drinking and his infidelities were detailed in Randy Miller’s 2010 biography, Harry The K: The Remarkable Life of Harry Kalas. To this day, when I think of Harry and smile, those details don’t cross my mind.

There’s great risk in deifying our idols—figuratively or, as the halo added to Paterno’s mural yesterday suggested, literally. Both men, Paterno and Kalas, weren’t perfect, and unfortunately, the coach’s ties to the Sandusky scandal are far more consequential than some heavy drinking and womanizing. It’s a mark that will not—and should not—wash away with time. (Paterno’s recent comment to the Washington Post about not following up on Sandusky’s alleged child rape for fear of doing “something that might jeopardize what the university procedure was” rings hollow, coming from a man who, in truth if not title, sat at the top of the PSU totem pole.) It also shouldn’t completely overshadow a lifetime of success, the lives he positively impacted, and his devotion to one school in an era where coaches became celebrities and often chased big paydays or brighter spotlights.

Ironically, that’s why I cringed at former Penn State quarterback Todd Blackledge, who said this weekend that the media was “as much a part of” Paterno’s death as his cancer. (By contrast, this video by ESPN’s Jeremy Schaap strikes a fair balance between Paterno’s greatness and the events surrounding his ouster). Let’s set aside Blackledge’s hypocrisy as someone who has been a television football analyst for years, including work for ESPN, and thus is a part of that same media; his commentary makes me wonder if he’s just as concerned about a juicy sound bite as he is about Paterno’s good name. Instead of stoking the flames of controversy just hours after Paterno’s death, folks like Blackledge would do more to honor him by keeping the focus on the rest of his legacy. Then after he is laid to rest, channel some of that righteous anger toward Sandusky, and some compassion toward the true victims here—the kids whose lives were forever damaged by abuse. That’s what any decent person—be it a coach, a play-by-play announcer, or someone less famous—would want.