The trial opening last week reminded me of how crazy this year was to be at Penn State. The accusations against Jerry Sandusky coming to the public’s attention, followed by Joe Paterno’s firing, the dreadful riots in downtown State College, and a beautiful candlelight vigil for the victims of sexual abuse all within a week. Then the Nebraska game where both teams prayed together on the field prior to the game and students demonstrated their support of the victims, Joe Paterno’s rapidly failing health and passing, and a second candlelight vigil and memorial for a man who did so much for this school, community, and everyone who considered themselves a part of the Penn State family.
So many alumni and students talked about Joe like he was another member of their family. Seeing the flowers and piles of cards and Penn State memorabilia surround his statue at Beaver Stadium demonstrated just how much he was loved and how much he is already missed.
I was never one to consider him like a grandfather. Although my dad and both his brothers were Penn State grads, I didn’t really grow up as a huge Penn State fan. I knew Joe Pa was the coach of the football team, but I didn’t know what the hype was about.
Then I came to school here, and I heard all the stories of all of the awesome things this man has done. Supporting students financially in their endeavors, donating $4 million for a library, and giving hysterical pep rally speeches about picnics and meatballs. I started to feel like I knew him and I wanted to meet him just once. Just wanted to shake his hand and say, “It’s an honor to meet you Coach Paterno.”
Unfortunately he passed away before I got the chance to shake his hand during postgame at any of the football games despite all my efforts. But over these two and a half years, I had gained a huge appreciation for who this man really was.
He was a man who wanted to make a positive impact on everyone around him. Someone who was given so much influence and power, and yet lived a very humble life impacting players’ lives and investing himself in the Penn State family. A football coach, who knew that there were much more important things than the X’s and O’s.
He is a prime example of a leader living in service of his followers; his players, the students, alumni, community members, and anyone who was close enough to know what he lived for. I listened to so many students this year praise Joe Pa for everything he did, and yet seemed to miss one of the greatest lessons I think he’d be too modest to speak of himself.
The following at first might sound like I’m diminishing his significance, but in fact I’m raising the significance of what he did as a man.
The lost lesson is that everyone can live a life like this. Sounds simple, straight-forward, and maybe you’ve considered this, but I feel like so much of this campus, and Penn State family, has missed it in the roller coaster of a year it has been. It’s difficult to live like Joe, but possible and he would have wanted each and everyone of us to pursue it.
He was just as human as the rest of us; he ate, drank, slept, faced temptations, had to make difficult decisions, made a lot of good decisions, and made some wrong decisions as well. But most importantly, as the image and face of this university, as a leader, he consistently made the personal decision to completely invest himself in those he was surrounded by.
It takes determination and sacrifice to be different than the norm. Joe had the opportunity to coach in the NFL, but turned it down. Could have kept all his earnings to himself and lived a more lavish lifestyle, but he didn’t.
We aren’t perfect, and Joe wasn’t either. We need to realize that each and every one of us has the opportunity to impact those around us for the better. We have the opportunities to make impacts like Joe did, but we have to make it a priority to take advantage of those opportunities. We need to look to him as a coach for how to live, pushing us from our comfort zone.
Imagine what this campus would be like if the 40,000+ students who knew what Joe Paterno had done here in State College all took to heart what he stood for? Or how about the 500,000+ alumni around the globe?
Let’s make sure it’s not only the two national championships, 409 wins, and the name on the library that he’s remembered for. We need to pass on his desire to live a hard-working, passionate, fun, and selfless life by pursuing it ourselves.
Thanks Joe! We’ll miss you! Rest in peace.