In an earlier blog, I mentioned the inspiration the Pittsburgh Steelers were to western PA. With a heavy heart, I’m now remembering an even bigger inspiration in Pennsylvania football, the legendary Joe Paterno. My youthful discovery of the sport of football coincided with the beginning of greatness of Penn State’s football team under Paterno. There is no way of measuring the impact Joe Paterno has had on all of us. I never had the honor of meeting JoePa, (the closest thing was meeting the son of his predecessor Rip Engle) but he has left a mark on my life that will never go away. At an young age when I poured over every word contained in the Sports section of the newspaper, no single name carried the weight of JoePa. I can’t count how many times I read of star players having to sit because they weren’t carrying their weight academically. This was at a time when other schools were liberally bending the rules and ignoring bad grades or enrolling their players in such tough academic courses like basket-weaving. Not Paterno. He insisted his players make the most of their education and graduate. (I always wondered how that basket-weaving major worked for those guys who didn’t make it to the NFL.) It was that integrity that left an impression on my young mind. Do your best and do it right. That was learned and echoed by his players , many of whom did make it to the NFL. I still remember what a thrill it was to have the Steelers draft Franco Harris and Jack Ham from Penn State. Looking back, I can barely believe that original inspiration of my youth remained intact and active well into my adult life. Paterno was the only coach of Penn State I ever knew of. I know I’m not alone in being inspired by Paterno. Hundreds of players passed through Happy Valley, the majority of them having an experience that changed their lives. Who can number the lives that those players have reached themselves with the life lessons learned at Beaver Stadium? The pride of Penn State went even deeper than the football team. I have yet to meet a Penn State graduate who is not fiercely proud of their school and it was Paterno that built that Penn State pride from the ground up. It’s ironic that Paterno’s career was ended by scandal. I will go so far to say that perhaps no one in the history of NCAA football has ever had the integrity of Paterno, let alone maintain that integrity over the number of years that he had. In the end, he was brought down by the alleged lack of integrity of others. That’s right, I totally buy into the explanation JoePa gave of not knowing how to handle the situation and letting others more qualified handle things. Some people have said Paterno should have done more. Even Paterno said he wished he had done more. I say, for a guy that was 85 years old and has inspired generations of football players, sports fans, college students, and just plain ordinary people, no one could do more. Rest in Peace and Godspeed Mr. Paterno. Penn State and the world is a better place because of you.
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