Wednesday marked Joe Paterno’s 85th birthday, a milestone moment for a legendary sports figure. Seven weeks ago, this would have been a big day. People would have been talking about his great accomplishments throughout the years.
Crickets. It’s hard to know what to do, or how to take it, really. Someone at USA Today wrote, "For one day, we can forget about how it all ended. . . ."
No, we can’t.
It is not possible to just take a day off and celebrate for Paterno after what he did, or didn’t do, especially for the alleged victims of Jerry Sandusky. It’s hard to find sympathy for Paterno. But at the same time, he is fighting cancer with chemo treatments, has broken his pelvis, served for more than half a century and has watched his career crash and burn. It doesn’t seem like the time for another rant, either.
For so long, Paterno’s age and productivity seemed amazing, inspirational. Now, he hits a big birthday, and it’s almost as if he isn’t even there. It’s almost as if the legend and accomplishments are forgotten, or at least hidden. The moment is hollow.
Bobby Bowden is ripping him. Paterno’s former players are offering support, trying to thank him. But when 340 former players of Paterno signed a letter of support for him, as The Associated Press reported, even it started: “As members of the Penn State community, we are deeply saddened by the allegations against Jerry Sandusky, and our thoughts and prayers go out to the victims and their families. Given the allegations against Sandusky, we understand the public’s outrage because we share it.
"At the same time, however, it’s important to remember that all of the facts surrounding this troubling matter are not known . . ."
True enough. But former coach Mike McQueary did, apparently, report to Paterno what he claims he saw Sandusky doing to that boy in the shower. And then Paterno did the bare minimum under the law to stop Sandusky after that.
It’s enough that Paterno’s former rival, Bobby Bowden, chose the day before Paterno’s birthday to go on a radio show in Orlando, Fla. — "Open Mike with Mike Bianchi" — and say this:
"I’ve tried to think what I would do if one of my coaches had come to me and told me what happened. I would have gone to that guy (Sandusky, in this case), asked him if it was true, and I would have told him to get away from here and don’t ever come back.
"And then I would have gone to the police. I think that’s what I would have done."
Are we sure of that? Bowden might not be the guy to say so. When Colorado had its sex-for-recruits scandal several years ago, with several women alleging rape or assault by football players, Bowden, from afar, publicly questioned whether at least one accuser was telling the truth.
But the point is that Paterno’s birthday didn’t lead to amazement and celebration over his career. Instead, it just started up the debate again.
Are we supposed to feel sorry for Paterno, or sympathetic on his birthday? It’s just hard to feel that. As a result, you don’t see much talk about it.
Five years ago, approaching his 80th birthday, someone asked Paterno why he keeps going on as a coach.
"I can’t explain it," he said. "Why do people write forever? Why do people do whatever they like to do and not want to back away from it? I don’t play golf, I don’t fish, and I am not a guy for hobbies.
"To me, college football and being around kids and trying to make them as good as they can be, and having a good competitive football team with the kind of support we get . . . it is an ego trip, I am sure. I am sure it is part ego, but it is fun, and I am enjoying it."
How did that quote make you feel? Sad for a guy who has lost all of that, or angry because he was saying how much he loved helping kids?
You can take one side or the other of that, or even both sides at the same time. That’s the awkwardness of the moment in the air.