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Paterno legacy tough to fathom, but real

Joe Paterno (Mandatory Credit: Andrew Weber-US PRESSWIRE)
Thousands wait in State College, Pa., on Thursday to say farewell to Joe Paterno.
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Greg Couch

Greg Couch has been a national columnist at AOL Fanhouse and The Sporting News and an award-winning columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times. He was featured twice in "Best American Sports Writing" and was recognized by the US Tennis Writers Association for best column writing and match coverage. He covers tennis on his personal blog. Follow him on Twitter.

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STATE COLLEGE, Pa.

The idea hit Eric Bress and Allie Menna as soon as they saw the path for Joe Paterno’s processional: What if Paterno’s fans linked arms along the path, from, say, the library to Paterno’s statue outside the football stadium, as his body was driven through on the way to the cemetery? So they started a campaign on Facebook entitled “Guide Joe Paterno home.’’

The idea caught fire. In the end, people lined both sides of the street, arm in arm, and it extended all the way downtown.

"He’s done so much for this school," Bress said Thursday at the Hub, the student union, where another Paterno ceremony was shown on large TVs. "Everyone just wanted to catch a glimpse."

Yes. But how do you resolve all he had done in his career with the way it all ended for Paterno, in disgrace?

"It’s mixed emotions," Bress said. "In the end, it was the right move to fire him. You can’t just hide from something like that."

There is just such contradiction, confusion and conflict surrounding Paterno. Even the guy who arranged a touching tribute thinks they had to fire him.

And how about the school’s contradiction? Penn State officials fired Paterno for not living up to his moral responsibilities, not using his power to make sure that Jerry Sandusky stopped his alleged rapes and sexual assaults on kids. They even banned Paterno’s wife, Sue, from going on her early-morning swims in a school pool. Then, Penn State arranged for a week of celebrations for Paterno after he died of lung cancer.

FAREWELL

Family, friends and fans say goodbye to Penn State legend Joe Paterno.

The processional and private funeral were on Wednesday. On Thursday, at least 10,000 people filled the Bryce Jordan Center to hear testimonials from former players, dignitaries, family members. Mostly, it was about Paterno’s integrity as a coach and man. Some people, though, were there for a fight.

"It turns out he gave full disclosure to his superiors (when he was told about Sandusky), information that went up the chain to the head of the campus police and the president ... with an outstanding national reputation," said Phil Knight, chairman of Nike, who said that Paterno was his hero.

"Whatever the details of the investigation are, this much is clear to me: If there is a villain in this tragedy, it lies in that investigation, not in Joe Paterno's response to it."

The crowd at the stadium stood, screamed and applauded. Same with the hundreds at the Hub.

These days, everything is a fight, a debate. Everything is polarized: right or wrong, left or right, good or bad. It’s easier that way, and doesn’t take thought. You fall into a track and just ride it to your beliefs.

I was not at this service for the fight, but to actually look for some truth. The thing is, Paterno spent 60 years known as the example of virtue. But the story had such a shocking, and then abrupt ending. And the truth is, as a father of two children roughly the age of Sandusky’s accusers, it is not easy to just celebrate Paterno’s decades of greatness.

You cannot deny the high graduation rates, the loyalty Paterno showed to his family and to his school. He created an image for Happy Valley, of all sunshine and blue skies and picket fences. And it’s something that people believed in and tried to live by.

It was raining all day in Happy Valley on Thursday. I didn’t know it rained here.

People are complex. We’re all mixed bags. But somehow, we’re also dying to create a hero, dying to find someone to build a statue for.

You wonder how much of what Paterno actually built was even real. Maybe all of it was, who knows? We can’t get answers from him.

In the morning Thursday, I met Jack Harris, a retired Air Force colonel from Colorado, in the hotel lobby over breakfast. He graduated from Penn State in 1969, and talked about meeting with Paterno. It was 1966, Harris’ sophomore year, and he was homesick and a little lost at Penn State. His mother, worried he would drop out of school, had called an adviser to keep an eye on him.

Then one day, he was walking to the football game and, "All of a sudden, I hear this high, squeaky voice," Harris said, "'Hey, where you going?'"

Harris said he and Paterno walked together for half an hour, by happenstance. And Harris talked about missing home, getting a pep talk from Paterno. Harris credited that moment, in part, for turning him around, showing him that someone cared about him.

Even if it was a football coach he would never talk to again.

Eventually, Harris went on to his career in the Air Force, he said, and always made a point to talk with young soldiers to help.

Harris was in Alabama for a meeting on Tuesday, when he called his wife and said he wanted to go to State College. She said to go because she knew what Paterno meant to him.

He started crying as he told that story. He didn’t have a ticket for Thursday’s ceremony, and didn’t know where would be a good place to watch on TV. He just had to be there.

That’s real.

But how do you resolve that with how it ended? Harris acknowledged that Paterno had let people down, and probably let himself down, too. But this wasn’t the time to talk about that, or think about it.

Maybe not. But in some ways, it seems that people in, or from, Happy Valley live in a bubble, and don’t see what Paterno really did (or didn't do). You can’t just ignore how it ended. And you can’t fix it.

All day, I kept wondering what the alleged victims were thinking, to see a weeklong celebration of Paterno’s life. The victims and their parents. It is hard enough for victims of sexual abuse to speak out.

I also kept thinking about my kids.

Well, during the ceremony Thursday, a player spoke from each decade Paterno coached. Michael Robinson, the Seattle Seahawks fullback, was at a practice for the Pro Bowl on Wednesday in Hawaii, and then left so he could speak about Paterno on Thursday.

"I actually told the league, 'Don’t make me choose,' " he said. "'I’ll be (in State College).'"

Robinson said he was a boy when he arrived at Penn State, upset that Paterno would put him at positions other than quarterback. He talked about getting into trouble once. And he said that Paterno guided him through, made him a man.

"He’s in all of us," Robinson said. "Thank you."

There was a lot of talk about Paterno’s legacy. What is it? A few speakers said it is in his former players, and in what they’re doing now.

Paterno never had a chance to redeem himself, or even to explain. He tried, speaking with Sally Jenkins of the Washington Post in the final days before he died. He said something about not understanding about rape and men. It’s hard to believe he was that ignorant, honestly.

He said that he had gone to his superiors with the allegations. But that wasn’t enough. Paterno was the person of power in this town, at this university. He could have been forceful about stopping Sandusky.

Why didn’t he do more? He said he didn’t really know.

The truth is, he was a dying, 85-year-old man trying to defend himself in that interview. It’s hard to say if he was even of sound mind. Was he trying to protect the image of his football team? Was he just misguided? Paterno had spent his life helping kids.

There is no explanation. His legacy is complex. But it’s honest now.

Great and bad, it’s real.

Tagged: Penn State, Colorado, Jack Harris, P. Harris

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