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Nothing happy about Paterno's birthday

The Daily John Walters
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Never has the salutation “happy birthday” rung more hollow than it does today for Joe Paterno.

What is happy about it? The former Penn State coach marks his 85th birthday Wednesday, but what do you give the man who has lost almost everything that meant anything to him, outside of his family, in just the past eight weeks? Another pair of khakis?

If only the Jerry Sandusky scandal and its collateral damage were as easy to extinguish as the four score and five candles on Paterno’s birthday cake. If only Paterno had done the right thing in the defining moment of his career, which as it turns out transpired far from any football stadium.

Since the release of the grand jury report on Nov. 4, the past several weeks of Joe Paterno’s life have played out like a Shakespearean tragedy rendered on a sports tableau. On Oct. 29, Paterno stood on the field inside Beaver Stadium, snow swirling around his black shoes and white socks, as the fans cheered him for breaking Eddie Robinson’s major-college wins mark of 408. On that day, he also tied Amos Alonzo Stagg’s record for most games coached (548), though few seemed to notice.

Paterno has lost so, so much since becoming his sport’s winningest coach.

Begin with the seasonal routine. No head coach has devoted more Decembers to preparing his team for bowl games than Paterno. In his 45-plus seasons as the Nittany Lions’ CEO, he led them to an FBS-record 37 bowl games. In those years, especially in the Decembers of 1982, ’86 and ’93, when a national title was at stake, Paterno’s birthday was probably little more than an annoying distraction to him.

While Penn State is headed to the Ticket City Bowl in Dallas on Jan. 2, he will play no role.

Since Paterno fielded that eerily terse phone call on the night of Nov. 9 — “You are relieved of your duties” — he has lost so much more. Besides his job, Paterno has lost his relationship with his employer of more than 60 years. Penn State recently announced that it would no longer license the name, likeness or image of Paterno, which is akin to the United States cutting all ties with George Washington.

Paterno’s health appears to be rapidly deteriorating. Fewer than 10 days after his termination, it was disclosed that Paterno has been undergoing treatments for lung cancer. Last week, he was admitted to the hospital after breaking his pelvis in a fall at home, the second time he has suffered that injury.

Worst of all, Paterno has lost hope of redemption. Time, after all, is the only commodity. At his age and with his health in decline, Paterno will exit the stage as an abject figure, a cautionary tale of how an entire life’s reputation can be destroyed in a few fleeting moments.

Unlike Jim Tressel, for example, Paterno cannot afford to sit out five years for a show-cause penalty and launch a redemption tour at age 64. He is finished. Paterno’s first act had such an incredibly extended run that the parameters of mortality leave him no chance for a second act.

For all that Paterno accomplished, and for all that he gave — and the tally on both amounts is substantial — he will be remembered as much for how his career ignominiously ended, and for all the alleged cases of sexual abuse of children that he might have prevented.

Joe Paterno turns 85 today. Tomorrow is the first day of winter. As is every day for the remainder of Paterno’s life.

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