Paterno legend traces back to prep roots
When Brooklyn Prep’s varsity football team broke from a huddle during a scrimmage against the school’s junior varsity, center Jay Reilly discovered the ball had been spit on.
Standing on the other side of that ball in 1942 was a wiry 140-pound Italian sophomore named Joe Paterno, who stared squarely into the eyes of the older and husky Reilly, who outweighed him by 50 pounds.
“I spit on the ball,” Reilly recalls Paterno telling him.
After a brief silence, Paterno continued, “What are you going to do about it?”
“He was a little guy with a lot of guts,” says Reilly, 86, a 1943 graduate of Brooklyn Prep. “He was a tough kid.”
Six decades later, the legendary 84-year-old Paterno still isn’t backing down. The all-time winningest coach in the history of major-college football, this season is his 46th as Penn State’s head coach.
And while he’s expected to coach his No. 23 team’s home game Saturday against third-ranked Alabama from the press box because of right shoulder and pelvis injuries suffered in an accidental collision at practice last month, he’s stared down pleas in recent years that he should no longer be coaching because of his age.
Not that it surprises the fuzzy memories of Paterno’s dwindling group of surviving teammates and classmates from Brooklyn Prep, a now-closed, all-boys Catholic Jesuit high school from which he graduated in 1945.
“Joe wouldn’t walk away from a fight,” Reilly says.
But it was Brooklyn Prep that molded Paterno’s drive and determination that later made him a star quarterback at Brown University and has defined him since he started coaching at Penn State in 1950.
“It was a tough school,” Paterno says of Brooklyn Prep. “It wasn’t easy, but it was good. It gave me a feel for where we were and who we were and where we should go.”
Says Reilly, “Joe had a God-given gift, but what he is today is largely because of Brooklyn Prep and the Jesuits.”
Paterno started at Brooklyn Prep in 1941 and used to attend chapel daily before school, which wasn’t mandatory. But he and the school’s other students were required to wear a jacket and tie.
As a student, Paterno excelled in the difficult curriculum at Brooklyn Prep, which was located in the Crown Heights area. He took four years of Latin and Greek as well as a couple of years of French and plenty of mathematics.
“He was an excellent student,” Reilly says. “Very smart.”
When Paterno didn’t have football or basketball practice, he used to meet with Thomas Birmingham, one of the school’s Jesuits, after school and translate the works of the Latin poet Virgil for fun. Birmingham also worked closely with one of Paterno’s classmates, William Peter Blatty, the author of the novel, “The Exorcist.”
“He’s a real Renaissance man,” Reilly says of Paterno. “To hear him talk, you’d never believe it.”
Paterno also built quite the reputation on the football field. Brooklyn Prep coach Zev Graham recognized Paterno’s grit and made him his team’s starting quarterback as a junior.
The team ran the North Carolina double-wing offense that featured his younger brother, George Paterno, at left halfback.
“He couldn’t run, he couldn’t kick, he couldn’t pass,” Reilly says of Joe Paterno. “All he could do was win.”
But Paterno lost the last game of his high school career to now-closed St. Cecilia High School in New Jersey, which was coached at the time by a young Vince Lombardi. The left-handed Paterno hurt his throwing shoulder in the first half and was briefly replaced by his backup, Herb Imbornoni.
At halftime, Paterno got a shot of Novocain so he could play in the second half.
“He continued with one arm,” says Imbornoni, 83, a 1946 graduate of Brooklyn Prep. “It was something.”
In the second half, Lombardi employed a four-man defensive line, which only made matters worse for Paterno and Brooklyn Prep’s offense.
“We’d never seen that,” says Joe Bova, 83, who played with Paterno and graduated from Brooklyn Prep in 1945. “We weren’t trained for that.”
After the game, Paterno and his teammates were stunned they had lost.
“We were in complete disbelief,” Bova says. “It was unbelievable. Who knew Vince Lombardi in those days, right?”
Graham, a former All-American at Fordham, was also way ahead of his time. He thought his players talked too much in the huddle, so his team didn’t use a huddle Paterno’s senior season.
Instead, Paterno called the plays using number sequences.
“Zev had a tremendous influence on Joe,” Reilly says.
Besides football, Paterno was also a star basketball player for Brooklyn Prep and was the team’s captain. Bova recalls Paterno being able to launch set shots from midcourt.
“He had moves that today these champion players make,” Bova says. “He was doing that back in the forties.”
Paterno, however, didn’t shine at every sport he tried. He and his brother once tried out for the school’s baseball team, but after watching each take unsuccessful swings, Graham gave them a brutally honest assessment.
“You guys can forget it,” Imbornoni recalls Graham telling the Paternos. “You couldn’t hit a bull’s ass with a banjo.”
Away from football though, Paterno was just as tough as he was on the field.
Reilly’s brother, Dick Reilly, was close friends with Paterno while at Brooklyn Prep and played in the backfield with him. He used to tell stories about Paterno’s feistiness before Alzheimer’s disease stole his memory eight years ago, Jay Reilly says.
While in high school, Reilly recalls his brother and Paterno used to hang out on Friday nights at a homely roadside inn in Brooklyn called Ma Hayes, a popular spot for high school and college students. There, Paterno drank beer with his friends and listened to music by then-popular artists such as The Andrew Sisters, Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey.
Whenever Paterno and Dick Reilly got into arguments with others at Ma Hayes, they didn’t hesitate to back it up physically.
“They would step outside with whoever,” Jay Reilly says.
Paterno also helped organize dances at Brooklyn Prep as president of the school’s sodality. Girls had to be invited from the area’s Catholic high schools.
“Joe was a good dancer,” says Joe Murphy, 84, who played football with Paterno and graduated from Brooklyn Prep in 1945.
During the summers of 1943 and 1944, Paterno worked with Murphy as an usher during Brooklyn Dodgers games at Ebbets Field, which was just a couple of long blocks from Brooklyn Prep. Paterno was also a counselor with Murphy for a stint one summer at a youth camp in Livingstone Manor, N.Y., which is in the Catskills Mountains.
After their senior football season, the pair also worked together sorting mail during the Christmas holidays for the Brooklyn postmaster. Back then, Paterno wanted to be an attorney like his father, Angelo, and coach football on the side, Murphy recalls.
“He could have done anything,” Murphy says.
But despite all his success, Paterno hasn’t forgotten Brooklyn Prep, which closed in 1968. He attended The Brooklyn Prep Alumni Association’s annual dinner a few years ago and remains in contact with several of his classmates.
“It had an influence on me all my life,” Paterno says of Brooklyn Prep. “It was an experience I would wish every student who goes to high school would have. It was just a great, great environment. I have nothing but good thoughts every time I think about my high school days.”
So do Paterno’s teammates and classmates, who marvel at him still coaching when many others he went to high school with are deceased.
“If he weren’t so absorbed with coaching, I don’t know he’d still be around,” says Kevin Delany, 84, a 1945 graduate of Brooklyn Prep. “I think it’s keeping him alive myself.”
And with Paterno in the last year of his contract, there’s once again widespread speculation this season may be his last. Yet he has not given any indication that he plans to retire.
He’s simply staring forward again, just like he’s done for years.