The Lesson of Joe Paterno

Sports legends make us forget about human frailty until, inevitably, they remind us again

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Jim Prisching / AP

Penn State coach Joe Paterno on the field before his team's NCAA college football game against Northwestern in October 2011 in Evanston, Ill.

If there ever was a ride into the sunset that would incite jealousy in Hollywood script writers, it was the one that lay in front of Joe Paterno. He had the legacy of all legacies in place. The storied football program, the near impossible ability to be a coach and survive regime change after regime change, all of which made him one of the greatest icons in college football history.

But he was more than an icon on the field, he backed it up with philanthropy, reinvesting in his institution and community and, most importantly, getting his players to graduate. He was executing a college coach’s playbook that was to be emulated from here to eternity.

(MORE: Joe Paterno: A Life in Pictures)

Then the path he was on became obscured by a dust storm of child abuse and secrecy and he fell off Sandusky Cliff. Everything changed, including history.

After piecing together the course of events, the Penn State trustees had to act. They believed they had reached an untenable position, that the chain of command had broken and it only made sense that part of the responsibility lay with the biggest figure in the room. Joe Paterno. Sure, others had to fall, but they were not standing on a mountaintop like Paterno was, where one’s fall would be both public and fatal.

(MORE: Paterno’s Payback? Penn State Football is #1 in Academic Bowl)

From my time in Major League Baseball, I watched the revolving door a career swings through. Many uniforms came and went, coaches entered with certainty and left with anything from indelible greatness to ignominy. There were players who were so good that I was sure that they would choose their exit act, scripted by their own hand, only to be sullied with PED dirt or limping to the finish line on bad knees and an overstayed welcome.

It is in fact the rule, not the exception, that the ride into the sunset is bumpy, uncertain, and sometimes tragic. The nature of steadfast excellence in competitive sports, perhaps even more so than any other field including politics and entertainment, is to approximate superhumanity, often unfairly making a fall of some kind almost inevitable. And do we not love sports, in part, for the very reason that when everything’s going great, it gives us a glimpse into perfection, making us forget about human frailty and weakness until our living legends stumble and remind us?

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Before the scandal, we heard nothing of Paterno retiring. At 85, he was still going, no planned stop in sight. He scoffed at the idea that more time meant more risk to his ending. He had purpose and didn’t need a script. But a near perfect record only needs one blemish, and tragically for him and for the many that have either enjoyed the fruits of his efforts or suffered at the hands of this scandal, this is one black mark that will never get erased.