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Tale of JoePa drives home

October 21, 2007
The Altoona Mirror

The story of how I nearly T-boned a car driven by Joe Paterno six years ago is one that never has been told in print, and certainly would never have been told if not for another startling street scene recently.

This time around I wasn’t involved. Honest.

Rather it was an Oct. 5 curbside confrontation on the Penn State campus that made national news, with JoePa playing the crotchety old coot with stereotypical crispness.

He says a female driver ran a stop sign within his view, which royally chapped Paterno and motivated the 80-year-old icon to deliver a stern lecture.

Pulling alongside the other driver in his own car, he warned the woman he had written down her license plate number.

The Internet rumor mill took it from there, cooking up accounts in which Paterno supposedly cursed and made obscene gestures, and with both hands, no less.

“I pointed my finger at her,’’ Paterno said on his radio call-in show. ‘‘I did not give her the middle finger, even if I knew what that meant.”

At some point, a man walked up to Paterno and said that the woman was his wife.

“That’s your problem,” Paterno says he snapped back, admitting later that, despite the perfect comic timing, he shouldn’t have been so curt.

That’s it. The woman filed a campus police report that same day, leading to a log entry stating “a male driver committed a traffic violation and acted in a disorderly manner,” but the investigation ended with no citations issued and no names named.

Which brings us back to my own brush with celebrity, another automotive adventure in which it is shown, as all South Floridians already know, that a senior with glasses as thick as a bank teller’s bulletproof window might not be the best qualified to judge others on their driving skills.

It was Sept. 1, 2001, the day of the season-opening game between Penn State and the No. 2 Miami Hurricanes, whom Larry Coker was coaching for the first time.

Huge event. National spotlight. Bad day to put the Nittany Lions’ legendary leader in the hospital, yet that it was I nearly did.

With eight hours to blow before the prime-time kickoff, I was tooling around State College, checking out the sights when — AAAAAH! — some bonehead made a slow left turn right out in front of me from a quiet side street without even making a perfunctory glance to see if the coast was clear.

I locked the brakes on my rental car at 40 mph, launching a bag of drive-through grub against the dashboard, and looked up in shock to see it was none other than Joe Paterno, unmistakable in profile, at the wheel of the car in my path.

He continued on without a flinch, waving at someone on a nearby sidewalk, totally oblivious that he was 10 feet away from getting slammed.

No need to ask Joe if he remembers it. He never knew that morning what almost hit him, or that there was the slightest hint of danger.

I know and tremble still.

I know, too, that Penn State would be a safer place if Paterno resumed his former practice of walking to work, and a gentler place if Joe restricted his ranting to the sidelines on Saturdays.

Hopefully there is no Woody Hayes moment coming to sully a great man’s career. But it’s easier now to see why some Penn Staters fear it.

Dave George is a sports columnist for the Palm Beach Post. His column ran on Saturday, Oct. 13. It’s being reprinted in the Mirror with the Post’s permission.

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