It was a day we all knew would eventually come. At the same time, it somehow seemed like he could live forever.
For as long as I can remember, I knew of Joe Paterno. My father, who was an educator and coach, talked about him when I was a kid as we listened to Penn State football games on the radio, tinkering in the garage or driving to the mall. From my earliest recollections of sports, I knew that Joe Paterno stood for something good, something honorable.
It wasn't until I was a student at Penn State that I began to realize what made him so special. It was in part because he was extraordinary. My freshman year was 25 years ago, just after Penn State's second national championship. He was already a legend, and people were already predicting when he would retire. But Paterno was also special because he was ordinary. The hall of famer who rubbed elbows with U.S. presidents was the same man who liked to walk to work from his middle-class home, and never had an unlisted phone number.
He was an intriguing mix of old school and new age, of traditional values and exceptional vision.
Paterno used to comment on the proverbial softball uniforms that he "had to buy," referring to the fact that all of Penn State's sports depended on the revenue from football. I literally wore one of those softball uniforms.
I can appreciate what Paterno was able to do, not just for a football program, but for all of Penn State athletics, serving as football coach, as a former athletic director, fundraiser, philanthropist and ambassador.
I had an opportunity to be part of the Penn State football "beat" for more than 10 years. I was fortunate enough to have several interviews with Coach Paterno (I never called him "Joe") during which we talked about much more than football.
Sometimes it was hard to remember the questions I wanted to ask him because I was so engrossed in listening to the answers.
One of those interviews was just before the 2005 season (after he had reportedly been asked to step down, and before Penn State won the Big Ten title and earned an Orange Bowl victory). What was supposed to be a 15-minute interview turned into 45 minutes because we were discussing topics that really mattered to him. These are some of the things I recall about coach Paterno more than anything he ever said about the offense or the defense:
His life's greatest accomplishment was "getting Sue to marry me." We should all hope for a lasting love like theirs.
His love of education and the arts: He said his favorite song (I thought it would be something like Sinatra's "My Way") was the Aria from the Opera "La Boheme." He couldn't pick a favorite book, but he wanted to re-read Homer's The Iliad in its original Latin. Football was a huge part of his life, but not the whole of his interests; he never grew tired of learning or of inspiring others to learn.
His vision for Penn State: to create opportunities for all students, including women and minorities to receive a quality education. For his teams, his hope was for his guys to become not just good football players, but good men, learning the lessons of life that athletics can teach us.
Before it was the norm, he made a point to hire minority coaches, providing role models for his team. He sought out strong female coaches who would lead a new generation of women athletes.
"Why was this important to him?" I asked. "Because it was right," he answered, matter-of-factly.
We talked about why he changed his mind about the million-dollar NFL job offer, why he was so passionate about the library, and what shaped his determination to give back to the university and the community he loved and served for so long.
His answer was simple. When he told his Dad he was going to be a football coach instead of a lawyer, his father told him "then whatever you do, make an impact." Luckily for the Nittany Lions, Penn State is where he chose to focus his efforts.
Joe Paterno spent his life striving to live up to his father's expectations, and inspiring others to live up to his. He spent his life loving his wife, his family and the university. He treated his players like they were his own sons, sometimes with a kind word, other times with tough love, always wanting them to be the best that they could be.
He was fallible, and he would admit he had regrets, but he was consistent in his character: loyal and honest.
If a man is measured by the lives he's touched, Joe Paterno's legacy is secure. His impact would have made his father proud. It can be seen throughout Penn State: in the bricks of the stadium, the halls of the library, and the pews of the Interfaith Spiritual Center. It can also be seen in the lives of the student-athletes who earned degrees and became men and women under his watch; the experiences of the Special Olympians whose cause he championed, and the thousands of fans for whom he set an honorable example.
It can especially be seen in his wife, his sons, daughters and grandchildren. Beyond all of the titles and trophies, he was a husband, father and grandfather to a few, and a mentor and friend to many.
The events of the last few months have undoubtedly been painful for Paterno, and especially his family. Hopefully the outpouring of love and respect on the Penn State campus and throughout the nation provides some comfort for his loved ones, even when some of those accolades come from his critics. I believe history will judge Paterno more kindly than what he and his family have experienced in the final weeks of his life.
I will remember Joe Paterno for the values he taught: pride, loyalty, discipline, heart. I will remember his tearful speech at Beaver Stadium when he passed Bear Bryant in wins, speaking of his love for his family and Penn State. I'll remember his laugh and his playful teasing of the media, and the moments when he spoke kindly of Sue or recommended a good book.
In the end, he became the persona of Penn State, but under it all he was a real personan extraordinary, ordinary man.