UNIVERSITY PARK -- Six football players, six decades, six different themes. One common message: Joe Paterno changed their lives, and the lives of their contemporaries, in many ways that had a little to do with football and much more to do with life.
Paterno took over the Penn State program in 1966, and Thursday's memorial for the late coach featured six of his former players giving speeches about what he meant to them, their teammates and their families. The crowd of 12,000 at the Bryce Jordan Center found plenty to love and laugh about in all of their speeches, and each man received a standing ovation afterward.
SUBHD: 1960s: Charlie Pittman
Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski
Former Penn State quarterback Michael Robinson speaks during Joe Paterno’s memorial service.
Historically significant on two counts, Pittman was one of the first black players recruited by Paterno -- along with Jim Kates -- plus he and his son, Tony, were the first of what turned out to be many father-son legacies to play for the coach.
"He always made me feel special, from my teens into my adulthood," Pittman said.
A Baltimore native, Pittman drew a lot of recruiting interest from Maryland and said Paterno worked hard to recruit him. But once he got to Penn State ...
"It seemed through my young eyes that he worked even harder to break my spirit," Pittman said. "Nothing seemed good enough for him. He pushed me so hard that he once had me in tears."
Anything in life worth having is worth working hard for, which Pittman, who earned All-America honors as a halfback on the undefeated 1969 team, learned from Paterno.
"The life that I have lived is one of Joe's thousands of gifts to the world."
Years later, Paterno saw Pittman's photo in a mural of great Penn State running backs and joked with him about why he was included.
"I told him, 'I don't belong there, but without me, you would not have gotten that guy or that guy or that guy or that guy,'" Pittman joked.
Pittman's son had planned to go to Harvard, Yale or Princeton, but instead decided to follow in his father's footsteps and played on the undefeated 1994 team. Charlie Pittman boasted that PSU compiled a 45-0-1 record when he or his son started a game, and that they played on three of Paterno's five undefeated teams.
"Despite being pushed away from his beloved game, and under extreme pressure the past few months, Joe's grace was startling," Pittman said.
He concluded his speech saying, "Rest in peace, Coach. We'll take it from here."
SUBHD: 1970s: Jimmy Cefalo
The receiver, who has become a successful sports broadcaster, focused many of his remarks on Paterno's devotion to education.
"What is Joe's legacy?" he said. "Those of my colleagues in the media ... will mistakenly tell you that it's 409 wins, that it's two national championships. Nothing could be further from the truth.
"Today we can declare the Grand Experiment a success," he added. "Today we can define Joe Paterno's legacy."
Even after Cefalo had completed his eligibility and earned enough credits to graduate, Paterno chided him for slacking off academically his final semester at Penn State.
"He said, 'What do you think you're doing?'" Cefalo said. "He said, 'Look at this class schedule. This is beneath you.'"
Cefalo also told a funny story about when Paterno recruited him. He was considering another school, then he came home one day and saw Paterno in the kitchen with his mother.
"Joe didn't recruit us," Cefalo said. "He recruited our moms."
One way Paterno did that was by making a comparison to the mother of Heisman Trophy winner John Cappelletti.
"He said, 'Mrs. Cefalo, this pasta is better than Mrs. Cappellettit's,'" Cefalo said.
Cefalo fought back tears as he delivered these final words about Paterno: "The world is a whole lot better for me having known him."
SUBHD: 1980s: Todd Blackledge
The quarterback of the 1982 national championship team was the first player to speak Thursday.
"Up until today, I considered being the quarterback of that '82 national championship team, Joe's first, to be the greatest honor of my life," Blackledge said. "Today that has been replaced."
Blackledge spoke of how Paterno always stressed the importance of teamwork. He told a story about how he couldn't get along with his freshman roommate, offensive lineman Dick Maginnis, because the two were polar opposites.
Blackledge thought, "I want to quit and go home. I can't live with this guy."
Paterno convinced the two of them to try and figure out their problems, and Blackledge and Maginnis later won a national title together. Maginnis died of cancer in 1989 at age 28.
Blackledge's final goodbye to Paterno included these words: "Joe's success and impact didn't end Sunday when he died, and it didn't end [Wednesday] when we said goodbye. It will live on in this place, Penn State, and live on in the minds and hearts of all people here for many years to come."
SUBHD: 1990s: Christian Marrone
The lineman was an unusual choice to represent the decade considering he seldom played and never lettered because of knee injuries. But he represented the notion that Paterno cared deeply about all of his players, from stars to subs.
Marrone had multiple operations on his left knee and said, "I felt sorry for myself. I had lost my purpose in life. I even contemplated leaving Penn State. But Coach would have none of it."
Paterno told him, "You have a greater purpose, Christian, than football, and I'm going to help you achieve it."
Marrone currently serves as the acting assistant secretary of defense for legislative affairs and has enjoyed a distinguished career in Washington D.C. He received congratulatory phone calls from Paterno at various stages of his life and said, "When I finally registered as a republican, he scolded me first for taking too long, and then he finally welcomed me into the party."
Marrone said JoePa's mentoring never stopped and added, "Joseph Vincent Paterno was a great football coach. But his life can never, ever be measured by wins and championships because to do so would be a great injustice."
SUBHD: 2000s: Michael Robinson
He's supposed to be in Hawaii getting ready to play in this weekend's NFL Pro Bowl, but the best player on Paterno's best team in recent years was not about to miss the memorial.
"I actually told the [NFL], 'Don't make me choose, because I'll be right here today,'" said Robinson, who quarterbacked the 2005 team to an 11-1 record and No. 3 national ranking."
Robinson, a prized recruit in high school, said he came to Penn State because of Paterno's honesty.
"When I met Joe, something was different about him," Robinson said. "He didn't lie to me. ... He didn't offer me any money. He didn't promise me any cars, as some other schools did."
He also didn't promise Robinson that he would start at quarterback, so the talented player spent the first three years of his career rotating positions.
Paterno once told Robinson he believed he could be a Pro Bowl running back or fullback, and Robinson said that's something else JoePa didn't lie about to him.
"The memory that's going to be etched in my brain for years was holding that Orange Bowl trophy standing up next to Joe," Robinson said.
SUBHD: 2010s: Michael Mauti
The linebacker took the stage with no notes to represent this decade and the current team, and he captivated the crowd with funny and poignant stories.
His father, Rich, had played for Paterno, so when the coach came to recruit him, Michael said he thought, "This guy, he's in his 80s. Does he still have it?"
Mauti had convinced himself going into the meeting he was not going to commit to any school yet, but Paterno -- known as a great closer in recruiting -- sold him on Penn State.
"He looks right at me and says, in his voice, 'What do you think kid? What's it going to be?'"
Mauti responded, "I said, 'I'm here.'"
Mauti also told a funny story about getting kicked out of practice one day after getting into a fight with a teammate. He said Paterno told him, "Hey, your dad used to act like he was tough, too, trying to fight people all the time."
Mauti said it's now the job of the current lettermen to uphold Paterno's tradition of success with honor. He closed his speech with a statement expressing his gratitude to everyone in attendance.
"Thanks for being here today to support the coach we all love," he said.