JoePa shook off dinner interruption
With the one-year anniversary of his death (Jan. 22) having just passed, I wanted to tell my favorite Joe Paterno story that occurred while I was a journalism student at Penn State in 1975.
One of my class assignments was to write a feature on the backup players on the football team, the Rudys of the world. For four grueling years, these kids sacrifice their bodies and their time for the good of the team and the majority of them rarely get to play, less suit up for a game. They garner no public recognition and rarely travel to away games. And yet these unsung heroes remain integral parts to any team’s success.
With deadline approaching, I needed more information and actual quotes from the coach himself. I frantically picked up the State College phone book the evening before the story was due and called JoePa at home on the hallway pay phone on my dormitory floor (hard to fathom the notion that he once listed his name, address and phone number for public consumption).
It was a bold move, indeed, passionately advised against by most of my wiser dormmates at Porter Hall, primarily players and roommate Matty Bahr along with frequent visitor Brad Benson – all of whom had more than once experienced the ugly, prickly side and the wrath of Joe.
Young, dumb and stubborn, I inhaled deeply and dialed the number anyway, my heart racing with fear and anticipation.
Joe answered in that classic high-pitched voice. Without as much as listening to the purpose of my call, he cut me off, laid me out as I’d been sufficiently warned he would, dressed me down as he’d just sat down for dinner and who the hell did I think I was calling him at this (expletive deleted) hour?
I listened respectably, shook uncontrollably, flop sweat stung my eyes and I nearly wet my pants, never once interrupting him.
“Yes sir, no sir, so sorry, sir,” I answered repeatedly, all the while wishing and hoping he’d save me any further agony and just hang up. After all, this man was a God to me and countless others, and I had completely blown it in a mere untimely dial of a phone number.
Eventually, Joe calmed down and stoically asked me what I needed. He may have been testing me the entire moment to see how much I was willing to endure to get what I needed. Coach gave me 30 rock-solid minutes, though never imposed a time limit or tried to control the interview to his satisfaction.
Deep down, he had no great love for the press, but he respected the institution as necessary and understood the job as a difficult, unglamorous one, though he hardly relished my intrusions and directness later as a reporter for The Daily Collegian and sports director of the campus radio station.
He often lost patience with my line of direct questioning and could explode anytime and jump down your throat.
And you took it, by golly, however crass and unfair it appeared, because he was Joe, and he was challenging you to be better in his own quirky way, to be professional, to think before you spoke, to ask intelligent, salient questions, to do your homework and to never quit, quiver or wilt in the presence of power.
As he had done for 61 years for his players, Joe was preparing me for life, the real world, not unlike a scolding, loving parent.
He answered all my inquiries and suddenly shifted from cranky and difficult to a gentleman, as gracious, charming and accommodating as Joe could be.
To my shock and surprise, he apologized for screaming at me, the tender, empathic Joe obvious in his tone, asked me about myself, my goals and my family, where I was from – Joe loved Altoona – and why I chose Penn State.
I answered instinctively without hesitation, “because of you, coach, because of you.”
He responded with that dismissive laugh as if embarrassed by the very notion, ever the modest and humble Joe, always deflecting praise from himself to others, but I’m certain that made him smile.
He urged me to call anytime (except at dinner time, of course) or stop by his office if I needed anything at all. I apologized for interrupting his dinner, and he wished me all the very best in my journalism career. He asked me for a copy of the story I was writing for my class after I got it graded and returned.
I dutifully hand-delivered to him a copy of “Unsung heroes,” one week later, and he seemed happy to see me, his genuine love for students and interest in them extending far beyond the football field.
Joe never isolated himself, constantly milling around campus, stopping to chit-chat with students, teachers and employees. We spoke for a spell, long enough to know why I loved and respected this man so much, and it had little to do with his impressive win-loss record.
The next day I returned to my dorm room after classes to a short and simple note slipped under my door from the man himself, handwritten on Penn State stationary: “Good job, Art! Keep writing! All my best, Coach Paterno.”
Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
(The writer is a 1976 Penn State graduate and former Altoona Mirror writer.)
Musial became ‘The Man’ in Brooklyn
I would like to clear up how the late, great Stan Musial, The “Duke of Donora,” became “The Man.”
I was a diehard Brooklyn Dodger baseball fan during the 1940s and ’50s. Stan probably had his greatest moments in Ebbets Field. He hit there like it was batting practice. It cost only 25 cents for center-field bleacher seats. And I was there at most night and weekend games.
Although 400 feet from home plate, I was right behind the pitcher and could actually call balls and strikes. Boy, did I hate him. He tore up Ebbets Field so bad that the great sports writer for the New York Daily News Dick Young, in his daily column, started to refer to him as Stan “wotta man” Musial.
From there, Dodger fans simply shortened it to “Stan, The Man.” But now when I think of him, I still say “Wotta Man.”
John K. Coyle