When you become a sportswriter, as I did in 1985, you lose the passion for your childhood teams. These days, I watch the teams I grew up with back in Pennsylvania, such as the Pittsburgh Steelers, but I'm no longer a true fan. Not really. The outcomes of their games are often forgotten within seconds.
There is one exception: Penn State football. I attended my first Penn State football game in 1973, the year John Cappelletti won the school's only Heisman Trophy. I was 8 years old. The worst sporting event of my life was when Alabama stopped Penn State twice at the goal line to win the 1979 Sugar Bowl and deny Penn State its first-ever national championship. I was 14. The best sporting event of my life was the night Penn State beat Miami to win the 1987 Fiesta Bowl and a national title. I was 22.
Now I'm 46 and I can't wrap my brain around the past four days. I'm witnessing the destruction of my favorite team and the fall of my idol, Joe Paterno, in the wake of a molestation scandal involving former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky.
The emotions this Penn State fan has gone through in the past four days:
The grand jury report detailing Jerry Sandusky's alleged behavior is graphic, horrific and should be read by everyone. Too often, we avoid such grotesque details because they take us to places too dark to imagine. But our imaginations do not allow us to go as deep as reality, and, perhaps, as far as we need to go in order to gain a better understanding of such predators. What happens to Sandusky, Joe Paterno and everyone else at Penn State means nothing compared to the health and well-being of those victims whose lives were irreparably harmed.
This is not easy to admit, but I have and likely will continue to defend Paterno. I know it's not rational. Outside of my late parents and brother, there is no person on earth I've looked up to more than Paterno. For my entire life, Paterno stood for everything I believed was right and pure and good. He cared more about his players off the field than on. His players went to class. They graduated. They became productive members of society. He didn't cheat. Now, I search for any sliver of information to make excuses for Paterno. "He did tell the athletic director,'' I tell myself. "He's too good of a person to know how to deal with something this evil. He's too old and frail to handle this. It's not his fault.'' I cannot allow myself to think that after 84 years of doing such good, Paterno is a bad person. I barely can admit that he did anything remotely wrong in this case. To do so is to suggest that much of what I've believed all my life is not true.
According to the grand jury report, Paterno told Penn State athletic director Tim Curley about an alleged Sandusky attack on a young boy as soon as he heard about it. If Curley had immediately contacted the police, this sad ordeal would have ended years ago and Paterno would be a heroic figure. I want to grab Sandusky by the lapels, shake him and say, "Shame on you, you (expletive) — not only for the sick things you did to those kids, but for what you did to Joe! And shame on you, too, Tim Curley, for trying to save your rear end and bringing down a legend in the process.'' Many might be offended by my sympathy for Paterno. I'm not here to defend it, only to explain it exists because of my lifelong beliefs.
For years, I bragged about Penn State. Even if the Nittany Lions lost four or five times and were out of the national championship hunt (as often has been the case the past 20 years), I still boasted about the program and wore my "Linebacker U'' T-shirt proudly. I'd point to graduation rates. I'd point to scandals at other schools and know that would never happen in Happy Valley. Today, the pride is gone. I don't know that I can ever brag about Penn State again. I feel shame. I feel guilt. I feel embarrassment. A colleague who graduated from Penn State asked me, "Can I ever wear my Penn State sweatshirt again?'' Not for a long, long time.
I know I can't defend Paterno without sounding insensitive, biased or naive. My gut tells me he should've done more. I wish he had. This is my struggle. I become angry at those (even close friends and respected colleagues) who criticize Paterno and applaud his firing. Yet I know I would feel the same if this scandal had happened somewhere other than Penn State. I have two sons and, ultimately, it's unthinkable to defend anything about a scandal where children were abused. It's impossible to defend the indefensible, yet here I am, defending Paterno. Not because I believe he is completely innocent, but because I want him to be. Desperately.
I feel like I've lost a best friend or suffered a death in my family. There is a hole today that wasn't there last week, a hole that will never be filled. Penn State is a part of my childhood and, thus, a part of who I am and what I believe. But now something is gone and gone for good. I can never look at Penn State the same way again. No one can or will. The scar from what happened, I fear, will never fade. Maybe it shouldn't.
I want to fast-forward to next season when there is a new coach and no one is talking about Penn State in this way. My stomach aches each time I turn on ESPN or talk radio or go on the Internet and hear someone condemning Paterno or telling me how I'm supposed to feel about him. It's heartbreaking to me that this could be Paterno's legacy. It's heartbreaking that Penn State might never overcome this. I just want this all to end so that the day will soon come when I can think about Penn State and Joe Paterno the way I want to. But I'm already scared at what I will think when that day comes.