A Giant

This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. [Romans 3:22-24]

Yes, tomorrow is the high holy day of American civil religion. Enough chicken wings will be eaten to circle the world more than twice. (Although putting them on a cupcake seems to be taking both these fads too far.) And with my interest in social media, the ways that it will be used this weekend are fascinating. Maybe more on that another time.

You know it must be a high holy day when there is a movement to make it, or more specifically the Monday following it, a holiday. (Got to have time to recover I guess.)

And I guess in the midst of all this there is a football game…

What is interesting about this game is that at one time or another both teams tried to hire a certain college coach by the name of Joseph V. Paterno. One of the teams almost got him but after initially saying yes he thought about it some more and decided not to sign the contract.

Lots has been written about JoePa over the last couple of months, but yes I thought I would add my voice to conversation. I am a graduate of Penn State and have always thought very highly of Joe. I still do. I am still processing a lot of what has happened recently and being a deliberative Presbyterian I am withholding final judgement until more of the facts are known.

Let me be clear right up front — I am not here to apologize, ignore or explain away Coach Paterno’s failings with respect to the recent scandal. As the quote I started with, and many more in scripture say, none of us are perfect. Joe apparently had a moral lapse which helped facilitate the abuse of young children. That will clearly leave a major dark mark on his legacy.

But consider his work on balance – and not the work on the football field on Saturdays. Coach Paterno was an icon, a giant, for good reason.  And it went beyond the high graduation rate of his players and his clean record with the NCAA. How many other coaches do you know have given over $4 million dollars back to their school for academic and spiritual causes. But to characterize him like this, while good, misses both the big picture and the small details.

Phil Sheridan, of the Philadelphia Inquirer does a great job of capturing the big picture:

To say he was the Nittany Lions’ football coach would be to say that
Steve Jobs worked in computers, or that Walt Disney was a cartoonist.
The man was larger than the university where he worked, than the sport
that he coached.

That was both his greatest achievement and, in the end, part of his downfall.

And Rick Reilly, my favorite sports columnist, in his ESPN commentary captures the details in his piece titled “Joe Paterno’s True Legacy.” It is about Joe and Adam Taliaferro, a player who was paralyzed in a game in 2000. Here is a small part of that article about the care Joe showed for his player:

And every other week, Paterno would fly to Philly to see him.

“He’d bring our trainer and a couple of my teammates,”
Taliaferro says. “Nobody in the hospital knew he was there.” Paterno
would tell him all the dumb things his teammates and coaches had done
lately. Pretty soon, Taliaferro would be laughing his IVs out.

“I can’t tell you what that meant to me,” says
Taliaferro, now 30. “I’m stuck in that hospital, and here’s Coach
Paterno bringing a piece of the team to me, in the middle of the season.
How many coaches would do that?”

But you have to realize that this was not an isolated case and he cared about people beyond his circle of players. Many people have contributed recollections over the last couple of weeks about the small things JoePa did. As Cory Gieger, the host of a radio sports show, put it on Twitter after a call-in honoring Joe: @corygiger: There’s no question those small gestures by Paterno made tremendous
impact on so many people, giving them stories & memories for a

And I don’t think Coach Paterno would object to my using that quote at the beginning — he was a religious man and a faithful Roman Catholic. He was a man of quiet but not silent faith.  His was a firm but not flashy faith.  In an article on the Catholic Review web site his bishop remembers him for his faithfulness and his support of the spiritual center and a local school.

My most vivid memory of Coach Paterno, at least off the field, was a political rally on campus.  A congressional candidate had gotten JoePa and a former President of the United States to come out and endorse him.  I don’t need to tell you that the Coach got by far the loudest applause when introduced. (But I don’t remember if the guy won the race.)

And on Penn State’s University Park Campus one of the highest honors you can receive is to have a Creamery ice cream flavor named after you.  In the last two months sales of Peachy Paterno have dramatically increased.

The point is that while football was important, it was not the most important thing in his life. His family, the relationships with his players, the university community and the world at large were important too and he did not neglect them.

History will ultimately be the judge in this world. But as the scripture above says about the next one “all are justified freely by his grace that came by Christ Jesus.” And while our salvation does not depend on our works, for a lot of people Coach Paterno made their lives better. As his son Jay said at the public memorial service…

“Among the things he accomplished in his life, it was the games he won that counted the least.”

2 thoughts on “A Giant

  1. Jack Nesbitt

    From my reading of events in State College, Joe Paterno DID report the events to the civilian head of the Penn State campus police.

  2. Steve Salyards

    I almost went there in the post and eliminated it at the last minute because I wanted to focus on the positive not analyze the scandal.

    Having said that, I believe Joe did everything legally required of him in this situation.  The Penn Attorney General seems to agree. The argument gets into what was morally required and Joe himself said he could have done more.

    However, I have been through various forms of youth protection training for a number of different youth organizations I have worked with. In each one we are told not to play police – we are to report it to the appropriate authorities and then stay back and let them do their job. From what I have seen that is what Joe did and it was the supervisor of the police force that then had responsibility (which seems to be why he is charged with a crime).

    Anyway, that is what I would have added to the post if I had continued.

    Thanks for the comment


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