Joseph Cotto, 2/17/2015 [Archive]

Who Was Joe Paterno?

By Joseph Cotto

This June marks three years since Jerry Sandusky was found guilty of sexual abuse on a monstrous scale.

The former Penn State assistant football coach once enjoyed international athletic renown and, on a local level, was highly regarded for devotion to family and imperiled youth alike. After his true colors as a predator came to light, though, not only his image, but that of boss Joe Paterno, became eviscerated.

We all know who Sandusky is. Thanks to certain news reports, this knowledge is probably nauseating in detail. On the other hand, as time passes, new questions arise about JoePa, as his devotees affectionately call him. The most famous face in college football died soon after his underling's scandal exploded, creating perhaps the textbook definition of an "uncertain legacy".

Paterno was not around to explain whether or not he knew for certain about Sandusky's reign of terror. We will never learn definitively if the coach-among-coaches turned a blind eye or was kept well in the dark. While existing evidence may give us a decent indication, if someone cannot tell his or her side of the story, then it will remain unwritten.

So, who was Joseph Vincent Paterno?

This is the question which veteran sports journalist Joe Posnanski sought to answer. In his 2012 book "Paterno," the story of a quintessentially twentieth-century life colliding with our modern age comes to light.

Posnanski lived in State College, home of Penn State, for several years, and was in the Paterno family's company as the Sandusky scandal gained national attention. It cannot be understated how important this is to the biography's authenticity. With the turn of each page, one comes to understand just how well Posnanski knew Paterno as an individual, rather than commonplace media figure.

Indeed, the book is about a man who came from humble beginnings and eventually captivated the athletic world. Born in Brooklyn only a few years before the Great Depression began, Paterno strove for success from an early age. After finding acclaim as a quarterback at Brown University, he was offered a coaching job at Penn State.

The rest, as the saying goes, is history.

While many reviewers have combed Paterno in search of information about the aforementioned scandal, the book's heart and soul revolves around its namesake: How did he manage to build such a powerful persona? What motivated and inspired him through the years?

For better or for worse, these quandaries do not go ignored.

Some believe that Posnanski is a bit too sympathetic toward Paterno. Others surely hoped that his work would be a tabloid with a dust jacket. I believe that the author delivers a straightforward portrayal, one which will earn a place in history as being the gold standard for research concerning its subject. As for the appeal of sensationalism, I am glad to say that Posnanski steers clear of such a thing.

With all of this in mind, Paterno might require a second edition about five years from now. Having a follow-up which not only features, but analyzes posthumous consensus on the titan's existence could prove especially valuable for future generations.

Posnanski deserves recognition for his honest account of a man who was frequently considered to be a living legend. In Paterno, popular myths and stereotypes are not trumpeted as indisputable fact. Rather, a truly human story is told — the story of a hard worker who reached for the stars and made mistakes, many of them painful, along the way.

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Copyright 2015 Joseph Cotto, distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate.

Joseph Cotto is a historical and social journalist, and writes about politics, economics and social issues. Email him at joseph.f.cotto@gmail.com.

This column has been edited by the author. Representations of fact and opinions are solely those of the author.

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