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Sports Column: JoePa will remain in fans' hearts despite fumble in abuse scandal

Sports have always been an escape from everyday life. But there are just some things that no one can escape. Including death.

The college-football world lost a legend Sunday morning when Joe Paterno died of lung cancer. He was 85 years old and had been with the Penn State football team for 62 seasons as an assistant and head coach before being fired in November. His departure came amid a child sexual-abuse scandal centering on his former defensive coordinator, Jerry Sandusky.

As recently as October, Paterno was the holy and infallible god of football for many college-football fans. His teams normally won. His players normally behaved. And then there was that infamous line about Penn State being one of the few national powerhouses never to be punished for committing a major NCAA infraction.

State College, Pa., was dubbed “Happy Valley,” and for good reason. Paterno was the face of the university, as his tenure lasted longer than any president, professor or player to step foot on campus. He and his wife helped to fund the school library, and Paterno made a lasting impact on many of the players he coached during his seven decades at Penn State. 

His nickname, JoePa, was more than just the shortened form of his full name. That “Pa” stood for “Papa,” “Grandpa,” and perhaps even the state of Pennsylvania that idolized him. 

And then came November. Paterno’s one-time right-hand man was arrested. His superiors resigned and were fired. Something had to happen to JoePa, but it didn’t have to end over the phone. He did a lot for Pennsylvania State University, but at least once he didn’t do enough.

The State College community was crushed. Their JoePa was gone. Their kids had been violated. There was no happiness in the valley.

From the grandeur of national titles to the lowliness of saving face over saving kids, Paterno was, after all, a man. He never considered himself a god, infallible or immortal. JoePa beat 409 opponents, but even he couldn’t beat lung cancer. 

Most people make most of their mistakes early in life, grow wiser and are remembered for their contributions to their family and society. JoePa started out pretty wise, grew wiser, but made (at least) one very poor decision that became known weeks before his death.

Paterno was the face of Penn State and Nittany Lion football. Because of that, he became associated with the sex-abuse scandal for which Sandusky alone is directly responsible. 

Death is never easy to swallow, but the timing of Paterno’s death makes the situation even worse. We are taught that time leads to healing, as do fond memories of the deceased. But time will not heal until justice arrives for the alleged abuse victims and their families. And memories of Paterno’s two national championships are faded, dusty and out of touch with the gruesome reality that the most heinous of crimes took place in a Pennsylvania college town.

Yet Paterno’s death brings no consolation, no peace to the victims. After all, it was Paterno who reminded us all to “say a prayer for those kids” as cameras flooded his front lawn.

Death is never a reason to celebrate. Not when it’s  Osama bin Laden, not when it’s  Kim Jong Il, and certainly not when it’s Joseph Vincent Paterno. JoePa was the definition of a gentleman. The “man” part of that — his humanness — showed in his greatest mistake. But the “gentle” part made him strong, and his strength should be his lasting legacy.


Michael Stainbrook is a junior studying journalism and sports editor of The Post. Did you lose a grandpa with JoePa’s passing? Send your sympathies to

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