Seeing the best in life's challenges

Joe Paterno’s Final Exam

on January 22, 2012

Let’s talk about Joe.

First, I have to vent about a pet peeve of mine – the oft-repeated explanation that we called him JoePa because he was a father figure.  Umm, no.  If you went to Penn State, you know the cheer – “When I say Joe Pa, You say ‘Terno. “ Yes, it’s just the first two syllables of his name.  Yes, I guess you could say Joe was a father-type figure, but that’s just not why the nickname, people.

I also don’t think it’s accurate to say that Penn Staters idolized Joe.  That’s not the right word, because what Joe always stood for was the opposite of idolizing.  We ADMIRED him, and greatly, specifically because he was someone who would NOT be idolized.  He valued hard work, honesty, humility, doing the right thing as best you could.

I think it’s just very difficult for those outside the Penn State community to understand how deep and meaningful Joe’s integrity was to all of us.  On the surface, the tailgates, the face paint, the cheers, the obsessiveness of fans, well, the behavior looks just the same as all the other sports fans out there.

I knew a lot of the football players in the early 80s, since I lived in Centre Halls for 4 years and we ate in the same cafeteria.  These were guys that I’m sure weren’t any different from any other group of athletes of college age.  A variety of personalities and backgrounds…some I have very fond memories of and others I thought were jerks.  I remember how they would make fun of the coach, imitating his high voice.

My point is, the football program wasn’t some fantasyland where everybody thought the coach could do no wrong, where the players were all put on a pedestal.  They weren’t a group that seemed untouchable.  Rather, they were a group of regular human beings who happened to have athletic talent, coached and mentored by a man who pushed them to do their best on and off the field.

My favorite inspirational example of what was made possible in this atmosphere was the friendship between Todd Blackledge and Curt Warner.  They were roommates and two of our best players.  But what you have to understand is, back then Penn State was not exactly a place where blacks and whites mixed easily.  I actually remember being pretty surprised when I got there, at how backward race relations were at the time.  But Todd and Curt were close, and their friendship served as a really nice example of how we could and should get along.

I was not really good friends with them, and I doubt they would remember me.  But I was friends with another player, Guiseppe Harris, and one night we were walking home from fraternity parties in a group that included Todd and Curt.  As we passed Skull House, we saw this girl hovered over a guy passed out on the front lawn.  Turns out she was a nursing student and he was in bad shape.

It would have been very easy for the star quarterback and star running back to keep walking.  But that’s not what happened.  Curt went and got his car, and we all squeezed in and took the guy to the hospital.  We waited until they said he would be ok.  That was 30 years ago, but still when I think about their lack of hesitation in helping some stranger they didn’t know, who could easily have puked all over the car (he didn’t), I feel great admiration.  This is the kind of character that Coach Paterno modeled and promoted in his players.  This is why I loved the football program at Penn State.

So now, take the life’s work of a man who did the very best he could to work hard, do the right thing, mentor young athletes, and make a positive impact on his school and community.  Seemingly a perfect life.  Then add Jerry Sandusky.

A friend of mine just yesterday shared a quote from the movie Red Tails.  It goes like this:

“Experience is a cruel teacher.  It gives the exam first, then the lesson.”

The way I see it, we were given a very tough exam this fall, through the events that affected the last few months of Joe Paterno’s life.

The exam was all about integrity and abuse, judgment and forgiveness, right and wrong, and how we react to the sometimes horrible reality of life.

So, what’s the lesson?

Well, it’s easy to avoid the tough work of figuring that out, and to just conclude that this was a really BAD exam.  Any prof that would give that kind of exam should not be in the teaching profession!  What a horrible exam, no one should be subjected to that kind of thing!  Who approved giving that exam!  Get rid of that guy!  This situation just should not exist!!

Can you see how easy it is to focus on where to place blame, rather than focusing on learning the lesson(s)?

The other attribute of this kind of exam is, you grade your own.  If you are up to the task of learning the lesson, the first step is to examine your own reaction (NOT someone else’s!) to the situation.

If you read about Coach Paterno’s reaction in recent interviews, you can see that he was reflective and thinking about his own actions and what he would have done differently.  He was working on the lesson.  He wasn’t avoiding the lesson by looking for someone to blame.

I am in awe of what Coach Paterno sacrified in the last few months. Like it or not, we were forced to take the exam.  Let’s not waste the opportunity to learn from the experience.

One response to “Joe Paterno’s Final Exam

  1. Leslie says:

    Nicely put.

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