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Joe Paterno Memorial Brings Out Thousands Of Mourners

crowd at Bryce Jordan Center
Emily Reddy

In State College on Thursday, some 12,000 people turned out for the memorial of long-time Penn State football coach Joe Paterno. Mourners trekked in through the rain to fill Bryce Jordan Center for the memorial.

What do you do to honor the life of a legend? First you need a sports arena. And even that won’t be big enough. Then you have to choose who should speak. Of the thousands of past and present Penn State football players, one was chosen to represent each decade in which Joe Paterno was head coach – that’s six players.  There were seven other speakers as well, including Paterno’s son and assistant coach, Jay Paterno.

“He lived his large life nobly, never blindly chasing success, defined by the world’s ever-changing values,” Jay Paterno said. “His values and goals remained as rock across the decades. He never sought celebrity. Here was a man for whom fame was accidental.  But fame and power never touched his soul. In the end, he takes integrity with him forever.

Speakers talked more about the lessons Joe Paterno taught them than his coaching skill. His son talked about all the people Paterno impacted in his life, some of whom Jay said he met during the public viewing Tuesday and Wednesday. There were the students who told him Paterno was the reason they chose Penn State. There was the soldier from Bellefonte who told Jay he got a call from Paterno after he was wounded in Iraq. Jay encouraged the crowd to follow Paterno’s example.

“Your lives are his legacy,” Jay Paterno said. “Your families. The people you reach are his legacy. The grand experiment, 'Success with Honor' was a ripple that has grown to a tsunami washing across the world.”

Jimmy Cefalo – the player representing the 1970s – agreed Joe Paterno’s legacy wasn’t his 409 wins or his two national championships.  Cefalo said Paterno’s legacy was his commitment to education. He told the story of how he decided to take an easy course load and have some fun his senior year, only to have Paterno call him to his office.

“And I went in there and he said, ‘What do you think you’re doing?’ He said, ‘Look at this class schedule. This is beneath you,’” Cefalo said. “I was no good to Joe Paterno anymore as a football player. But he kept that promise. And it just showed his true commitment to what was really important to him.”

The players told the stories of how he recruited them. Cefalo said Paterno promised his mother he’d make him go to class and go to church. Michael Robinson flew in from the ProBowl in Hawaii to attend the memorial. Robinson says he knew Paterno was different from other coaches when he met him. Paterno didn’t promise him money or cars, or even that he would always play quarterback.

“But there were some things he did promise,” Robinson said. “He promised that my education would be second to none.  He promised that I would have the opportunity to compete for starting quarterback position. He promised I would play in front of the best fans in college football.”

The crowd cheered Robinson, but no applause was louder or longer than for Phil Knight, the chairman of Nike. He told the crowd that Paterno was his hero. He told them stories about Paterno singing “Wild Thing.” But the cheers came when he addressed what no one else did so directly: Paterno’s firing in the wake of child sex abuse charges against former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky.

“In the year in question, it turns out he gave full disclosure to his superiors, information that went up the chain to the head of the campus police and the president of the school,” Knight said. “The matter was in the hands of a world-class university and by a president with an outstanding national reputation.  Whatever the details of that investigation are, this much is clear to me, if there is a villain in this tragedy, it lies in that investigation, not in Joe Paterno’s response to it.”

Interspersed through the memorial were video montages. They were the highlight reels of Joe Paterno’s life: There was Paterno playing quarterback at Brown, coaching his Nittany Lions, and embracing his wife Sue after his 400th win. There was footage from big football moments and clips from press conferences. One bit of film showed Paterno walking down a State College street with three of his children when they were small.

Jay Paterno ended the memorial with the last words he said to his father:

“I kissed him and I whispered into his ear so that only he could hear: ‘Dad, you won. You did all you could do. You’ve done enough. We all love you. You’ve won. You can go home now.’”

When Jay Paterno finished speaking, a lone trumpeter from Penn State's Blue Band played a solemn rendition of "Hail to the Lion."

The crowd cheered. Then someone started Penn State’s famous call and response.

We Are….Penn State.

The feeling and volume of the chant filled the Bryce Jordan Center. An arena too small to honor a legend like Joe Paterno.  

Emily Reddy is the news director at WPSU-FM, the NPR-affiliate public radio station for central and northern Pennsylvania.