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11.17.11

Penn State Student: 'What Joe Paterno Taught Me About Heroes'

Penn State senior Kevin Cirilli grew up like many students—believing Joe Paterno was God. He writes about the sex-abuse scandal that's embroiled his university, and how it changed his thinking.

Growing up in suburban Philadelphia, I was a disciple of Joe Paterno long before I became a Penn State student. My father went to college here. We watched Penn State football games on weekends. And on the way to soccer practice growing up, my dad—our coach—would preach Paterno-isms in the car: Success with honor. Hard work. Character.

These were the things that defined Joe Paterno—and the institution that surrounded him. Or at least that’s what we thought.

In the weeks since Paterno’s former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky was charged with sexual abuse—and Paterno, among others, have been accused of turning a blind eye to it—it wasn’t just Dad and I, but the rest of the student body who’ve had time to reflect. As a reporter for the local newspaper I’ve been particularly well-positioned to see just how deeply this scandal has shaken our university to its core. I interviewed students distraught over the lack of answers, and watched begrudgingly as the national media rolled in. I’ve chronicled students’ soul-searching in this scandal’s aftermath, and seen anger erupt in unproductive ways.

From last Wednesday’s riot protesting Paterno’s firing—which made the front page of The New York Times—to Friday night’s candlelight vigil to honor the alleged victims, student reaction on campus has scaled both ends of the spectrum. All of us, it seems, are coming to terms with the fact that our university—and the football team in which we had such great pride—might have been built on a false hero.

In a way, all of us Penn Staters turned a blind eye to Paterno, his coaching staff, and university administrators—but no one more so than Paterno, who became a living God within his Penn State kingdom. Paterno, it seemed, could do no wrong. He was an icon, on campus and off—a larger-than-life figure whose flaws were shielded from public view. His statue greeted fans outside our university stadium. He had a wing of the school named after him, and class lectures devoted to him. He was even the most popular ice cream flavor—Peachy Paterno—at our on-campus creamery.

Finding out he might have covered up Sandusky's abuse—and abuse of the most unforgivable kind—was like finding out that Santa Claus wasn't real.

I didn’t know Joe Paterno personally, but I knew the legend. I’d gone to his pep rallies, and seen how students lit up when he spoke. To outsiders, it probably sounds unbelievable. But finding out he might have covered up Sandusky’s abuse—and abuse of the most unforgivable kind—was like finding out that Santa Claus wasn’t real.

Over the past weeks, my sociology professor has given lectures discussing the Penn State identity—synonymous with Paterno. Students wrap themselves in it, my professor said, and so many of us were lost. Yet we managed to find our way to the football stadium on Saturday, even without the man who was for so long our leader. It was strange, but in a weird way healing: just as Catholics attended Mass after the church’s child-abuse scandal, we in the Penn State faithful needed a football game to unite.

We didn’t win that day. But as I left, I thought about a car ride back from a soccer game with Dad. I was 11, and I was begging him to put our names on our jerseys, like all the other teams. Dad quoted another Paterno-ism to explain that no one person defines a team: “It’s the name on the front that matters most, not the one on the back.”

It’s easy to say those words. It’s much harder, of course, to practice what you preach. For as long as I can remember, my dad had a framed photo of JoePa in his office. Just last week, he took it down. Turns out, Dad’s the real role model—not a glorified football coach.