“Why it happens, how it happens—honest to God, I don’t know. I just know that it’s something that’s very, very difficult to explain. I run out of that tunnel, the crowd’s there and the whole—just a little something about it you can’t quite… I don’t know. If somebody asked me to take two weeks to describe it, I’d still have a tough time. It would sound corny.”
He winces, like you just ordered pepperoni on your pizza and he’s out of pepperoni and now what the hell is he gonna do? He talks like that, not like an old-man football coach with a big old-man nose and half a century worth of plays rattling around in his old- man brain, but like a guy working a pizza joint at the Jersey Shore.
“I don’ t know,” he says. “How come so many people get so wrapped up in college sports? Why? You’re asking me, but how do I know?”
Okay, ﬁrst of all, I didn’ t ask him. He came up with the question on his own, and now he can’t let it go. My original question was about branding, about the role of football—a game—in growing a university. I ﬁgured it was something he would be proud to expound upon. It was his story: a reluctant pilgrim who landed in a cow town ﬁfty-seven years ago, at a tiny college no one had ever heard of, and then went on to turn it into the behemoth known as Penn State. It was Paterno who built the brand, turned a school with no endowment into one with more than $1 billion. JoePa. Football. Beaver Stadium. One hundred eight thousand fans screaming for the little geeky guy with the doofus glasses and the flood pants, white socks, black shoes, sunken chest, paunch.
When I say BLUE, you say—
When I say, JOEPA, you say—
Beaver Stadium is, of course, just one among hundreds to erupt like this, deﬁning the American Saturday in autumn. Paterno put this place on the map and is poised at the eye of the even larger cultural storm he helped create. The more he argues against answering the question I never asked, the more it becomes my question. How come so many people get so wrapped up in college sports?
“I don’t know,” he says. “Aw, jeez. How do I know?”
He looks at me, winces as if suffering minor mental agony. His hair is crazy thick, refusing to go gray. “I just think that we all loved college, all right?” he offers. “And it’s hard to ﬁnd a way to come back for a real experience. Like, you wouldn’t go back to your college because they were gonna have a couple of writers coming—”
“Yeah, you might. And for a reunion or something, you might.” He’s rubbing his face. His glasses are bouncing stupidly. “Oh, I don’t know what the devil it is. Everybody’s excited. Look at Rutgers. One football team last year. Look what that’s done for the whole university, the whole state. I don’t know why. But it is. It’s a fact, okay? It’s a fact.”
He is dwarfed in this office, here in the Lasch Football Building. His office is on the second floor, all shiny and airy and vast. It could be an Acura showroom. The office girls, Sandi and Mary and Cynthia, keep it nice, keep it decorated, and he flirts with them; they swooned over the powder blue jacket he chose to wear today—he dressed up for our interview—and he went aw-shucks on them, said yeah, he hadn’t worn the thing in ﬁfty years, but here it is. Here he is. He showed up when he was told to. All right? All right? He does not enjoy interviews. He is famously grouchy with the press, gets sick of everything getting so blown up all the time, sick of every sentence he utters getting parsed and reparsed, like he’s the damn Fed chairman or something. “It’s only football!” his scowl to reporters seems to say. He is not Hercules capturing the Erymanthian Boar. He is not Moses parting the Red Sea. He does not seem to quite get all this—all those cars with all those JoePa bumper stickers, the JoePa bobbleheads, the life-size JoePa cutouts you can put in your house, the adulation and the analysis and the scrutiny and the constant nagging for more.
Work, real work, happens at home, the only place where he can get anything done. Private, a place where a man can think. Walk and think. Paterno gets up most days at ﬁve, walks and thinks. He writes stuff down on the little yellow papers he stuffs in his shirt pocket, walks and thinks. His house is three blocks off campus, a rancher he and his wife, Sue, bought in 1969. They never moved.
I want to ask him about that. How does a multimillionaire stay in the same house he bought when he was barely making thirty grand? I want to see this house. I want to invite myself over for lunch, maybe next week, even though all his handlers have said: “Forget it.” They keep him in a bubble. Or he keeps himself in a bubble. There’s a deﬁnite inner-sanctum situation going on here at Happy Valley. I can’t decide if it’s creepy. A cult? I felt the same way about Mister Rogers when I ﬁrst interviewed him. Then I got to know Rogers and found out he was holy. Paterno’s wife grew up in the same town as Rogers, just a few valleys over from State College. Is there something about the Pennsylvania mountains that nurtures heroes intent on looking dorky?
I want to tell Paterno my theory that he’s the Mister Rogers of sports. Stubborn and courageous, anachronistic on purpose, living on a frequency the rest of us have trouble hearing. I have so much to say. But he’s stuck on point number one: How come so many people get so wrapped up in college sports?
“Aw, you’re going to have to talk to the sociologists or the psychologists,” he says. He sits on his hands, on a large couch in the center of the room. “But I do think there’s a certain amount of pride that can be generated in your student body if things are handled right.” He rubs his chin, thinks, sighs as if revving up. “All right? Just like our Virginia Tech tribute. You know, we had 70,000 people last year at our spring game after the shootings, and 45,000 of them were wearing orange shirts for Virginia Tech. It was really moving. The band played ‘Amazing Grace.’ And you couldn’t see a dry eye in the whole place. It was a football game that gave them the chance to show they were with the Virginia Tech people. Why it happens, how it happens—honest to God I don’t know. I just know that it’s something that’s very, very difficult to explain. I run out of that tunnel, the crowd’s there, and the whole—just a little something about it you can’t quite… I don’t know. If somebody asked me to take two weeks to describe it, I’d still have a tough time. It would sound so corny. Because it’s just tough. It’s tough.”
“Just a feeling, I guess,” I say.
He nods. He looks down at his tassel loafers, lips pursed.
We might be done. Are we done?
“It’s a feeling,” he says. “A phenomenon. Let’s just say it’s a great phenomenon. Use the word phenomenon. Okay?”
We are not done. I am starting to catch on: This is a man who is all think. This is a man who gets his teeth into a thought and won’t let go until he’s wrestled it to the ground. He is every English major you ever got stoned with in college, the sort of talker who could turn the act of thinking into an epic battle.
He is not like most adults you meet. What man of any age—let alone one who has been at the top of his profession for forty years— refers constantly to his college major? Who does that? Who even remembers? An English major. If Paterno has told me once, he has told me ﬁfteen times that he was an English major in college. He has done…a lot with his life, and yet this is the deﬁnition he chooses.
“Oh, you’ll love Sue,” he says later, when he agrees it would be ﬁne if I dropped by the house for lunch. “She’s an English major, too.”
The Penn State gig was really just a sidetrack, a temporary thing to help him deal with college debt. He came here as assistant coach in 1950, when he was 23. He knew he would never last. He was Brown, class of 1950, headed in his dreams to Harvard Law. Yeah, he knew football, played quarterback in college, led Brown to an 8-1 record his senior year, a vaguely clumsy kid who one sportswriter said “can’t run, can’t pass—just thinks and wins.” But football was hardly a career choice. He was a Brooklyn kid who yearned for an Ivy League life. And he hated cow country. But something about this place snagged him. In 1966, he was promoted to head coach. In time he would meet Sue, twelve years his junior, in the library. They courted over Camus. He was a late bloomer, lovewise. She did not know they were dating until he proposed one summer on the beach. (“Oh, my gosh, all this time he was recruiting me?” she says.) He and Sue would go on to have ﬁve kids and ﬁfteen grandkids.
He has done…a lot with his life. Forget football, the thirty-three bowl appearances, two national championships, ﬁve undefeated seasons, twenty top-ten ﬁnishes, ﬁve National Coach of the Year awards, thirty-one NFL ﬁrst-round draft choices, the Wheaties box. Forget all that. You don’t have to be a football person to understand that in 1972—when he was 46 years old, earning $35,000 a year at Penn State— he got an offer to coach the New England Patriots for $1.4 million, plus 5 percent of the team. He said yes. He was to board a plane the next morning to make it official. He went to bed a signature away from becoming a millionaire. He woke up in the wee hours of the morning, heard Sue crying. He said, “Why are you crying?” She said, “I’m so happy for you.” He said, “You big phony.” He knew. She knew. At four thirty in the morning, he called the guys in Boston. He told them to turn the plane around. He said, I’m not taking the job. He said, I don’t want to take the job for the wrong reasons. He said he never got into this thing to make money. He said he didn’t want to jeopardize his happiness for money.
His happiness was about a calling. It sounds corny, but that’s what it was. Back in the old days, the world worked this way. People used to have callings that had nothing to do with greed.
Look, it was obvious. Make a college football team that was as much about college as it was about football. Was that really so crazy? Put the student back in student athlete and you might just be molding responsible members of society. This would be his mission. People began calling it the Grand Experiment—a title he once offhandedly offered up, even though he didn’t think of it as an experiment in the sense that it might not work, nor did he think of it as grand in the sense that it was the stuff of philosophical or tactical complexity.
“Wake up!” he was known to yell into dorm windows on his daily walk to work. “Get to class!” He chose unforgiving punishments for players who failed academically. He never backed down. He’d cut you from the travel roster just before the Orange Bowl if he had to. Hey, if you broke your leg, the team would go on without you—the team could go on without you. If you struggled in class, he would offer help. He would offer: Sue. She still tutors players. Study. Wear socks to class. Cut your hair, shave your face, stop complaining about the uniform. There would be no names on jerseys; the individual was committed to the team, not to himself. Forget about symbols on your helmet, badges of individual accomplishment. Forget about it. Not even an American flag. Nothing. Plain white helmets, plain white pants, plain white or blue jerseys, black high-top shoes. If the Amish came up with a football uniform, this is what it might be.
Education, leadership, character. He was building not just a team but a bunch of individuals who would one day leave it. He was making the world better.
This was not, he reasoned, something you would get a chance to do in the NFL.
Over the years, the Steelers, the Raiders, the Giants, and others would come calling, and he would say no. The money would come anyway, plenty of it, because of what happened to college sports, a multibilliondollar entertainment Goliath, a phenomenon that—look, he can’t explain.
He has, anyway, given a lot of the money back. He has donated more than $4 million to Penn State, including a $3.5 million gift in 1998 that has been used for faculty positions and scholarships, libraries, buildings. He backed the struggling Classics and Ancient Mediterranean Studies Department, endowed scholarships, helped quadruple the faculty there, said: This matters! He backed the creation of the campus allfaith spiritual center, a place where anyone could come, no matter which god he or she believed in, and pray. He said: This matters!
He gets trotted out from time to time to mobilize alumni, with whom he has an uncomplicated relationship: Yes, he will take your money for the betterment of the university and society. No, in exchange, he will not heed your boneheaded football advice.
He does the big-money things he is asked to do, but his priority is football, his team, and all the crap they throw at him. So much crap lately. Right now he’s got a young team. Freshmen and sophomores making so many dim-witted decisions. He is as much about their lives off the ﬁeld as on. It’s why he keeps his home phone number listed. What if something happened and a player or his family needed to get ahold of him in the middle of the night?
Like last spring: His guys got themselves into a brawl. Some jagoffs on the street walked up to a player and his girlfriend and threw an insult at them. There was pushing and shoving, and the player later called some teammates—as many as ﬁfteen were summoned. The ﬁght was big and messy. The police came, and eventually six players were arrested. (Four of the cases have since been dismissed, and two are scheduled to go to trial this month.)
Another coach might have handled this differently. A couple of suspensions, perhaps. Or have the kid who threw the ﬁrst punch appear at a press conference and grovel for mercy. Or just shut up, sit tight, and wait till the episode blows over.
But Paterno knew what he had to do: teach. A big lesson with broad, bold strokes. He told his team to stop whining about who was right, who was wrong, who was involved, who wasn’t. He didn’t care about any of the particulars. Didn’t want to hear about it. The problem, he said, was clear: a lack of leadership. And that was the whole team’s fault.
So, his whole team would need to regroup, learn, grow as one.
Two of Paterno’s plans for redemption weren’t so bad: The whole team would have to volunteer for the Special Olympics, which Sue helps run, and build a house for Habitat for Humanity.
The third plan is what stung: “Clean Beaver Stadium,” he said. Not once—but after every game—for the entire 2007 season. Pick up the soggy nachos, sweep the peanut shells and popcorn and everybody’s leftover crap.
People said, “Uh, Coach…” This would not be good for recruiting. Who’s going to want to come join the Nittany Lions and pick up trash?
“You deal with what you have ﬁrst,” he said.
“Maybe I’ve gone on,” he says, returning not so much to his question about why people get so wrapped up in college sports as to the fact of our asking the question. “Aw jeez, I got a little philosophical.”
“That’s okay,” I say.
“I could show you pictures from ’94,” he says. “We had an undefeated team. I could show you pictures of my whole football team standing on the sideline holding hands. I got other pictures, everybody on my football team kneeling, holding hands. I can show you another eight or nine guys hanging around when a guy was hurt, hugging him. There are things you just can’t…”
“Explain,” I say.
“You can’t,” he says. “But let’s look back at all the great societies. The Greeks. All right? Look at the Romans. All right? You go through medieval England. The jousting. All right? There’s always been sports. When the Spartans held off the Persians to give the Athenians a chance to regroup, in 400-and-something b.c. You think of the Spartan tradition and the whole bit, all right? The glory. The physical competition. Not the killing but the physical competition. I think it’s just a part of us.”
He seems satisﬁed for the ﬁrst time. He has arrived at a kernel. A little chunk of the human condition. And he is glad. He looks at me. His face has softened considerably. Then he winces. “Of course, some of us can’t compete. Many of us can’t compete.”
“But we can be spectators,” I say.
“Exactly! They built the Colosseum in Rome, right? Right?” His face opens into a smile. “Oh, when you look at some of those friezes. So much of it is sports. I mean, you read Virgil’s Aeneid, yeah, there’s something in us. We need to let the devil out of the house. We need to get caught up in something that’s exciting. Aw, how did I get carried away with this? Awwww.”
He stands up, heads over to his desk. He grabs a book, brings it to me. “This is the greatest translation. This is Bob Fagle’s translation. I have this at home. I try to read ten, twelve pages before I go to bed, but it’s tough. It’s tough. When I was in high school, I translated this from Latin. I had had twelve years of Catholic education, and my dad was really upset that I was going to Brown. He wanted me to go to a Catholic college. I said, ‘Dad, look.’ I said, ‘Let me stretch.’ So Father Bermingham got ahold of me. He said we’re gonna translate Virgil’s Aeneid, because the Jesuits always felt that Virgil was a forerunner for Christ because so many things predicted that Christ was going to come. So we would translate the thing—he would translate ten pages, I would translate one, you know, like that.
“It’s probably had as much influence on me as anything in my life. I could relate to Aeneas so much in the sense that you were fated to do something. You know, Why football, and why here? You know?”
He pauses, looks down at the book, up at me. “Why football? Why here?”
I am wearing a blank look on my face, I can just tell.
“Read that,” he says, handing me the book.
“It won’t be by Tuesday,” I say, referring to our next meeting.
“I think when you read about when Aeneas starts carrying his father and the kid out of Troy and the whole bit, it’s, well, it’s the hero vision. When you’re young, you’re impressionable. It creates dreams. It really does.
“That’s all we’re really talking about.”
When his contract runs out in 2009, he’ll be 83. He may or may not retire.
The new millennium has not exactly been kind to JoePa. Since 2000, after having just one losing season in his ﬁrst thirty-four years, all of a sudden he was racking them up like a sinner. Things got really bad in 2003 and 2004, when he was a combined 7-16. The fans turned on him; the old man was a dinosaur and simply couldn’t do it anymore. And maybe he was too innocent, too old-school, to survive in a new Firethecoach.com world.
You could log on to any number of sites and join in the fun.
And then came a knock on the door. It was November 21, 2004, a Sunday, at the conclusion of a lackluster 4-7 season. Four Penn State officials, including president Graham Spanier and athletic director Tim Curley, reportedly walked into Paterno’s house and said the gig was up. They told him they wanted him to stop coaching, urged him to quit. Face it: He was driving his beloved team to its grave.
“Relax,” he said to them. “Get off my backside.” He knew so much more about his team than they could ever know. He knew he was rebuilding a team, and that it was about to break out. He believed, or he forced himself to.
He hardly slept at all then. Sue recalls it as his darkest days.
Fans were relentless. “Joe must go!” They would come up to her in the parking lot, scream at her. One day she answered the phone and it was a guy telling her to get a pencil. “Write this down,” he said. Stupidly, she started writing. “He started giving me all these plays, and I ﬁnally put the pencil down. He was saying, ‘Did you get all that down?’ And I said, ‘No!’ He said, ‘I told you to write it down!’ I said, ‘Well what if some stranger called up your wife and told her how you should run your business—would she write it down?’ And I thought, ‘Take that!’ And I said, ‘I hope you have a good day. Good-bye.’ ”
When the 2005 season started, it seemed like a bomb was about to go off in Happy Valley. The Paterno legacy was about to disintegrate into ruins or maybe explode into something big. Either way, it was about to blow. That season would be the test of Paterno’s belief in himself and in all that he had created.
He ﬁnished 10-1, a miracle drive by Michigan away from his sixth perfect season in his forty years as head coach.
Paterno’s house is vintage Brady Bunch, a modest ranch of pink coral brick with a big brown garage door, a concrete driveway, and a ﬁne lawn. There are boxwoods and pink roses, and a stained-glass Nittany Lion on the front door, a lion door knocker, and a decorative hummingbird hanging off a suction cup on the glass beside.
He works in the way-back, back in the den Sue won’t let me enter because it’s a mess. He, himself, would not care. Sue hangs out in the kitchen. She keeps a neat kitchen. Right now she is ﬁxing chicken salad for lunch. He will almost certainly not eat it. He eats the same thing every day for lunch: cottage cheese with salsa on it. “I’m sorry,” she says to me, “but that’s baby vomit.”
She’s dressed in pink, has on a gold chain gathered into a knot, tidy red hair. She walks with trouble on account of all the metal in her back, two rods and a bunch of screws. She has been in constant pain since 1975, when a guy accidentally clipped her in the stands at Ohio State and she went sailing and a lot of stuff in her back shattered. She almost never speaks of the pain or of the surgeries. She gets up every day at four forty-ﬁve, goes over to the football gym where they have all the equipment she could ever need, including an underwater treadmill. She laughs when people tell her she’s disciplined. This is the only control at all she has over the pain.
He comes out of his den from time to time. “You all right, kid?” he asks me. “She treating you okay?” He has on khaki pants and a blue oxford shirt and loafers. He seems awkward, like he wants to hang out but he doesn’t want to hang out. He walks toward the refrigerator.
“Can you get her some ice for her Diet Pepsi?” she asks him.
“How do you know she wants ice?” he says. “She might not want ice.”
“She likes ice!” she says.
“Well, I didn’t hear you ask her if she wants ice,” he says.
“I’ll get my own ice,” I say.
He tells me not to miss her chocolatecrunch cookies.
“Everybody who comes here wants the cookies.”
“In the summer, they’re not as good, because the humidity makes them spread more,” she says. “But if it’s a cool day. Like today would be a good day to make them. ”
“They’re chocolate crunch, not chocolate chip,” he says. “Because they’re chocolate.”
“That’s right,” she says. “I use the Cuisinart.”
“Right,” he says.
He is holding a cordless phone. “I’m sorry, I hate to be rude,” he says. “But I gotta get back to work. I got so much I gotta deal with.”
Maybe he does. Probably he does. But the effect is more like a groundhog who can only stay so long out of his hole.
She tells me this is pretty much it, this is how they spend their summer days. Him in the den working, and her in the kitchen on the phone with their kids.
We get on the subject of other collegecoach wives, some of whom she knows. One asked her a while back about how she and Paterno went about making their choices to donate money back to the university. Sue assumed the woman was asking for advice about her own giving.
“I said, ‘Well, what’s your passion?’ ” she recalls. “Like, my dad was an architect. So we always did stuff in arts and architecture. Joe’s dad was a lawyer, so we did stuff in political science. His favorite teacher in high school was Father Bermingham, and he was a paciﬁst. We would pick things that meant something to us to honor those people, you know? So I said, ‘What’s your passion?’ But she was kind of blank on that. I told her sometimes you had to lower your passion on a particular thing. Like, for us, the classics really needed a lot of help. The library needed a lot of help. I said, ‘Find out where the need is, and see where your passion is.’ I was going on and on.”
“And so, what did she say?” I ask.
“She said, ‘Listen, our school owes us. That place would be nothing without us.’ I told her, I said, ‘You’re making so much money, do something good with it, you know what I mean?’ She said, ‘Our school owes us.’ I said, ‘I’m gonna go take a shower.’ And I left.”
I ask her what she and Paterno do for entertainment. She thinks for a moment. Is this a trick question? She can’t think of anything off the top of her head. “Well, you know, about three months ago we discovered M*A*S*H,” she says. “They were doing reruns. We’d never seen M*A*S*H. We’re not TV people. It came on at nine, so he would do something and I would iron, whatever. And we’d watch it. Alan Alda is just hysterical! Now we can’t ﬁnd it—it’s off. Just as we got hooked, it’s gone.”
I ask her about movies. Do they go to movies?
“We saw… Oh, you know what we saw? We saw E.T. We enjoyed that. What else have we seen? I think before that we saw Rocky, because the players wanted to go. I was never so mad I went to a movie in my life. He never got smarter. He was so dumb. Did you ever see it? Just punching and punching. I thought, Oh, what a stupid man.”
I ask if, perhaps, they occasionally go out to restaurants.
“A couple of weeks ago, we went to the Olive Garden. We enjoyed that.”
In a few days, they’ll go to the family shore house in New Jersey. That’s a highlight. Except he gets bothered on the beach. Everyone coming up to him wanting autographs, offering football advice. But that happens here at home, too. People stop by with helmets to sign, jerseys. They just ring the doorbell and ask. “That bothers us,” she says. “That does bother us.”
I ask her why she never moved to a mansion on a hill behind a big gate.
“We have always liked our house,” she says. “I would like a better closet in our bedroom. But that’s about it.”
I ask her why she was crying that night in 1972 when Paterno was about to sign up to coach the Patriots.
“I didn’t want to leave,” she says.
“But you would have been an instant millionaire,” I say.
She recalls meeting with the guy from the Patriots who had wooed Paterno. She had a lot of questions for him. “Do they have big roads in Boston?” she asked.
“And he said, ‘What do you mean, big roads?’ ” she recalls. “I said, ‘Well, you know, big.’ He was honest. He said the roads were big. I like little roads. Also, I liked our doctor. Our family doctor was super. You know, I didn’t want to leave.”
And her husband didn’t want to leave, either; she knew that. “He was more about influencing someone’s future,” she says. “And you don’t get to do that in the pros, generally.”
“That’s kind of archaic thinking,” I say.
Paterno comes out again. “You two all right?” he says. “She treating you all right?” He babbles. He seems to feel obligated to entertain me. He talks about alpacas. He talks about how hard it is to get into Penn State now. He talks about where he keeps the flashlights in the house in case of power outages. He talks about being a soldier in Korea. “You know, there was a certain presence about those people. They were almost laughing at us. I sensed that. They were very proud. I was 18 years old.
“Anyway, I gotta get back,” he says. “Aww, I don’t want to be rude.”
The next time he emerges, it’s to ask her a question about an AT&T commercial he’s supposed to do. He barely knows how to use a cell phone, and now he’s supposed to endorse one.
“I don’t want to do it,” he says.
“You didn’t have a choice,” she says.
“Sure, I had a choice,” he says. “They committed me to do it because we got a lot of cell phones free. The whole athletic department. They wanted BlackBerrys.”
“BlackJacks,” she says.
“BlackBerrys,” he says.
“No, BlackJacks,” she says.
“I don’t know what they got,” he says. “They got all kindsa things. But I said go ahead and they can use my name and they get the thing free. Now they send me the script for the commercial. You can take a look at it. Because I think it’s a little bit too strong an endorsement. It’s nice to say we enjoy our phones, but they make a comparison. How do I know their prices are better?”
“Sit down and eat something,” she says.
He chooses yogurt instead of his usual cottage cheese, because two days ago she bought yogurt, so he ﬁgures he should eat it.
“Do you—?” she says, folding her hands for a blessing.
“Sure,” I say. She closes her eyes and says grace.
We sit at the table with the big round lazy Susan and eat. He tells me all about the ﬁrst time he ate cottage cheese. “Well, it wasn’t spaghetti,” he says.
“Do you have gypsy moths?” she asks me. “Do you see all those leaves out there? Okay do you see all these little black pellets? That’s their poop. Yes. I have to blow the driveway at least once a day. They cover it in no time.”
We spend the rest of our meal railing about gypsy moths.
I get lulled into an era that’s passing, or one I thought was already gone. Here are some vestiges. Back before greed took over. Back before everything went designer, before everything sped up.
“After this I’m going for a haircut,” he says.
About thirty-five years ago, Paterno was invited to give a talk at a luncheon at Penn State. The audience was a bunch of English professors, and most of them assumed he was going to talk football. It would be amusing, undoubtedly, to see a coach try to spin football as a metaphor that had anything at all to do with the academy of letters.
Paterno didn’t talk football. He talked Virgil, offering Aeneid as a model for a whole new kind of hero, one that, around 20 B.C., the Western civilized world had not yet met.
In the poem, Virgil proclaims pietas to be man’s highest virtue. The word is usually translated as “duty” or “devotion,” but it’s more than that. It’s the individual understanding himself to exist at the center of overlapping obligations. Through most of the poem, Aeneas isn’t getting it. He wants to be a good old-fashioned hero. Someone more like the stars the Greeks offered up: all this bad stuff coming at you and you ﬁght it off and everyone cheers. A hero!
Fate steps in. Aeneas is called. Unlike the Greek hero who was fated to succeed, Aeneas has to choose. He can act, or not act, on the demands of the divine calling. It isn’t a onetime choice. He doubts himself continually, and decides, moment by moment, to endure.
His fuel is his recognition that his ﬁrst commitment is to others and not to himself. He carries his father, holds his son’s hand, and goes on to found Rome, which is impressive. But what makes him a worthy man is his willingness to subordinate himself to his obligations.
“Heroism in the Modern World,” Paterno titled his speech.
A whole new kind of hero.