Joe Paterno roamed the sidelines in the first college football game that I remember watching. I was seven years old, dressed in crimson pants, an Alabama t-shirt and an Alabama cowboy hat. It was the 1979 Sugar Bowl, featuring No. 1 Penn State vs. the No. 2 Crimson Tide.
We had recently moved to New Jersey, and my parents hosted a party to watch the game that would end up settling the national title. Seemingly all of my parents’ friends were fans of Penn State, which at that time was basically the home team for college football fans in North Jersey.
We were fans of the Tide. My dad, a 1961 Alabama grad, hung a Bear Bryant poster in my room while I was still in a crib. He was eager to show his new friends in the Northeast what SEC football was all about.
Alabama, of course, won the game, delivering the Bear his sixth and final national title. It was a happy day in the Light household.
At the time, I didn’t know much about the man on the other sideline. But as a fan of the sport, I grew to respect Paterno and his team. I didn’t necessarily like Penn State during my formative years — in fact, I rooted against the Nittany Lions until I got to college — but it was a program that I admired.
It’s cliché, but Paterno did things the right away. Simply put, he is one of the greatest coaches in the history of team sports. But is that how he will be remembered? Or will we remember him for the final three months of his life and the scandal that ended his 46-run as the boss in Happy Valley? It’s a complicated question. And a personal question.
I want to remember Paterno for all of the good things he did for a sport I love. But then, as the father of a 7-year old boy, it’s hard for me to ignore what we have learned about this legendary figure in the past few months.
We will never truly know how much Paterno knew, but I find it hard to believe that he didn’t know that Jerry Sandusky, his former defensive coordinator and long-time friend, was committing these atrocities. Paterno was most powerful man in State College and the CEO of one of the top football programs in the nation. There is no way he didn’t know something was going on.
And for that, I can’t not think of Jerry Sundusky when I think of Joe Paterno. Whenever I hear his name, the first image that pops into my head is Sandusky — and it’s not a pleasant image. I don’t know if I will feel the same way in a year, or in five years.
But for now, my memory of Joe Paterno is more about grand jury testimony, child abuse and power than it is about Penn State football.
by Mitch Light (@AthlonMitch on Twitter)