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23 January 2012

The Day Joe Paterno Died

On the day Joe Paterno died, people all over the world came together with family and friends to watch that uniquely American game of football, where wars are fought without bullets, but not without casualties.

They watched with the intensity reserved only for the AFC and NFC championship games. They watched many valiant and courageous men with the physical skills of gods play out the concluding dramas of a long season.

There were winners and losers, great efforts and great mistakes, and in the end, these strongest of the strong were left as they often are weeping and praying for millions to see as the the breaking point of one's physical and emotional limits is tested and transcended--aspects of the human spirit to which we can all relate, even if we never played the game.

But somewhere in the back of every football fan's mind there had to be a thought for the legend that was no more.

You see Joe Paterno was thought to be different--timeless, ageless, more like a throwback to ancient beings--a great patriarch on the level of a founding father or philosopher-type, and someone who could have had almost any thing he ever wanted, but who chose to live rather modestly, supposedly caring only about the integrity and work-ethic by which he lived and inspired others to live.

He just seemed larger than life--a man in his eighties with that strong profile and wavy hair--his image eternally electric and vibrant, like the colors on a crisp fall day in State College Pennsylvania.

Thought to be the opposite in so many ways to the modern, ego-obsessed celebrity, one seeking separation and special treatment, Paterno seemed only to care about the lives he molded and inspired and the legacy he would leave, about how he would be remembered and experienced for ages to come because of the values and leadership skills he had instilled in his players and coaches. Even his surname "Paterno" sounds like "paternal." The father figure we all knew we could always trust never to change and never to stray from doing what was right--someone eternally strong, like a face carved on the side of a mountain.

So how do you react when you find out this kind of father figure was not who you always knew him to be?

When reality shatters the illusion, how do we cope with such information? After a brief media firestorm, we mostly ignore it. But I think of the crushing burden, the soul of the deeds, if you will, done to those vulnerable young boys under Paterno's watch-- true, deeds committed by his associate--but for lack of any action on his part to stop them, deeds  for which Paterno was ultimately responsible.

I think how even the smallest revelation of such acts of cruelty and exploitation must have worked over the years like an oppressive force on his chest and heart, little dark secrets that threatened to undermine all the trust and admiration that took so many years to build--until he literally and figuratively became unable to breathe under the weight of this pain (a cancer burning inside his chest) all in the name of protecting the image and brand that is any major college football program and especially Penn State.

But Paterno wasn't removed from that pain. He shared it in some real way. This is what most people do not understand--we're all so intimately connected to each other we never escape the vibrations of what we create or even what we allow. No one ever gets away with anything. Victim and oppressor are forever linked.

In the end we may never completely know whether Paterno was more betrayed or betrayer? Was his trust in his life-long associate so great that he failed to see what was really going on? Or was he merely a hard-hearted, completely calculating individual who was so arrogant as to think he could never fall from grace, no matter the circumstances? 

Now I can only offer a prayer for those boys who suffered under the abuse and probably struggled mightily to put their lives back together after they were so terribly let down by people they thought they could trust, and also a prayer for Joe Paterno's soul.

Not one of us is immune to or above this cycle of suffering that is so intricately woven into what it means to live on this planet. Is there some greater place of redemption after death? Some aspect of mysteries not yet revealed that allows us to make right the deeds gone wrong?  All we know for sure is that if we're alive, we still possess some ability and some opportunity for redemption and for compassion. We can still love and heal if we put our intentions into that space.


1 comment:

  1. you can write sir! one wonders if one should feel any sorrow for him


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