Last weekend was a celebration for Joe Paterno — gentleman, Brown graduate and legendary football coach. the reason for the celebrating was that, at age 71, Paterno won his 300th football victory as a head coach, something that only three others have accomplished. Like everything he does, Joe won the majority of his games with an enviable style, pacing the sidelines in his trademark white athletic socks and wale pants with rolled-up cuffs.
I first met Joe Paterno 41 years ago when, as a freshman at Penn State, Paterno was my health professor. Back in 1957, football coaching was not a fulltime job, so coaches were forced to teach as well.
What I remember most about those days is that Paterno would walk into the room, greet the class, and then turn on a projector that seemed cemented to a podium at the front of the room. While we watched yet another health film, Joe and the other coaches would confer among themselves in a corner.
One day, Paterno — then an assistant coach — told the class that he was looking for recruits for the football team and, if we knew of any player anywhere who might be able to help the squad, Joe would visit him personally. What struck me was his unbridled enthusiasm to travel and meet new athletes.
I responded promptly that day after class. At the time my cousin, Joe, weighing in at 350 pounds, played tackle for the Ellwood City Wolverines. I gave his name and address to Paterno and then forgot about it.
Some months later when I went back home for semester break, I ran into Joe who told me the story of how, one night, there was a knock on his parents’ door and some football coach at Penn State tried to recruit him for the team.
“So, what’d you tell him?” I asked.
Joe said he turned him down. The most important thing to him at the time was marrying a high school sweetheart and settling down.
“You turned down an opportunity to get a free college education at one of the best universities in the country?” I asked, unable or unwilling to believe it.
“Sure,” Joe told me. “I’m not college material.”
Three years later I ran into my cousin at a family reunion. There was a group of people around him and he was telling the story of how this football coach from Penn State had come to his home personally to recruit him. “That coach was Joe Paterno, Joe said, looking up at me with obvious pride. By that time, Paterno had already made a name as a quality coach.
Throughout the coming decades, Joe Paterno has brought distinction to a profession (if you can call it that) otherwise known for brutality and exploitation. His “kids,” as he refers to the players he coaches, have graduated at a rate exceeded only by the athletes at Notre Dame.
While he has earned a nice living off the game, he has donated more than $3 million back to the university. New Englanders will remember the day he turned down an opportunity to coach the Patriots, by saying he was happy where he was and would miss the opportunity to become a positive influence on young people.
I got hooked on Penn State football games too many years ago to count and still follow the team on television, remembering what it was like way back when I was still young and all things were possible.
And Cousin Joe? His marriage ultimately failed and his children ran into trouble with drugs and unwanted babies. Today, he tips the scales at 450 pounds. Unemployed, he lives alone. I don’t see him that much but when I do, he insists on reminding me of that particular autumn night when there was an unexpected knock on his parents’ door.