Saints and angels don’t wear tennis shoes or prepare game plans or throw punches or hit baseballs over a fence.
Angels and saints are not defined by wins or trophies or championships or even by the number of lives they might save.
So despite the stirring tributes in the wake of his death, including those expressed during his public memorial Thursday, Joe Paterno was neither saint nor angel.
He undoubtedly knew this better than anyone who might have perceived him as such, certainly the many members of the Penn State community that revered him, referring to him as “JoePa,” a fitting designation for Pennsylvania’s unofficial patriarch.
Paterno, who was 85 when he died Sunday, would have waved off the halo painted above his head, one day after his death, on the large mural in State College. He would have wondered why the artist would do such a thing. He would have described himself as an old football coach who didn’t deserve it.
He would have been absolutely correct.
Don’t get me wrong. Paterno was, by most measures, a quality individual, a fine football coach and a devoted leader. His many good deeds helped hundreds of young men, grappling with the responsibilities of adulthood, find and maintain some balance in the constant spin of life.
For all his great intentions, though, Paterno’s code of honor was profoundly flawed. For his many acts of kindness and brotherhood, he also had, like many other legends, wayward allegiances to which he was blindly faithful.
The Penn State program, in particular, as well as his close friends and associates.
And while this is, first and foremost, a reference to Paterno’s reaction to the richly chronicled child-molestation charges faced by Jerry Sandusky, one of his longtime assistant coaches, this also could apply to additional Penn State matters not yet exposed, to crimes and cover-ups and indiscretions that have not come to the surface.
If there was at least one, can we really assume there weren’t more?
As sure as we know Paterno was a Penn State lifer, winning a record 409 games, we also know there was an abject ignorance of moral obligation. He was a great coach who motivated and inspired many, yet the Sandusky matter reveals that JoePa choked in a moment that transcended football.
Informed in 2002 that he had a pedophile in his midst, Paterno was faced with a decision.
To do something is to choose honor and integrity over self-preservation or the protection of friends.
To do nothing is to betray the young men who, along with their parents, put themselves in Paterno’s custody.
Upon hearing about Sandusky’s behavior with a child during an on-campus shower, the coach sat on it, waiting until the next day to pass the information to his “superiors.”
“It was a Saturday morning,” Paterno, under oath, explained to the grand jury, “and I didn’t want to interfere with their weekends.”
The JoePa we thought we knew would have instantly placed fairness and justice above loyalty and suppression.
Given earlier indications of Sandusky’s nature, Paterno in 1999 ushered his defensive coordinator into early retirement. Sandusky kept his office at Penn State and maintained access to the school’s facilities. Isn’t the idea of moving a problem, rather than confronting and perhaps solving it, rather cowardly?