I remember well the first time I met Joe Paterno.
I had been working at the Centre Daily Times for about six months and was surprised to see Paterno at a university function at the Penn State Golf Courses.
Though in my professional career I had already interviewed many past, current and future superstars from baseball, basketball, football, golf, tennis and even extreme sports, I have to admit I was a little excited and even nervous to meet the man.
While the exchange was brief and ended with a handshake, I left with the feeling that I had indeed crossed paths with someone special. And while we didnt’ always see eye-to-eye professionally in the more than 10 years since, that initial feeling was correct — there was something different about this man.
I’d like to think that excited sensation is the way so many Penn State players, fans and students felt and still feel about their coach. Meeting him was important, an experience to be savored, even if it was something as small as getting a hand wave as he hurried through campus or getting chewed out on the practice field. Those stories would be ones that they would tell their friends and families for the rest of their lives.
And, it’s why that his death Sunday at age 85 has hit so many of those people so hard.
Rarely in this life do you get to be in the presence of greatness. For example, the odds of seeing your favorite movie star, much less meeting that person, are astronomical. Same thing goes with athletes or most celebrities.
Paterno was different, an icon who you could spot around town and who actually was listed in the phone book.
For much of his 46 seasons as a head coach, he could be seen walking all over the University Park campus and engaging with the students.
Locals would see him out doing the normal things that they were doing, too. “I saw JoePa shopping today” or “I saw JoePa pumping gas” is how a conversation among friends or co-workers would start. And the thing is, Paterno got it.
He knew what a wave, a smile, a handshake or a “Get to class,” would mean to even those people who loved him and even to those who didn’t.
For a man so consumed by football and family, it must have been tough to have to be “on” all the time, but the man had a knack for making those he came in contact with feel better about their day.
Paterno knew it was all about people — whether you were trying to build a football program, land a big donation or fill the stands each week.
You’d have to say he was pretty good at those things among many more.
It certainly took the right people — athletically, academically and those in positions of authority — to put together the kind of program that so many religiously follow on Saturday afternoons each fall.
Racking up 409 wins, two national titles and 24 bowl wins helps, too, but triumphs don’t explain the loyalty that so many players (more than 800 lettermen alone were on hand for a viewing Tuesday), assistant coaches and fans, who by the thousands spent hours in line to file past his casket and who converged on the statue outside of Beaver Stadium to pay their respects. Thousands more, in person at the Bryce Jordan Center and via broadcast, will watch his memorial service on Thursday afternoon. That reverence is real.
Like all men, Paterno had his share of faults. With his self-deprecating sense of humor, he’d even admit to a few.
Much has been discussed before and after Paterno’s passing about his legacy. Certainly the end of his career, amidst the charges of sexual abuse against former assistant Jerry Sandusky, is a tragedy. As Sandusky’s trial approaches, much more will be said.
But, now isn’t the time to dwell on those things.
It’s a time to say goodbye and to replay the memories.
There are those of us who feel fortunate to have sat on a Friday evening before a big game and listened to him tell his stories, pontificate on literature or discuss a Civil War general.
Those are special moments. The ones many will never forget.