When I sat opposite Rodney Erickson a few hours after his university got slammed with harsh NCAA penalties, I saw a man who had looked death in the eye and had chosen life.
Life for Penn States football program, albeit under extreme sanctions that could still prove crippling.
And as with all who experience a brush with mortality, Erickson bore the scars in his eyes, likely on his heart.
He made the most difficult decision of his professional life knowing that, regardless of the course he chose, he would be the target of scrutiny and scorn.
The NCAA sanctions to which Erickson agreed meant Penn State faced a $60 million fine, the loss of football scholarships and a four-year ban from postseason play.
All wins from 1998 through 2011 were vacated, knocking the late Joe Paterno from the top of the all-time coaching wins list.
It was a low moment for Penn State. But Erickson was convinced he and those with whom he consulted had done the right thing despite the backlash that has followed.
We had our backs to the wall on this, Erickson told me on Monday. We did what we thought was necessary to save the program.
Erickson said he acted with input from head football coach Bill OBrien and the local community.
The message to Erickson, interim athletics chief David Joyner and others was consistent: Please do everything you can to avoid the death penalty.
And the loss of football was a very real possibility.
Erickson said a four-year ban was on the table, and would likely have been enacted if he had not accepted the provisions of the consent decree.
Unfortunately, the NCAA sent mixed messages about that. Executive Committee Chairman Ed Ray, of Oregon State, told ESPN: I can tell you categorically, there was never a threat made to anyone about suspension of play if the consent decree was not agreed to.
That fueled the fire for those already convinced that Erickson had sold out Nittany Nation.
However, NCAA President Mark Emmert on Wednesday clarified the situation when speaking with ESPN. Emmert said the death penalty for football was a likely option.
Later Wednesday, Erickson was called into a special, unannounced meeting of the universitys board of trustees, some of whom said beforehand that they questioned the presidents judgment. Some said they were considering legal action to undo the consent decree Erickson had signed.
But when the dust had settled Wednesday evening, the trustees issued a statement supporting Ericksons decision.
The Board finds the punitive sanctions difficult and the process with the NCAA unfortunate, they wrote. But as we understand it, the alternatives were worse as confirmed by NCAA President Mark Emmerts recent statement that Penn State was likely facing a multi-year death sentence.
On Monday afternoon, flanked by Joyner and trustees Chairwoman Karen Peetz, Erickson said he was convinced the NCAA would shut down the Nittany Lions for multiple years, as many as four seasons, unless his signature was on the consent decree Sunday night.
This is the decision you make: Accept the consent decree or the (NCAA) board will go in another direction, Erickson said then. So we accepted that, and I signed it on behalf of the university.
He added: I accepted this consent decree ... knowing that if we did not accept the sanctions we most surely would have faced the death penalty for football over multiple years and the prospects of additional sanctions. I felt, after conferring with board leadership and others, that it was in the best interest of the university to accept the sanctions that were offered rather than have the death penalty imposed on Penn State.
Before the world turned upside down in November, Erickson was comfortably approaching retirement as Penn States vice president and provost for academics.
But suddenly, the Jerry Sandusky scandal broke and then- President Graham Spanier was removed from office.
Erickson agreed to take on the enormous responsibility of guiding Penn State through the turbulence that was ahead, realizing that no one knew how treacherous the journey might become.
Im told by people close to Erickson that the experience, and especially the events of recent weeks, has taken a toll on the man and his family.
University presidents make important and challenging decisions all the time. Often, those choices affect the welfare of hundreds of employees, thousands of students and the many residents of the surrounding community.
But seldom could so much literally hang in the balance.
Its hard to imagine the pressure of that moment, when the Penn State president put pen to paper and chose the challenging road Penn State is now on over what he believed was the deeper darkness of a multi-year football death penalty.
In the years ahead, we will look back on this troubling time and realize that there were heroes in the midst of the storm, individuals who risked ridicule and heartbreak for the greater good.
I expect Rodney Erickson will be one of those heroes.
Chip Minemyer is the executive editor of the Centre Daily Times. He can be reached at 231-4640. Follow him on Twitter@MinemyerChip.