UNIVERSITY PARK — When former Penn State football player Stefen Wisniewski thinks of Joe Paterno, he’ll remember being recruited in Paterno’s kitchen while eating “SuePa’s” cookies.
The longtime head football coach died Sunday morning of lung cancer. He was 85.
Paterno was honored throughout the day, both outside at Old Main by Wisniewski and several current players during a candlelight vigil, and inside during an evening Mass at the Pasquerilla Spiritual Center. Students, alumni and others expressed love and prayed for the man who became a Penn State legend.
“We lost a giant today,” said Father Matthew Laffey during the Mass.
Wisniewski, now with the Oakland Raiders, will remember when, at age 82, Paterno got down in a lineman’s stance and showed Wisniewski how to snap a football.
“He loved this place,” Wisniewski said to several thousand people gathered on the Old Main lawn, holding candles. “No one has the commitment that Joe Paterno does.”
A few players recalled their first and last conversations with their coach. Cornerback Mike Wallace remembered one of the last.
“One of the last things he told me was, ‘keep working hard — your time is coming,’ ” Wallace recalled. “Joe Paterno was one of the best coaches I ever had. Joe Paterno will never be forgotten because legends never die.”
Quarterback Shane McGregor recalled his first conversation with Paterno, in August 2008. The coach walked by as the team stretched.
“He looks at me and says, ‘pretty nice day, huh?’ ” McGregor said. “I said, ‘Yeah, coach, it’s beautiful.’ ”
John Tecce, president of Paternoville, the tradition that brings students to camp at Beaver Stadium before home football games, spoke of the club’s plan to keep the name.
Tecce said the group is happy that Paterno knew of that commitment before his death.
“He obviously touched the lives of so many,” Tecce said. “I only shook his hand once ... yet it feels like losing a family member.”
Though quarterback Matt McGloin said he was hesitant to speak in front of the crowd, he thanked his coach and called out the familiar chant, “We are” with the crowd calling back, “Penn State.”
The Penn State Blue Band played from the top of the Old Main steps throughout the 35- minute remembrance, ending with “Amazing Grace” and the beginning of Penn State’s alma mater.
The university a cappella group, Blue in the Face, led the crowd in singing, and attendees swayed in waves. They ended the evening by holding their candles skyward, in silence, before walking to the statue of Paterno running onto the field at Beaver Stadium.
University police monitored the statue site Sunday, guiding traffic and pedestrians. Police said late Sunday that those on campus were “very peaceful.”
Inside the Pasquerilla Spiritual Center, students and others began streaming into the vast worship center about 15 minutes before the regular 9 p.m. Mass. By the time it started, hundreds of people nearly filled the seats.
Laffey, director of Penn State’s Catholic Campus Ministry, remembered Paterno’s values and character as part of the homily. He said Paterno once listed the three titles that meant the most to him: husband, father and grandfather.
“He was a good man, and what you saw is what you got,” Laffey said.
The Mass also honored William Schreyer, who endowed Penn State’s Schreyer Honors College and who died a year ago Sunday. Laffey noted that Schreyer and Paterno, who were contemporaries and friends, shared more than dying on the same day.
“They’ve given so much to this place, meaning the university,” Laffey said. “God bless them both.”
Throughout the day, students and graduates said they felt a lot of sadness, as evidenced by their tears.
“I can’t help but think, and other people said it, that he died with a broken heart,” said senior Lauren Abersold. What she’ll think of when she remembers Paterno are “the school spirit and the passion toward Penn State — other schools don’t have it.”
Alumna Lindsey Gertz attended the vigil wearing fuzzy, white, Penn State earmuffs, and carrying her 19-month-old daughter, Reese, on her back.
Gertz said the anger people felt after trustees removed Paterno from his position seemed to have dissipated Sunday.
“It feels like a different place,” she said.
At the Mass, Penn State sophomore Aaron Wilkinson said Paterno should be remembered more for his lifetime of contributions and service to the university, than for the child abuse scandal that ended his career.
“I definitely think he did many great things for the school and for athletics at Penn State,” Wilkinson said. “It’s sad that his legacy will be remembered in part for one mistake.”
Wilkinson grew up in Erie, hearing about Paterno from an early age on.
“I have friends who go to different schools, and they’re just as saddened as if they went to Penn State,” he said. “I guess it’s a Pennsylvania thing.”
Timothy Deeter, a Boalsburg resident and 2005 graduate, took a minute to pay tribute to Paterno’s work ethic before the Mass began.
“He just put his heart and soul into it, and he should be remembered for how hard he worked and for the amount of effort he put into his life,” Deeter said.
Laffey urged the congregation to pray for the Paterno and Schreyer families, but on a day of mourning, he ended his thoughts on a lighter note.
He told a joke about legendary football coaches Vince Lombardi and Bear Bryant presenting themselves in heaven. Both do so to God’s satisfaction, and then it’s the newcomer’s turn.
“Joe, I’m sorry,” God says. “Let me get out of your chair.”
Jessica VanderKolk can be reached at 235-3910 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Chris Rosenblum can be reached at 231-4620 and email@example.com.