Penn State

Penn State Football: Remembering Joe Paterno

I hung up the phone stunned. I had just asked the Reverend Charles MacEachern (Charlie) to officiate at our wedding. He was the retired pastor of my family church in Massachusetts, a family friend. The year was 1987.
Charlie asked about Terry.  I started with, “Terry is an avid Penn State football fan.” 
His response was “Carolyn, that’s all I need to know.  Anybody who’s a fan of Joe Paterno will make a great husband.” He immediately agreed to marry us.
Charlie explained, “Joe Paterno is my hero.  He doesn’t compromise academics to win.  He does college football the right way.” 
And so my marriage to Terry Todd started on that note nearly 25 years ago.  After that phone call, I figured I had better learn more about Joe. 
And what I learned as I observed and came to love Penn State football was how precious an individual he really was.
I remember the first time I met Joe Paterno.

I was working in central New Jersey for a high-tech software and engineering firm.  A colleague of mine, a graduate of Northwestern, had received an invitation to a Big Ten coaches’ reception at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York City.   It was the same week as the Heisman Trophy celebration.   

It was December of 1995.  Penn State had played Northwestern that year at Ryan Field in Evanston and lost in a miserably cold and desolate November night. 
It was the Cinderella season for Northwestern, the year that Coach Gary Barnett beat all odds and led his team to the Rose Bowl.  
I had done this colleague a favor by bringing back a program, a one-page print out that looked more like a high school program than anything we had seen at a Big Ten college football game.  But one he fondly remembered during his undergrad years and wanted desperately.
He was grateful, so he invited Terry and me to go to this reception.
It was a great opportunity.  Despite Terry’s 25 years of dedication to Penn State football, he had never had a chance to speak personally with Joe Paterno.
I had a business mission as well.  I was looking for a motivational speaker to inspire our sales force for a meeting I was planning in late January.
Lou Holtz was charging about $30,000 per speech and Joe Paterno wasn’t available at any price.  He just didn’t do that kind of thing.
But I figured I might catch Gary Barnett before his price was too high, and he would be very timely, having just achieved the Big Ten championship.  Our business was in a turnaround situation, and so had been Northwestern. 
So there we were, with our Northwestern alum friend, standing around drinking cocktails at this glorious hotel.  This event was, surprisingly, very sparsely attended. In fact it was quite intimate.  There were only about 150 people in the room. 
Every Big Ten coach was there, including Lloyd Carr from Michigan, Joe Paterno from Penn State, Gary Barnett from Northwestern, Hayden Fry from Iowa, and many others.  It was a rare thrill to be in the same room with these giants of college football and have an opportunity to shake their hands.
I was so dumb.  It didn't even occur to me to ask for autographs. 
I asked Gary Barnett about his availability to speak.  He told me the price, and gave me the name of his agent.  He was already too expensive, and the timing wasn't right due to recruiting season.
Then we had the opportunity to talk one-on-one with Coach Joe Paterno.  I introduced Joe to Terry and told him that Terry had attended (at the time) 75 games in a row, anywhere in the country.  And seen almost all of the games since 1970.
Joe’s only reaction was, “You’re nuts!”
Since then, of course, it has become many more games, and life has changed for us dramatically.  Terry retired and I left the business world and became a marketing professor at Penn State’s Smeal College of Business. 
We moved to State College, and discovered that it was relatively easy to interact with Joe Paterno by joining the Quarterback Club. 
I call this club State College’s best kept secret for those who don’t live here.  We had no idea it existed until we moved here, and the only reason we discovered it was that I happened to share an office with the Toastmaster at the time, Mickey Bergstein.  
Mickey’s role was to interview the players and then Joe Paterno.
Mickey, in his late 70’s at the time I met him, had a long history as a radio announcer for Penn State football as well as being a professor emeritus in the marketing department where I now worked.   He also wrote the book, “Penn State Sports Stories and More”, which had just been published that year, about his experiences covering Penn State sports.
So I learned about Joe through Mickey’s eyes each week as he planned these Quarterback Club sessions.  Joe Paterno was a constant topic of conversation in our office, and Mickey had many stories.  I learned about Mickey’s admiration for Joe as well as many of his frustrations in the very long-term relationship he had with him.
This club, in existence since Rip Engle’s day, had a few peculiar characteristics about it, none the least of which was that people would show up at 10:30 a.m. for a twelve- noon event.
Once per week, during football season, we would join about 500 other dedicated football fans/club members to hear two football players talk and then hear Mickey (and more recently, Steve Jones) interview Joe Paterno about last week’s game, or this week’s opponent.
It was fun to hear the players – usually one on offense and one on defense – talk about their career ambitions, their studies, and of course the game of football.  And then of course there was the interview with Joe Paterno.
Joe let down his guard a bit at those sessions, and it was emphasized to all who attended that the press wasn’t allowed in the room, that anything said in that forum would stay in that forum. 
That didn’t always happen, though.
So Joe was smart enough to stay away from any topic that might appear in the press or tip off the opponent about his game strategy that week.
So mostly, in typical Joe Paterno style, when faced with a question he didn’t want to answer, he would tell stories about the old days, about great players he used to coach, about historic moments in Penn State football, about growing up in Brooklyn, or he would physically demonstrate how an offensive lineman should block and tackle. 
Always a fun moment when he would get into that stance! 
Joe had more clever ways of not saying anything meaningful or informative than anyone I have ever encountered.  But he was always – always – entertaining. 
Then Joe would answer any questions from the audience.  Dumb questions.  Probing questions.  He would explain football to those who didn’t understand.  He would update us on players’ injury status. 
He would avoid answering anything that could be used against his team on the following Saturday, or anything that would get him into trouble with the NCAA.
But sometimes Joe wasn’t sure if he had handled a question properly.  More than once he would stop Terry or me as we were leaving and ask us if he answered appropriately.   He seemed to know who we were and respect us as fans.
So it was through Quarterback Club that I felt like I came to know Joe, to appreciate his sense of humor, his coaching style, his orientation toward life. 
I basically learned that he was a down-to-earth person.  Always striving to be better, but also aware that he had faults.  
There were a few other encounters.  I am now a former smoker, but I used to teach in a building directly across from McKee Street and Joe would often walk by the building on his way to the Lasch Football Building or Holuba Hall. 
One day between classes I was taking a smoke break and as Joe walked by he stopped and asked me if I was enjoying it.   He was very friendly, not judgmental at all, and I found myself to be a bit speechless just encountering him in that way. 
My students would often arrive at that classroom with similar “Guess who I just spoke with?” moments.  Joe always took the time to stop and say hello, especially to students, and it was always a thrill. 
Another time, just before a Quarterback Club meeting, I ran into Joe Paterno outside the Penn Stater and mentioned to him that one of his football players was struggling in my class. He was a very good football player, a regular on the first string that season.
“Flunk him,” Joe said, not asking for any details.  “It will teach him a lesson.” 
Charlie McEachern was right.  Joe didn’t compromise on academics.
In October 2006, Terry achieved 200 Penn State football games in a row anywhere in the country.   In May of that year, I was planning a surprise celebration of that milestone, and called the Penn State football office to ask if Joe could autograph a football for Terry. 
I was told it could take months and they could not guarantee it would happen in time for the October celebration.  But write a letter explaining the situation and drop it off.
I did that, and Terry and I went on vacation for a week.  When we came back, I had a voice mail at my office telling me the football was already signed “To Terry.  Joe Paterno.”   I could pick it up at any time.
I don’t know what it is, but even holding a football with his autograph was special.   
I had to wait until October to give it to Terry?  No way…I was too excited.  I gave it to Terry that day when I returned home.  He was thrilled.
In 2010, I went to the first ever Ladies’ Football Camp, and had a chance to play football at Beaver Stadium.  It wasn’t on the agenda, but Joe Paterno showed up for practice before our final scrimmage.  What did he tell us?
“You’re nuts! Just a bunch of kooks.”
Familiar words, as I had heard them long ago at that cocktail reception in New York City. 
Coaching legend as he was, I believe that Joe was truly amazed at the dedication of Penn State football fans and our fanatical ways.   The fact that football fans would travel all over the country to support the team. 
Or that a bunch of ladies would pay hundreds of dollars to learn more about football and play a 45-minute scrimmage on the hallowed grounds of Beaver Stadium.
Even though it was his success on and off the field that caused us all to follow Penn State religiously, there was still that streak of humility in not knowing quite why people would care that much. 
Joe would be amazed this week as thousands of people gather on the University Park campus to pay homage to him. He would be confounded that the tickets to his memorial service were gone in less than a few minutes.
I also came to know Joe Paterno through the many players who have enrolled in my classes over the years.   Players whose progress was tracked in each class not once, not twice, but three times per semester to make sure they were achieving well in the classroom.  
Players who were polite, were mostly well disciplined, who attended classes, who turned their homework in on time. 
Even the player mentioned above who flunked the midterm.  It was a wake-up call for him.   He came in the office to talk with me about it right away.  He apologized.
I stopped teaching that class after the mid-term.  Another professor took over. 
For the rest of the semester he buckled down and studied. At the Senior Banquet that year, I ran into him.  He greeted me with a hug, told me he did well enough on his final to pass the course, and thanked me.  This player went on to have a successful NFL career.
For us, Penn State football, of course, has defined our lives in the fall, shaped our marriage, and even shaped my career. 
It has been a source of tremendous pleasure and enjoyment for both of us.
We are so thankful to Joe for all he has done for us, for the players, for the university, for the sport of college football.  We will be reflecting on all the lessons he taught us for years to come.
Rest in peace, Joe.  Rest in peace.  We will miss you deeply. 
Thank you so much for being you.