OPINION: Paterno's Fatherly Advice

One example of the way Joe Paterno's family values had an impact even outside his own immediate family.

Given my ties to Fight On State and PSU Playbook over the years, most Penn State fans I encounter tend to assume that I am the product of a multi-generational, die-hard Nittany Lion family, raised on a healthy diet of Blue and White tales and experiences that span the decades.

But I was not your typical Penn State prospective student as a high school junior. In fact, as a native New Englander, I was that kid on the Lion Ambassador campus tour who finally asked in front of the Nittany Lion Shrine, “Who exactly is Joe Paterno?” I asked because of the repeated references to his impact and philanthropy, and ultimately because of a story of how his wife painted the statue orange on homecoming one year. It was an innocent inquiry, which was met with looks of shock and whispers questioning how I even gained entry into Pennsylvania without the most basic knowledge of Keystone State icons.

Throughout my time in Happy Valley, though, I not only developed a love for college football and, of course, Penn State, but also an affinity for the wisdom of Joe Paterno. Over the years, I had the good fortune to experience a variety of unique encounters with him that ranged from discussing the importance of the Argonauts, upon his spotting the mythology book I was toting to class (which incidentally went over my head like Helios' chariot) to a personal tour of the old “trophy room” in the Greenberg Sports Complex. But those are stories for another time.

The encounter that has stayed with me to this day and will forever more happened a few years ago. The Paternos had invited a select group of media members to a hosted dinner event in the summer. FOS editor Mark Brennan asked if my wife Pam and I would like to attend. We knew it was an opportunity that could not be missed, so we moved mountains to adjust our schedules.

The evening entailed dinner in Beaver Stadium's President's Box with a number of coaches, after which the blue team bus took us over to the Paternos' home for dessert and drinks.

Joe was making his rounds welcoming his guests. Upon arriving to us he immediately asked Pam if she happened to be German. She was surprised by his keen observation skills, seemingly forgetting that she's practically out of central casting with her blonde hair and blue eyes. Nonetheless, Joe responded with a quip about it was all too easy given that he married a German girl himself.

They started talking about how he met Sue and his early days as an assistant coach at PSU. He chatted with Pam and even joked about how she ended up with a “guy like him,” as he directed his head to me. At least I think he was joking.

At one point Pam and I went over to get a drink and Joe made his way over. He asked if we happened to have any kids. We shared that we had a 2-year-old daughter. Joe's eyes widened and he nodded. He turned squarely to me, held out both index fingers up to draw my eyes to his.

“You gotta be there,” he said emphatically. “Make the time. I am telling ya, make…the…time.”

“You gotta be there,” he said emphatically. “Make the time. I am telling ya, make…the…time.”

He went on to reflect on the demands of being a coach and how his son Jay used to bring his toys into the room when he watched film, just to be near him. That progressed to sessions with his son sitting in his lap to “be with Dad,” which progressed to them discussing and eventually breaking down the plays. He said a major reason why Jay even went into coaching and picked it up was because he used those film opportunities so the two could spend time together.

“I was always recruiting, or watching film, or game-planning,” he said. “Sue will put a photo album in my lap and flip through saying, 'Remember Diana here?' I don't … and not because of Alzheimer's. I wasn't there for it.”

It was an amazing moment for me; I was getting invaluable wisdom from a man who was warning me to avoid the pitfalls that are often only recognized once it's too late. That conversation to this day sits front and center in my mind, and has been a major defining point for me as a father. It's why I coach every one of my kids' (I now have two) teams, why I go to class parties and parent nights, and why I even go all out (taking third place) in the Parent-Kid school Dance-Off, just because my daughter asked.

Joe's words are always echoing in my head as a reminder to avoid opportunity lost.

As he brought the lesson to conclusion, Pam looked intently upon him and softly asked. “Joe, if you had to do it all over again, would you still coach?”

I recoiled a bit at the question. It was direct. It was personal. And apparently it was one that only a German girl could get away with asking. As the words met his ears, his stare shot out into the openness and his head dropped slightly and he took a heavy breath, saying, “I just don't know if I would,” shaking his head.

That image sat in my mind as we learned of his passing last Sunday morning. It pained me to think that with all the accomplishments and accolades and awards, that there were times he reflected on what he didn't do. It's not an uncommon story that is told at the end. Then again, that was the type of man he was, always trying to figure out how to improve and help those around him get better; even taking the time to “coach” a new father how to be a better dad.

So, my memories of Joe will live on through my relationship with my kids, striving to forever be the dad he implored me to be. It will be less about touchdowns and tackles, more about lessons and love. And I can never thank him enough for that.

In the end, I feel blessed to have received a first-hand answer to my question: “Who exactly is Joe Paterno?”

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