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A big life

  • Sep 1, 2012
Today, September 1, 2012, Penn State played Ohio, and Joe Paterno's widowed wife Sue quietly slipped into Beaver Stadium and watched the first three quarters of the game from the family's suite.  Even in the midst and the wake of the maelstrom that surrounded the end of Joe Paterno's life and legacy, life (and legacy) still go on.

Joe Posnanski had an insider's view of the maelstrom based on the exclusive access to Paterno, his family, and friends that he was granted to write Paterno's biography, starting several months before the allegations and then the proof of Jerry Sandusky's horrible child molestation and Paterno's hotly debated role in it. His intent was not to write a quicky tell-all account of the scandal, and while he tells the story in due course it does consume the biographical account before it exploded in 2011.

Instead, in the informal style of an extended magazine profile, Posnanski weaves the story of Paterno's life from interviews with Paterno, family, friends, coaches, and ex-players.  Since Paterno had already become an untouchable legend in my adulthood I found that I knew next to nothing about the man behind that "Saint Joe" picture. B All I knew is how I hated his Penn State teams for destroying my University of Maryland team for so many consecutive years before dumping them from the schedule, and that his "good guy" image seemed too gratingly clean to be true.

The real man and the legacy behind him is both more and less than I thought.  He was a tough Brooklyn kid, who was a great athlete and a great thinker, who read and translated the Aeneid as an extra-curricular activity; he was, as this undertaking suggests, also extremely hard-working and goal-driven…

…toward his goal of becoming a lawyer, like his beloved and idolized father…except that his Ivy-League (Brown) college yearbook says that his ambition had been to be a football coach!  He succeeded, after years of hard work as an assistant, beyond any possible measure of expectation of both himself and his parents, who looked down on his choice in those early years of hard work and financial struggle; his father died before Joe became head coach at Penn State and took the program and his legacy to the heights of college football.  

Along the way, Posnanski describes Paterno as
  • a father--strict but energetic in engaging his children in thinking for themselves
  • a coach--hard on his players with high expectations, but engaged in helping them succeed on and off the field during and after their college careers
  • a recruiter--loved by mothers in the living room, but honest with the players in the expectations of work and the need to prove themselves worthy of the school, not the other way around.
  • a coworker--driven to make his assistant coaches and others around him work as hard as he did, and keep up with his intellectual pace and management style.
When the name Sandusky begins to appear in the midst of the book, it is as if I heard foreboding organ music in the background, but to Posnanski's credit he doesn't paint portents into scenes they don't belong.  In fact, he describes Paterno and Sandusky's often antagonistic relationship in clear and human terms.  The two men had clashes in personalities and coaching philosophies that brought them often to screaming matches and the occasional firings that were soon rescinded.  In short, Paterno had no driving motivation to protect Sandusky in 1998 when the first incident was reported to Paterno, and again in 2011 when the final unraveling began.  On the other hand, in Posnanski's account, the relationship was too complex to be described in such simple terms, a complexity which rings true given the complexity of the man we meet in Posnanski's words.

Regardless what you thought of Paterno before and after his fall and death, Posnanski's account is worth reading.  It is neither puff piece nor hatchet job.  It may make you rethink what you thought you knew before.  

As a footnote, Penn State lost today to Ohio of the MAC conference.  Sue Paterno left in the fourth quarter to go to a grandson's high school football game.  The legacy continues in the midst of the maelstrom.

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About the reviewer
Todd Stockslager ()
Ranked #36
I love reading and writing about what I have read, making the connections and marking the comparisons and contrasts. God has given man the amazing power to invent language and the means to record it which … more
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Joe Posnanskiis a Senior Writer at the new venture Sports On Earth. Before that, he was Senior Writer atSports Illustrated, and in 2011 was named National Sportswriter of the year by the National Sportswriters and Sportscasters Hall of Fame. He wrote about sports for theKansas City Starfor sixteen years and was twice named the best sports columnist in America by the Associated Press Sports Editors. He is the author of four books, includingThe Soul of Baseball, the 2007 winner of the Casey Award as America's best baseball book. He lives in Charlotte, North Carolina, with his family.
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