Joe Paterno died in January 2012. It feels like yesterday, yet five years have passed since that time. A beautiful video tribute to him, set to Rudyard Kipling’s “If,” first marked the one year anniversary of his death but is just as fitting now.
Mark Dent wrote after the first year anniversary of the coach’s death. Aside from a few oddities in the article that give away his out-of-towner status (like referring to the State College Borough repeated as a “city”) his piece is a good introduction to the historical context from which Paterno came. (In some ways, Dent’s piece is better than Joe Posnanski’s book-length mess of a biography.) Dent writes:
Of all the places in the world, Paterno lived in this town. Of all the neighborhoods in this town, he lived three blocks from campus in this one-story house. A million-dollar man lived like he still made the $20,000 he claimed he did in 1969, when the games always started in the afternoon, the coaches ate and drank with everyone else at the Tavern, and Paterno wanted a place to raise his growing family, a place to call home. …
There was no gate at the street’s entrance, and no security guard to check for identification, read license plate numbers or scan names on a guest list. The leader of one of college football’s best teams surveyed his kingdom from a ranch house.
College football coaches don’t live like this — current Penn State coach Bill O’Brien, for example, lives in Boalsburg, several miles from campus in a house that cost $1,225,000. Only the ancient coaches did. Penn State’s Bob Higgins had a house just up the street, near McKee and Adams Avenue, in the 1930s. Joe Bezdek, who coached one year in 1949, lived near McKee and Mitchell Avenue, a block away. Paterno was like them, residing in a bygone era.
When reporters came from around the country to share his story with a national audience, they highlighted the house. Sometimes they sat across from him at the round table in the kitchen. They remarked: “You should see his house. Then you would know this is real, this is not an act.”
You should see his house. You would know this is real. This is not an act.
Paterno was an old timer, for sure. But living in a real neighborhood and being a real person isn’t a symptom of “residing in a bygone era” as Dent writes. No, Paterno didn’t reside in a bygone time, but rather in our time. He simply chose to live the way of always had lived, and in doing so ended up carrying the style and manner of those “ancient coaches” along with him. And isn’t that so much of what attracted us to him? (Before the stupidity and banal evil of the Sandusky scandal made it impossible to talk with non-cultists (both pro- and anti-cultists) about him.) He chose not to let the old ways recede into a quaint and pointless nostalgia. He chose to live in a normal way, that ended up becoming exceptional in the context of different times.
At some point, reminiscing over the greatness of the past, the good old days, and bygone times shifts from a virtuous exercise into a vice. I think this occurs when we repeatedly choose to praise goodness without learning how to emulate it. We might be stating truth in saying that “water is wet,” but if we’ve forgotten the joy of jumping in the water and actually getting wet, we’ve entered the realm of harmful nostalgia.
The trick is this: We can live in the same style and manner. We can make friends, and build our kingdoms, and coach each other along in the game of life. And even if we become the million-dollar man we can choose not to live like the money has changed us because in reality it hasn’t changed us—only our means, and hopefully not our circumstances.
If the ideas that have given Joe and Sue Paterno the power to attract us with authenticity (You should see his house. You would know this is real.) are dead, then our lives are only destined to ever become a part of a pointless nostalgia.
If… if… if we want to honor Joe and Sue Paterno, we can choose like they chose to carry the style and manner of old times into new times. We can be human to one another. We can choose not to forget our roots; not to isolate ourselves; not to fall into artifice; not to withdraw.
It’s a choice not between whatever we decide is bygone or timely, but over whatever we choose to make real in our own lives.