BY JEFF FALK
Joe Paterno had a profound effect on the man and football player that Jared Odrick has become. That was Paterno. He possessed an uncanny knack of touching everyone he came in contact with.
On January 22nd, Paterno passed away from complications of lung cancer at the age of 85. He coached the Penn State football program for 61 years- 46 of which was as the head coach – and compiled 409 victories, more than any coach ever has in Division One college football.
Odrick played defensive end for Paterno from 2006-2009. Under Paterno’s tuteledge and guidance, Odrick improved steadily throughout his career and progressed to a point where he was named the Big Ten’s defensvie player of the year during his senior campaign and was eventually drafted in the first round of the NFL draft by the Miami Dolphins.
“I was actually saddened when I learned of Joe’s passing,” said Odrick recently. “It was so sad how he went at the end. It was crazy how things spiralled.
“It’s hard to sum up the person he was in one sentence,” Odrick added. “He was passionate. He was passionate about coaching and his players. You hear so many stories about Joe making phone calls for referrals for guys with regular jobs. And he really backed up his players.”
During his senior season at Lebanon High School, Odrick was one of the most highly recruited players in the country. Ultimately his college decision came down to Florida, Virginia, Virginia Tech, Georgia and Penn State.
Odrick chose the Nittany Lions, partly because of Paterno, partly because of PSU assistant coach Larry Johnson – Odrick’s position coach who recruited him – and partly because of State College’s proximity to his hometown of Lebanon.
Paterno’s recruiting power was legendary. But during the latter part of his career, he curtailed his recruiting efforts and Penn State’s talent pool suffered.
“It played a large role,” said Odrick of Paterno’s presence. “But I think the biggest role was the one Coach Larry Johnson played. But the way the team prepared itself, Joe was responsible for that.”
“The first time I met him was my junior year in high school, on a recruiting visit to Penn State,” Odrick added. “It was one of those things like it was surreal, like when you meet a person you’ve seen on TV so many times. It was definitely an experience to visit Penn State during your high school years.”
The last time Odrick spoke to Paterno was in 2010, his rookie season with the Dolphins. Injured and on crutches, Odrick was on the sidelines on a Saturday afternoon for a Nittany Lion home game.
“I called his house, probably a week before he passed,” rememberd Odrick. “He was taking a nap. And I was told to call back. I was upset with how he had been left go and I wanted to let him know that.
“The last time I spoke to him was during last season, when I was hurt,” Odrick continued. “I was up at Penn State and he saw me on crutches and he gave me some words of encouragement. He told me that I came back before (from an injury during his sophomore year at Penn State) and I could do it again.”
After years of detractors insisting that the game had passed him by and that ‘Joe Must Go’, Paterno was fired in November in light of the Jerry Sandusky scandal. The Penn State Board of Trustees insisted Paterno should have done more when he learned of his former defensive coordinator’s alledged wrongdoings with minors.
Eighty-seven days after Paterno was dismissed he died.
“The way it was done, it was wrong,” said Odrick. “The whole situation wasn’t fair, to the players, to the coaches, to Joe. Everybody else’s lives were affected by one person’s monstrous acts. It’s messed up.
“It’s just not how you handle a situation,” Odrick added. “Joe handled it with nothing but class. He said, ‘Maybe I could’ve done more.’ Never once did he point fingers. Never once did he shirk his responsiblity.”
Because of his success on and off the field and the popularity of college football, Paterno was not only the face of Penn State, he was also the face of the state of Pennsylvania. His notoreity and popularity made him even more famous than the governor.
“Joe didn’t walk down too many streets because of his popularity,” said Odrick. “But he wasn’t just a figure head. He was someone people looked up to across the country. If you’re honest with yourself, you can’t think about Penn State without thinking about Joe Paterno and what he did for the college. Just the money that the football program generates for the university. It’s something you have to respect.
“People say the governor should be the most famous person from a state,” Odrick continued. “But Joe was probably the most famous person in Pennsylvania during his life at Penn State.”
Joe Paterno was a simple man who led a simple life. The things that mattered to him the most were family, loyalty and tradition.
“He cared. He cared about his players a lot,” said Odrick. “Before games, after games, there would be many times when he got choked up because of the success the people around him enjoyed. You would almost got numb to the fact that he had helped so many people so many times.
“What was funny, I respected a lot about him when I was there,” continued Odrick. “But afterwards, after I left, I’d go back and watch Penn State football, and it was amazing how much respect I had for him and the program. You understand how unique the program was after you were out of it.”
It would be a bit trite to say that Odrick will never forget Paterno. Yet Odrick honors his former coach every day, just by the way he lives his life.
And that might be the greatest tribute of all.
“Someone like Joe will never come along again,” said Odrick. “He was definitely one of a kind. A lot of people who have been through the program keep alive his values and beliefs. It’s something I will always remember and cherish.
“I remember one of his quotes,” Odrick concluded. “Before practice one day he said, ‘We have a decision to make every day. We can get better or we can get worse’. It’s something that stuck with me, on the field and off.”