BY JEFF FALK
The year was 2006.
Just days earlier, Lebanon star defensive tackle Jared Odrick had announced his decision to play football at Penn State, choosing Joe Paterno and the Nittany Lions over some of the other top Division One college football programs in the country. The place was the school board meeting room at Lebanon High.
The ocassion was Paterno visiting Lebanon to cement Odrick’s verbal committment and to meet his nuclear family. I was present that day and there’s one thing that will always stick in my mind about it, besides the fact that Paterno seemed right at home with all the attention and a host of people he had never met before.
Three of Odrick’s younger cousins were there as well. And kids being kids at an adult function, all three were extremely active, and full of energy, found it difficult to sit still.
With their youthful exhuberance, all three of Odrick’s cousins found their way on to and off of Paterno’s lap throughout the meeting. For his part, the legendary coach genuinely didn’t seem to mind being used as a ‘Jungle Joe’, in fact even seemed to enjoy it.
Following the meeting, one of Odrick’s cousins was asked who the older gentleman was sitting in the chair and the response was, “That’s Jared’s new football coach.” The innocent youngster had no idea who Joe Paterno was, his place in the sports world or the breadth of his notoriety.
He was now a part of Odrick’s extended family. And that was one of the deciding factors in the family-oriented Odrick’s ultimate decision to go to Penn State.
“Will always love Joe and (defensive line) coach (Larry) Johnson for how they’ve affected my life,” said Odrick on twitter on Wednesday. “The situation could’ve definitely been handled better in hands of authorities. But what saddens me and upsets me is that everyone is effected.”
Paterno is also a family-oriented man. He is the father of five children and the grandfather of 17 more.
On Wednesday night, Penn State’s trustees fired the 84-year-old Paterno during his 46th year as the University’s head football coach. Earlier in the day, Paterno had announced his decision to retire at the end of the season, presumably because of his role in former Nittany Lion defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky’s sex scandal.
“I can’t beleive this,” Odrick tweeted. “Wow. To believe they oust him after all he’s done for that community, institution and people in and outside of the PSU program is unbelievable. For those who have been through the program know that Joe signifies so much more than football.”
Sandusky, who had left the PSU staff before Odrick arrived in State College. too was a member of Paterno’s extended family. A family in which loyalty is valued above almost everything. One can only hope that Paterno wasn’t overly loyal towards Sandusky.
Paterno apparently had knowledge of Sandusky’s alleged sexual escapades with minors and passed that knowledge on to his superiors. What Paterno failed to do was follow through on his reports and continue to push the envelope.
What Paterno did wasn’t criminal, but it was morally negligent. As human beings, we are obiligated to help each other, as much as humanly possible. And that code transends loyalty.
In a statement released by Paterno, he said he was “absolutely devastated” by the abuse case.
“This is a tragedy,” Paterno said. “It is one of the great sorrows of my life. With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more.”
“By one man’s actions,” tweeted Odrick, now a second-year defensive end for the NFL’s Miami Dolphins. “Players, alum, fans, the students, alum…sick.”
What the entire ugly set of circumstances demonstrates is that the legendary Paterno is human. And humans, by definition, make mistakes. But none of the mistakes Paterno has made could ever take away from the positives he has put forth for the Nittany Lion football program, Penn State University and the state of Pennsylvania.
“I’m simply showing my respects for Joe and the program that has helped me and other PSU alum become the men we are today,” said Odrick on Twitter. “I’m not supporting the supposed decisions that were made around the incidents, but just the people who provided me an avenue to a better life. The allegations are sickening and saddening for everyone. I’m showing my respects for what Joe has done for me, not the decisions he made.”
Paterno gained his promincence by seemingly always pursuing the right and just way. So it is somehow ironic that a scandal ends his illustrious career, and that he is unable to go out on his own terms.
Sure his legacy has been tarnished. But time heals all wounds and this too shall pass.
Still, it is definitely the end of an era.