When I arrived in State College to attend graduate school in August 1994, I had little exposure to the spectacle of big-time college football. I was expecting to learn a lot during my years in grad school from my many classes, research projects and laboratory work. What I was not expecting was that I would learn so much from the football program.
I hadn't ordered season tickets and made it only to one game. During that game, I was in the student section and was slightly flabbergasted when the alma mater was played and most people sang the then-traditional student version.
Though the alma mater was filled with great advice for how to live your life, no one seemed to know the actual words.
Looking back on it now, I realize nobody cared to learn the words, because as football fans, we were about to learn many of life's great lessons by simply watching the football game:
- Teamwork: No matter who you were, you were part of the team and your job was to help the team.
- Grace: Sure, there was the occasional celebration with teammates after an exciting play, but more often than not, you simply jogged over to the referee and handed him the ball when you scored.
- Respect: How many times did we hear Joe Paterno talk about how good the opponent was or how hard they played both before and after the game? They deserved our respect. This can be seen in a common greeting for visiting fans in the tailgate areas before the game, “Welcome to Penn State!”
- Class: I never saw Penn State intentionally run up the score. In fact, one could argue that in 1994, before the BCS, that cost us the national championship when the backup defense allowed two late scores to Indiana to make the final score 35-29. Nebraska beat Kansas 45-17 that week, and they leapfrogged us in the standings.
Of course, for decades, the person teaching the Penn State fans, and his players, these lessons was Paterno. Off the field, I learned even more lessons from Paterno:
- Loyalty: Even though the NFL came calling, he stayed at Penn State. How many times did he start the season with the upperclassman quarterback who had put in his time over a hot-shot true freshman? The answer: always. Rob Bolden beat out two sophomores and another freshman in 2010.
- Giving back: This was perhaps the greatest lesson he ever taught. In addition to helping charities, he gave millions of dollars back to the school including money to build the Paterno Library, which I used often as I was finishing up my dissertation. Every time I saw his face on some dumb commercial he appeared in, I groaned briefly and then thought that the proceeds from that appearance would likely go straight to the university.
- Humility: I had one personal encounter with Paterno. It was my first year at Penn State, and we were playing basketball in Sunset Park near his house. He was alone on what I learned was his usual evening stroll around the neighborhood. A fellow grad student saw him and said, “Hey, Coach.” He stopped long enough to quip, “You guys wouldn't last a second on the streets of Philadelphia,” and he was off. Paterno lived in same modest house until his death. Sure, he made millions over the last couple of decades at Penn State, but instead of buying a big house and fancy cars, he gave much of it back to Penn State.
I had plenty of time to learn these lessons. I was there for eight years, and I had season tickets for seven of them and missed only a couple of games.
I am sure that most students learned these lessons from Paterno — that is why he was so revered, and that is why the recent evidence from the Freeh report is so hard to digest for many of them.
I think everyone is asking themselves if Paterno was at all the person we thought he was. His family and some former players insist that he was. Others are calling him a total sham.
Whatever happened, and no matter what else is revealed about him in the future, I think he was in the right position to teach these lessons. At least on the outside, he was an excellent teacher, and the lessons he taught were learned well and will never be forgotten.
But it turns out Paterno has one last lesson to teach everyone: No matter what you have done and what you have built, you must be constantly vigilant for the time when you must make the difficult, but right, decision.
One mistake — and if not ensuring the suspected abuse involving Sandusky was properly reported was not the only one, it was certainly the biggest — can undermine everything you have done and destroy nearly everything you have left behind.
If you have power, you must always wield it properly and remember that you have the ability to do what is right and stop what is wrong. Never lose sight of what is important: the welfare of fellow human beings, especially children.
That brings me to the statue at Beaver Stadium: Should the statue stand? What Paterno did, or failed to do, according to the Freeh report, is unforgivable.
I believe it should, in memory of the lessons he taught the hundreds of thousands of students that filed through Beaver Stadium during his tenure.
But it should only stand if a quote from his last lesson to everyone is added to the wall behind him: “I wish I had done more.”
Richard Thomas graduated from Penn State with a masters degree in 1996 and a doctorate degree in 2001.