Not perfect, just better than anyone elseFATHER RAYMOND J. DE SOUZA
God made Joe Paterno to be a football coach. And when there was no longer football to coach, God called him home.
In 1983, Paul "Bear" Bryant of the University of Alabama retired. He was 69, had coached the Crimson Tide football team for 25 years, and had the record for most wins by a head coach, 323. After his last game, he was asked what he would do in retirement.
"Probably croak in a week," coach Bryant replied. Four weeks later he was suddenly dead.
Joe Paterno coached the Pennsylvania State University Nittany Lions for 61 years, 46 of them as the head coach, until he was 85 years old. His friends supposed that he was haunted by the experience of his friend Bear. Without football he might just die. So he coached. In October 2011, Joepa, as he was affectionately known, won his 409th victory — more than anyone has ever done. More than anyone ever will do.
In November he was fired by the Penn State board of trustees after charges of sexual abuse were made against Jerry Sandusky, a long-time Paterno assistant coach who retired in 1999. Paterno was told of an incident in 2002, which he passed on to his superiors, but it was not reported to police.
After six decades at Penn State, Paterno admitted he was heartsick that he had not done more, and offered to retire himself. The shabby manner of his sacking — delivered over the phone — by a panicstricken board compounded the sadness of his serious failing. It was an off-key note to conclude a brilliant symphony.
In a college game with too many players of poor character, crooked boosters, charlatan coaches and craven administrators, Joepa was the model of "success with honour" — the motto of his football program. He called it, way back in 1965, the "Grand Experiment," namely that success on the field could be combined with high graduation rates, following the rules and gentlemanly behaviour.
A few years ago, his son Scott explained: "I hardly know which legacy will endure — the fierce champion of academic standards, the unquenchable competitor, the philanthropist, the saint, the selfish autocrat, the dinosaur or the grandfather of the game."
He was all that. He was not perfect, just better than anyone else. Even before the Sandusky charges emerged late last year, people were inclined to treat Joepa as a legendary or mythical figure, as if rolled-up trousers and white socks made him another species, rather than simply the very good man he had been for a very long time. The story of Penn State was how a great coach built a formidable football program, and how a good man extended the benefits of that to the whole university and an entire community. Joepa did not only produce winning football teams; he built both Penn State and the town of State College.
Paterno had opportunities over the years to coach in the NFL, or at other bigger or more glamorous colleges. He stayed at Penn State because he was able to build something unique, to show that the Grand Experiment was not mere idealistic dreaming, but a concrete reality. It was his grand achievement, more than the 409 victories, more than 61 years on the sidelines. Joepa proved that football excellence does not demand failures in integrity or character.
He knew that boys play games, but the game well played makes good men of them. In the American excess that accompanies college football, the game well played can make a culture and community better too.
So long did Joepa coach that his death came weeks after the 25th anniversary of his greatest moment, the 1987 Fiesta Bowl, when he defeated the Miami Hurricanes to win the national championship. Miami's program had a hoodlum character, symbolized by their wearing combat fatigues in Arizona. Penn State wore jackets and ties. It was billed as Good vs. Evil, and the interest was so intense that it was the most watched college football game ever.
Good vs. Evil was the hype. Football teams are rather less than that. But Joepa — the dinosaur and the grandfather — was one of the good guys. Sometimes the good guys win, and once in a lifetime — a grand lifetime — the good guy wins more than anyone else.
Father Raymond J. de Souza, "Not perfect, just better than anyone else." National Post, (Canada) January 24, 2012.
Reprinted with permission of the National Post and Fr. de Souza.
Father Raymond J. de Souza is chaplain to Newman House, the Roman Catholic mission at Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario. Father de Souza's web site is here. Father de Souza is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.
Copyright © 2012 National Post
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