August 17, 2012
On Nov. 4, 2011, Joe Paterno was a nominee for the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The main library at Penn State was named for him, and a statue of him stood in front of the football stadium. He was admired by American presidents — Republican and Democrat — and beloved by business leaders and clergy, football junkies and academics. There had been countless glowing stories written and told about him. 60 Minutes had done a piece on him so favorable that Paterno himself claimed to be embarrassed by it. Sports Illustrated had named him Sportsman of the Year. The Big Ten Conference named a trophy after him. Paterno had won more games than any big-time football coach ever and was on any short list of the greatest coaches ever. People called him Saint Joe, and only in recent years — as Paterno got older and crankier and less effective — had there even been much sarcasm in the title. That's how it was on Nov. 4.
On Nov. 5, a Pennsylvania grand jury presentment was released that charged Paterno's longtime assistant coach Jerry Sandusky with crimes against children so heinous that it hurt the eyes to even look at the words. The grand jury also charged two Penn State officials with failing to report those crimes and then lying about that failure under oath. We know now what has followed — a Penn State-funded investigation concluded that Paterno played a crucial role in the university's tragic failures, there has been a nationwide effort to scrub Paterno's name from the record — but even in the immediate aftermath, it was clear that Paterno had been told something about Sandusky showering with a young boy and he had not reported it to the police. Anyway, to everyone he was Penn State. And so, on Nov. 5, Joe Paterno became perhaps the most despised man in American sports.
And I was there in the middle of it all.
I had come to State College to write a book about Joe Paterno. It was a project years in the making. There was not just one thing that drew me — there never is just one thing with a project like a book — but if I could point to one thing it might have been one of the themes about sports that fascinate me, something about winning … and what that word really means. Paterno had always said — quite loudly and with perhaps too much righteousness in his voice — that winning football games wasn't what mattered. And yet, he won more games than anyone. He kept coaching into his 80s, long after even his most devoted fans thought proper. That riddle fascinated me. Why? What is this about? What is HE about? When I began the project, people constantly wondered if Paterno was too revered and virtuous to make for an interesting book, and the only question anyone seemed to ask about it was: "What's left to say about Joe Paterno?"
Obviously, nobody asked me that question after Nov. 5.
No, after Nov. 5 I found myself in the middle of something surreal. I was staying in a small apartment in State College, connected to my wife and daughters through the magic of Skype, and it felt like the ground was unstable. Every few minutes, it seemed, there were new details, rumors, accusations, defenses, truths, lies, so many it was hard to see straight. The media surrounded Joe Paterno's home. Facts emerged and retreated. No charge was dismissed; no allegation was too sinister for discussion. I had agreed to speak at a class at Penn State — a class I had spoken at the previous two or three years — and because of timing the class met just hours after Paterno had been fired and many students foolishly rioted in the wake. The discussion grew heated and spirited, and suddenly I found myself being quoted and misquoted in stories and being charged with mindlessly defending Joe Paterno against horrible villainy with which he had not yet been charged. All I had wanted to say was that we needed time to find out what was real and what wasn't.
With that in mind — "Justice," it says in The Ox Bow Incident, "has never been obtained in haste and strong feeling" — I went underground. I have made my living as a daily reporter, but this required something different. I could not allow myself to get caught up in the shifting winds of this story. In the last months of Joe Paterno's life, I met with him on several occasions and talked with him at length when he was perhaps the most sought after interview in America. I was granted access to his personal notes, and there were many. I talked to some of the people closest to him and also some of his harshest critics. I also talked with child sex abuse experts and legal experts to offer background and context. I read anything and everything that might give me some insight into who Joe Paterno really was. I reviewed inner-office e-mails (the same ones used in the Freeh Report), documents and timelines. I searched for what is real.
That was the point. Something real. Joe Paterno, throughout his life, has been infused with superhuman qualities and inhuman qualities. He was called perfect for so many years, and he was called omniscient and all powerful too. He was none of these things, though. The first words of the book came to me all at once:
"This is the story of a man named Joe Paterno, who in his long life was called moral and immoral, decent and scheming, omniscient and a figurehead, hero and fraud, Saint Joe and the devil. A life, of course, cannot be reduced to a single word, but …"
But … what? That was my book. There was the bloated superhero of Nov. 4, the savage villain of Nov. 5 … and I searched for the human being in the middle. I believe most of us live somewhere in the middle.
I suspect I will never have a more difficult task as a writer — I've been told by several authors that no biographer in American history has had a book change so drastically in the course of reporting. I suspect that's not right, but it is right that I was feeling my way through the dark. I was pushed and pulled, accused and derided, and that wasn't much fun. There were hundreds of questions, none of them with easy answers. But I had come to write a true book. That was what mattered. I have done my best to do that.
I think the richest and most significant stories defy easy answers. That's what draws me, both as a writer and as a consumer. The best movies, the best television shows, the best stories, the best novels and the best biographies are, I think, complicated. They stir many emotions, not all of them happy ones, not all of them angry ones. There are many people out there whose lives were enriched, altered and elevated by Joe Paterno. This is simply true. There are also many people out there who were victimized as children by the unspeakable evils of Jerry Sandusky, and no matter where you stand on the news it is at the very least true that Joe Paterno was one of the people who should have done more to stop him.
Nobody would argue — and certainly my book does not argue — that the good Joe Paterno did in his life should shield him from the horrors of his mistakes. Some would argue, especially in the white-hot emotion sparked by the latest revelations, that Paterno's role in the Jerry Sandusky crimes invalidates whatever good he might have done. My book does not argue that either. My book, I believe, lets the reader make up his or her own mind. When people ask me if Penn State was right in tearing down Joe Paterno's statue in light of the Freeh Report's conclusion, I ask a different question: "Should they have built a statue to him in the first place?" When people ask me if the NCAA was right in unleashing draconian penalties against Penn State, I ask a different question: "Should they have held up Joe Paterno as a paragon of purity and virtue for more than four decades?"
I realize some people have opinions about me and the book even before it comes out. This is one of the most emotional stories in memory. Children were damaged by a devious predator in a quiet little place that calls itself Happy Valley, and it is all but impossible to think of anything worse. Sandusky was not stopped — not by the police, not by child services, not by other authorities and child abuse professionals, not by the charity where he worked, not by the school where he had coached and, perhaps most striking to the rest of us, not by the football coach who had once been his boss, the head football coach who had professed all his life to stand for right. Emotions are raw. And how could they be anything else?
As a writer, I tried to take the measure of the man who was that head football coach. I believe I have written about his life with as much honesty as I have. I have reported as many of the facts of the Sandusky case as I could uncover (including some new ones). But I also objectively wrote about why so many people admired and idolized Joe Paterno in the first place. I wrote at length about his youthful idealism. I wrote at length about his unprecedented success as a coach. I wrote at length about the last 15 years of his life when he would not quit. I wrote at length about the end.
No, I don't feel about Joe Paterno the same way I did when I started writing the book. But I don't feel about him the way his most blistering critics feel. He was a human being, filled with ideals and flaws, honesty and hypocrisy, charity and selfishness, modesty and the refusal to abdicate his throne. There was little simple about him. I chased the complicated story of a man and his long life. I hope that is the story I wrote.