Sometimes Legends Do Die

When I was young, I believed that old “Sandlot” quote.

As I got older, I began to question the veracity of the statement.

“Heroes are remembered, but legends never die.”

That whole legend idea once seemed so plausible. The status once seemed so achievable.

I always cheered for the legend – the Michael Jordan’s, the Oprah Winfrey’s, the Babe Ruth’s and Joe DiMaggio’s.

Once I began to follow college football, I cheered for the Joe Paterno’s.

I hadn’t yet been born before Ruth and DiMaggio passed, but at age 22, on Jan. 22, 2012, I witnessed, along with America, the death of a legend who succumbed to lung cancer.

In the similarly eery fashion that Paul “Bear” Bryant died less than a month after retiring from the sport he so loved, Paterno too lost his life, or perhaps his will to live.

Unlike Bryant, though, Paterno left both this earth and Penn State at a time of upheaval. Since the unveiling of the “Sandusky Scandal,” Paterno had become subject to scrutiny, hatred, and yet at the same time, loving support from all the die-hard Penn State fans in Happy Valley and beyond.

Penn State fans gathered around Joe Paterno's statue outside of Beaver Stadium.

Penn State fans gathered around Joe Paterno's statue outside of Beaver Stadium.

I never knew enough about him to write Paterno’s biography, but what I did know of the man was his reputation for wearing those thick glasses with his old school sweat suit, charging out of the tunnel with his team, and standing beside them for the last 61 years, despite offers to coach at the professional level.

Paterno was also applauded for his emphasis on academics, his ethics, donating more than $4 million dollars to Penn State and funding the school’s library.

He seemed the impeccable image of greatness, and then decades later, that image quickly faded with reports of his knowledge of Jerry Sandusky’s unfathomable behavior.

I still don’t know what to believe and I refuse to assume anything of Paterno’s involvement. I want someone to stand up and declare he was falsely accused. I want someone to take the blame and keep Sandusky from tarnishing the legend of JoePa.

It’s not because I’m a huge fan of the coach. It’s not because I’m a huge fan of the Nittany Lions.

It’s because deep down, I still have that childhood fantasy that some people are born for excellence; that some people can do no wrong, and we should look up to them and hope to emulate them as well.

I wanted to hold onto that childhood fantasy as long as I possibly could. But reality set in; the legend began to unravel.

Not just for Paterno but for the Michael Jordan’s, the Oprah Winfrey’s, the Babe Ruth’s and the Joe DiMaggio’s.

The Great Bambino.

The Great Bambino.

Jordan cheated on his wife. Oprah became pregnant as a teenager. The Great Bambino was known for his excessive drinking, gambling and womanizing, and Joe DiMaggio was a troubled man haunted by his past and former love, Marilyn Monroe.

All these supposed legends had their weaknesses and mishaps just like any human being. I wanted to believe they were untouchable, infallible even, but behind the facade of the celebrity, there too laid imperfection.

And, now lay Joe Paterno, perhaps the most vilified of all. Yet, ironically perhaps the most innocent of all.

Though he admitted he “could have done more,” he also insisted he didn’t know what to do at the time he heard about Sandusky’s horrific actions. He turned to who he thought he could trust and those people in turn let him down.

Maybe I don’t know all the facts, but I’m certain you don’t either, and if you think you know, you’ve convinced yourself you know more than you do.

The only person who truly knows Paterno’s guilt, or lack thereof, is Paterno himself. And, for that reason we shall never know the answer that could set him free.

I’ll admit the day I heard he passed, I was saddened by the loss. Not just the loss of someone who seemed for most of his life an exemplar of good, but the loss of a ‘legend’ – or potential legend.

Looking at his past, you’d hardly think he was capable of allowing the atrocity of Sandusky to continue as it did. Maybe he had us fooled, or maybe we’ve fooled ourselves into assuming the worst of a man who once seemed he could do no wrong.

Maybe I just want to believe that some people really are destined for and capable of perfection. Maybe I still want to hold onto the thought that some people can build a flawless legacy as I once believed my former role models had proven before their misdeeds came to light.

As Rick Reilly said at the end of his recent column on Paterno, “If we’re so able to vividly remember the worst a man did, can’t we also remember the best?”

If it were in fact true that Paterno was guilty and allowed the unthinkable to occur, then yes, wouldn’t we want to forget the man and all he did for Penn State?

There is speculation, and then there is fact. What we do know is the amount of people Paterno helped as a coach, the incredible humanitarian work he did, and the success he brought not only to football and Penn State, but all of the town. Those are the tangibles, the allegations are not.

So how do we write Paterno’s legacy? How do remember the man who was at one time an indisputable legend?

Joe Paterno at the gates of Beaver Stadium.

Joe Paterno at the gates of Beaver Stadium.

Do we remember his best? His worst? Or do we give weight to both?

Or do we accept that fact that maybe, sometimes, legends do die.