Sumday morning the word began to filter out. First it was a rumor, then the emails began arriving. Had the media jumped the gun again? But then the family released a statement. It was over. Joe Paterno, not only the football coach at Penn State, but the college's face -- and the face of honest college football -- had died.
Somebody once said the death of the old isn't a tragedy. Whoever said it must not have watched Joe Paterno twist and turn in the wind over the past year. A confession: My first reaction to the news was a grateful sigh. At least the old man won't have to suffer any more of the indignities heaped upon him at every turn of this scandal that refused to die.
The saddest thing about the tributes to Joe Paterno that flooded the sports pages was that every statement/homage/eulogy came with a but. Or a what-if. Or some other reminder that, yes, the man they called Joe Pa may have won more games than any other coach at his level, but he still left the job under a cloud that won't go away.
Nobody seemed able to pay his last respects without bringing up The Scandal. And, even sadder, they had to. It could not be ignored. It's an old, old lesson: "Count no man happy till the hour of his death, when he is free of pain at last." --"Oedipus Rex"
Years of dedication, labor, honor and glory ... all overshadowed at the end by one shameful twist of the story.
It could happen even to Joe Paterno. And did.
Joseph Vincent Paterno wasn't just a caricature, what with those big box glasses and the thick shock of black hair, turning just a shade gray around the edges in his last years. He was a man in full, one with a code: Success With Honor. He didn't just want to win football games. He wanted to win football games the right way.
For years Joe Paterno was a national model -- of integrity. This man won football games against cheaters and liars. Against those who'd not only bend the rules, but break them in half and stomp on them. Still he won.
Maybe it was because of that integrity and his reputation for it that he could recruit even against those sports programs that flashed money and new cars at immature young athletes. If you were the parent of a teen you wanted to see molded into a man, wouldn't you rather send him to Joe Pa?
Then came the scandal. If you're one of the few who don't know the tawdry details, maybe you'd just as well skip them now. They're not very elevating. Children. Sexual abuse. A system that ignored it. For years. Resignations all around. Worst of all, honor lost. No, not very elevating. No way to end a long and honorable life.
No, nobody accused Coach Paterno of molesting children. Only that he should have known about it, made it his business to know about it, and to take action. At least call the police.
Instead, this great coach and moral mentor, who used to give talks about the importance of ethics in sports and beyond, just passed on what he'd heard up the chain of command. And nothing more.
"We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done; And there is no health in us." --Book of Common Prayer.
Sad, even tragic.
The root of the tragedy was where it always is -- in Sophocles, in Shakespeare, in life and now in death. There is a name for it: hubris.
After all, Joe Paterno's football teams were never cited for a major NCAA violation. Instead, he and Penn State were taken down by something much worse.
In so many senses of the word.