What a surreal three months it has been in Happy Valley.
Following the firing of Joe Paterno on November 9 to his death a little over a week ago, it has been a time unlike any other on the campus of Penn State University.
In today’s edition of Morelli OnLion, we’re not going to debate the lasting legacy of Paterno. Instead, we’ll take a look back at last week’s memorial service, which was held at the Bryce Jordan Center.
A Memorial For Joe
If Paterno had passed during warmer weather, chances are that his memorial would’ve been held at Beaver Stadium. But being late January, fans piled in to the Bryce Jordan Center on a cold and rainy Thursday afternoon to pay tribute to the man they affectionately called JoePa.
Paterno, who coached at Penn State for 61 years, passed away a couple of Sundays ago at the age of 85. Last Thursday’s “A Memorial for Joe” came on the heels of last week’s emotional precession through the streets of State College.
Shortly after 2 p.m., the entire Paterno family entered the Jordan Center to a standing ovation. His widow, Sue Paterno, choked back tears as she waved to the crowd.
His family and close friends buried him the day before, but that didn’t stop the emotions from overflowing at the memorial. At the podium on the stage at the Jordan Center, former players, students and educators took turns eulogizing the beloved coach.
His son, former coach Jay Paterno, was the final speaker of the afternoon. During his speech, he addressed the child sex abuse scandal that resulted in his father being fired by the Penn State Board of Trustees on November 9.
“Joe Paterno left this world with a clear conscience,” Paterno said to thunderous applause.
Although he said that his father would not have liked such a big ceremony honoring his life, Jay said that he had no choice on this day.
“Whether you like it or not (Joe), there are many here who will reflect on the magnificent daylight of your life,” Paterno said.
Paterno revealed the final words he spoke to this father shortly before he died.
“You have won, Dad,” he said. “You have done all that you could do. You won. You can go home now.”
Near the conclusion of his speech, Paterno asked that everyone in the arena stand, take the hand of the person standing next to them and say the Lord’s Prayer. That was followed by a single member of the Blue Band playing “Hail to the Lion” on the trumpet.
If there was any doubt how deeply Paterno touched the lives of his former players, those were erased when former quarterback Michael Robinson took the stage. Robinson, a member of the Seattle Seahawks who was voted to the Pro Bowl, spent 11 hours in the air to speak at the memorial.
“I actually told the league, don’t make me choose, because I’ll be right here today. I wouldn’t be anywhere else in the world right now,” said Robinson, who was a member of Paterno’s 2005 squad that went 11-1 and won the Orange Bowl in triple overtime.
Another Penn State quarterback, Todd Blackledge, said that he was proud to represent the 1980s.
“Up until today, I considered being the quarterback of that national championship team, Joe’s first, to be the greatest honor of my life. Today, that has changed,” said Todd Blackledge, now a broadcaster for ESPN.
Blackledge played on the 1982 team, which captured Paterno’s first national championship. Paterno won a second national title, in 1986.
In addition to the many speakers, several videos were played on the Jordan Center video boards. They featured some rare footage, including from his playing days at Brown. The third video of the afternoon was the first time the crowd would hear the coach’s voice.
But the true highlights of the afternoon came from the speakers. Some stories were filled with humor, while others were emotional.
One of the most eloquent speakers was Charlie Pittman, who represented the 1960s. Pittman was the first African-American to play for Paterno.
“(Joe) always made me feel special – from my teen years into my adulthood,” Pittman said. “Joe made the program his second family. Thank you, Sue, for giving him to us.”
Jimmy Cefalo, who spoke on behalf of Paterno’s teams of the 1970s, said that from the start of his storied career, Paterno did things the right way.
“He took the sons of coal miners, and steel mill workers and farmers and brought us together to do it the right way … the Paterno way,” Cefalo said.
Cefalo also said that when Paterno came in to your house on a recruiting trip, you didn’t have a chance to say much.
“Joe didn’t recruit us,” Cefalo said, “he recruited our moms.”
One of the most controversial speakers of the afternoon was Nike CEO Phil Knight, who took at jab at Penn State’s Board of Trustees.
“If there’s a villain in this tragedy, it lies in that investigation, not in Joe Paterno’s response to it,” Knight said to a standing ovation. “It leads me to this question: Who is the real trustee at Penn State University? That old hero, he set a standard that will live forever.”
Most speakers, however, steered clear of the controversy that ended Paterno’s coaching career.
Perhaps Cefalo said it best.
“What is Joe’s legacy? His legacy,” he said, “is us.”
Chris Morelli is an award-winning writer/editor who lives in Centre County and covers Penn State athletics for gantdaily.com. He’s also a regular on “Sports Central,” which airs on ESPN Radio in Altoona and State College. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Also, be sure to check out Morelli OnLion on Facebook!