Joe Paterno looked like my grandmother. That drooping glower, the brown paper bag skin, those weird big tinted glasses — the uniform, it seems, of all Italian-Americans of pre-war provenance from the outer boroughs.
Paterno looked so much like Grandma that, as a kid, watching him pace the sidelines from our house outside State College, Pa., I imagined he smelled like her: coffee, burnt toast, burnt tobacco, with a patina of cherry-menthol rising from a purse full of cough drops.
My dad never said it, but I think he saw the resemblance too. Why else would an ex-hippie with a pointed disinterest in organized athletics spend so many Saturdays on the living room floor with his two sons rooting for the grumpy guy in the khakis?
Dad would tell us he liked Paterno’s conservative ground game that eschewed quick gains and glory for the slow and steady grind. He instructed us in the mytho-historical account of Paterno’s ascendancy — all that stuff you’ve heard about a top program built on GPAs instead of AP polls. While only partially true, the Paterno legend did present a noble, quiet contrast with other male role models of the 1980s.
I don’t doubt my father admired these things about Paterno, but in that swarthy scowl I think he must also have seen shadows of cheek-pinching aunts and uncles from the Bronx. In a way, Paterno was the one guy from the old neighborhood who’d followed Dad to this green valley in central P-A.
In our house, “Joe” was family.
But as a soft and arty teenager, my allegiances turned swiftly against the Nittany Lions. In the absence of war or oppression, football represented all the brutality and jingoism my friends and I saw in the adult world. Or so we told ourselves. Really we just didn’t like being made to feel small by the blue-and-white-painted gorillas that yelled at us from their beer-soaked porch sofas.
Around this time my sympathies for my father also changed, for reasons I now can hardly remember.
When I got to be a Penn State undergrad myself, I came to appreciate one minor nuance of the PSU party culture: in the mind of the reveler, each act of game day debauchery was in solidarity with Paterno and his associated virtues. Beer pong for JoePa. It helped me to understand, if not fully relate to my classmates.
2003, my senior year, was a tough one for Penn State football. The team was losing, there were calls for regime change, and I was still pretending I didn’t care. I was also renting a room around the corner from Paterno’s ranch house in College Heights. I felt like an atheist living in Jerusalem.
On one strained autumn expedition to the family house, Dad and I sat together long enough to watch Penn State play a couple quarters. Many stories about fathers and sons end with reconciliation over a ball game. That is so not us.
While the day ended in predictable defeat, my father remarked that it was an honorable loss. None of the embarrassing goofs from earlier in the season, just a competent, honest effort in which the other team scored more points. Progress.
Carrying a basket of clean laundry back to my place, I found myself looking down an otherwise-deserted sidewalk at a hunched man in a windbreaker. Cold hands in the pockets of his khakis. Smoky glasses pointed at his sneakers.
This was my chance to earn that punk rock merit badge for nonchalance, to demonstrate my immunity to the spell that enthralled almost everyone I’d known my entire life. I would be the one person who passed this man on the street without acknowledgement.
As we closed on each other, he looked up with a half smile, as if to signal his readiness to suffer my ritual offerings of fealty or scorn.
I caught a whiff of burnt toast and coffee.
“Excellent game today, sir.”
I said it without breaking my gait. Behind me I heard a warm, weary “thank you.”
There would be much darker days ahead. But Joe Paterno remained family.
Penn State pays respects to the late football coach Tuesday. Paterno died Sunday at the age of 85.