Outside Penn State’s football stadium, mourners paid respects to legendary football coach Joe Paterno who died Sunday from lung cancer.
All day cars drove slowly past a bronze statue of Paterno, who coached Penn State’s football team for 61 years until he was forced out last November, a casualty of a child sex abuse scandal at the school. Many stopped and quietly walked up to the statue to pay respects to the man they called “JoePa.” Among them 1991 Penn State graduate Kristen Vanderbush. Shivering and with tears running down her face, she read a quote by Paterno that’s on the wall behind the statue.
“‘They asked what I’d written about me when I’m gone. I hope they write, I made Penn State a better place. Not that I was just a good football coach,'” she said. “And that’s exactly what he did. And to be able to have a statement like that and to fulfill it, that’s quite a legacy.”
Vanderbush left a handwritten note for Paterno. Nearby, third-generation Penn State graduate Dave Young brought his 6-year-old son along. On the growing display of hats, flags, flowers and candles, they laid a pair of blue gloves. Young says he wore them to Paterno’s final home game, against Illinois, in October.
“I had a random pair of Penn State gloves that day that I found in my drawer,” he said. “They were pretty terrible gloves. I was freezing, but it was a memory from that day. It was snowy. It was awful.”
Young says he fondly remembers Saturdays with his dad watching Paterno coach football games. The recent scandal added a few bad memories. Still, Young hopes the focus will turn to Paterno’s effort to boost the role of academics in college sports.
“I was in many classes with football players and they would sit in the front row — every class, they would answer questions, hands were up, they were engaged,” he said. “And I think that is Joe Paterno’s mentality — football is a benefit of coming to school here. It’s not what you’re here for. You’re here to become a better educated person — a better person in the long run.”
A final confirmation of Paterno’s educational legacy came in December. The New America Foundation think tank ranked Penn State’s football team first in academics among the top 25 teams in the country.
As a child sex abuse scandal unfolded at Penn State in November, Paterno was mostly silent. Just after he was fired, his family announced he was being treated for lung cancer. Last week Paterno talked with the Washington Post, which released scratchy recordings of those conversations on Sunday.
“The good Lord’s got a reason,” he says in the recordings. “You know, I’m not as concerned about me. What’s happened to me has been great, got five great kids, 17 grandchildren.”
That outlook on life is one reason people like Penn State senior Zachary Robinson came out to the Paterno statue.
“There’s lots of people gathered here, taking pictures, leaving candles and flowers and signs for JoePa. Just trying to show their love for him,” he said.
The hospital where Paterno was being treated says he died just before 9:30 a.m. Doctors say the cause was lung cancer. He was 85 years old.