By Washington Post sports columnist Sally Jenkins
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. - Joe Paterno sat in a wheelchair at the family kitchen table where he has eaten, prayed and argued for more than a half-century. All around him family members were shouting at each other, yet he was whispering. His voice sounded like wind blowing across a field of winter stalks, rattling the husks. Lung cancer has robbed him of the breath to say all that he wants to about the scandal he still struggles to comprehend, and which ended his career as head football coach at Penn State University. The words come like gusts. "I wanted to build up, not break down," he said.
Crowded around the table were his three voluble sons, Scott, Jay, David, daughter Mary Kay, and his wife of 50 years, Sue, all chattering at once. In the middle of the table a Lazy Susan loaded with trays of cornbread and mashed potatoes spun by, swirling fast as the arguments. "If you go hungry, it's your own fault," Paterno likes to say. But Paterno, 85, could not eat. He sipped Pepsi over crushed ice from a cup. Once, it would have been bourbon. His hand showed a tremor, and a wig replaced his once-fine head of black hair.
Paterno's hope is that time will be his ally when it comes to judging what he built, versus what broke down. "I'm not 31 years old trying to prove something to anybody," he said. "I know where I am." This is where he is: wracked by radiation and chemotherapy, in a wheelchair with a broken pelvis, and "shocked and saddened" as he struggles to explain a breakdown of devastating proportions. Jerry Sandusky, his former assistant coach at Penn State from 1969 to 1999, is charged with more than 50 counts of sexually abusing young boys over a 15-year period. If Sandusky is guilty, "I'm sick about it," Paterno said.
How Sandusky, 67, allegedly evaded detection by state child services, university administrators, teachers, parents, donors and Paterno himself, remains an open question. "I wish I knew," Paterno said. "I don't know the answer to that. It's hard." Almost as difficult for Paterno to answer is the question of why, after receiving a report in 2002 that Sandusky had abused a boy in the shower of Penn State's Lasch Football Building, and forwarding it to his superiors, he didn't follow up more aggressively.
"I didn't know exactly how to handle it and I was afraid to do something that might jeopardize what the university procedure was," he said. "So I backed away and turned it over to some other people, people I thought would have a little more expertise than I did. It didn't work out that way."
Sandusky maintains his innocence. Former athletic director Tim Curley and school vice president Gary Schultz face charges of perjury and failing to report suspected child abuse, based on their inaction. They have pleaded innocent. Though he is not charged with a crime, Penn State president Graham Spanier was fired on Nov. 9, along with Paterno.
Paterno is accused of no wrongdoing, and in fact authorities have said he fulfilled his legal obligations by reporting to his superiors.
Nevertheless, the university Board of Trustees summarily dismissed him with a late-night phone call four days after Sandusky's arrest. At about 10 p.m., Paterno and Sue were getting ready for bed when the doorbell rang. An assistant athletic director was at the door, and wordlessly handed Sue a slip of paper. There was nothing on it but the name of the vice chairman of trustees, John Surma, with a phone number. They stood frozen by the bedside in their nightclothes. Sue in a robe and Paterno in pajamas and a Penn State sweatshirt. Paterno dialed the number.
Surma told Paterno, "In the best interests of the university, you are terminated." Paterno hung up and repeated the words to his wife. She grabbed the phone and redialed.
"After 61 years he deserved better," she snapped. "He deserved better."
The firing provoked a riot on campus that night.