STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP) — As night fell over Happy Valley on Friday, hundreds of Joe Paterno's former players gathered outside the school's baseball stadium to celebrate their accomplishments and the coach who inspired them before he left a polarizing legacy.
About 50 yards from where a statue of Paterno was removed by the university after the Jerry Sandusky sex abuse scandal, and Paterno's possible role in it, rocked the small Central Pennsylvania town in 2011, former players hugged, laughed and told stories about Paterno as they filed into the private ceremony.
Jimmy Cefalo, who played for Paterno from 1974-77 before embarking on a broadcasting career, called the late coach "the most influential man in my life other than my father."
He said his opinion of Paterno, who coached at Penn State for 46 years, remains unchanged.
"Joe will always be someone who took me out of a very small town and gave me a wonderful opportunity," Cefalo said. "I don't know how many people would say he was my mentor and someone who gave me a great deal of my life and then change your opinion about him. It doesn't happen very often and it shouldn't happen to any of us."
It's a sentiment shared by many of the men gathered there but not by a large group who view Paterno as a villain in the Sandusky scandal. For them, Paterno didn't do enough to stop Sandusky, an assistant on Paterno's staff for three decades and believe honoring Paterno in any way is is insensitive to Sandusky's victims and the severity of the scandal.
Paterno said he'd wished he had done more before he died from lung cancer in 2012,
Robert Hoatson was the only protestor who showed up. He said he drove in from New Jersey, identified himself as a victim of sexual abuse with no ties to Penn State and said he was "outraged" the university would honor Paterno's head coaching debut. Penn State plans to do that during Saturday's game against Temple.
Hoatson stood across the street from the stadium's entrance with two large signs — one reading "You already forgot" the other "sexual abuse of little boys and girls is soul murder." He gave several interviews to multiple reporters, said he hoped others would join him in protest and only smiled as a young heckler paced back and forth with him, questioning his motive. There were no other confrontations, however.
"I'm just outraged that Penn State, even in the midst of so much still going on with the trials coming up of administrators, with the recent information that Joe Paterno did know in the 70s at the latest that kids were being sexually abused by Jerry Sandusky," said Hoatson, who founded and operates a sexual abuse support network called Road 2 Recovery. "It's just outrageous that they have a celebration of Joe Paterno. It's as if these poor little kids who were sexually abuse here don't matter."
Hoatson was referring to court documents unsealed in May that said an alleged Sandusky victim complained to Paterno about Sandusky in 1976 and was rebuffed. The university's president, Eric Barron, has said the allegation was not substantiated in court or tested by any other process. Paterno was never charged with a crime related to the scandal.
Sandusky was convicted on 45 of 48 charges in June 2012 and is serving a 30- to 60-year sentence.
Former Penn State standout and Pittsburgh Steelers star Franco Harris has long been a supporter of Paterno and has insisted college football's winningest coach did nothing wrong.
Earlier this year, Harris encouraged fans to leave a brick near the small tree where the Paterno statue once stood. One blue brick with 409 — the number of Paterno's wins and his initials, JVP, stood at the foot of the tree on Friday night. Harris hoped it would send a message to Penn State administrators to make amends with the Paternos.
Penn State will commemorate the 50th anniversary of Paterno's coaching debut in addition to his commitment to student-athletes and academics during the Temple game on Saturday. Harris said he's happy with Penn State's "first step" to do right by the Paterno family with the gesture.
"It's a good first step and one that is good and I know they received a lot of heat for it but so what," Harris said. "That's part of it. We know the truth so people can think whatever they want. We feel very comfortable where we're at and we want Penn State to start to feel comfortable where they're at. And so we hope that this grows and grows.
Harris said he'd like to hear a formal apology from the university's board of trustees who fired Paterno over the phone in 2011.
"I think they handled it wrong and I think they got bad advice from the lawyers and the lawyers got it wrong and they handled it wrong," Harris said. "And it caused a lot of damage to Penn State football and to a lot of individuals and that blame should've never been focused on Penn State football and a lot of these individuals."
Members of the Paterno family would not comment during the event that was closed to reporters.
(Copyright 2016 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)
for more features.