College Football: One more chance to honor Paterno
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — The man in the white dress shirt, Penn State tie and rolled-up khakis jogged through the Beaver Stadium tunnel and on to the field before slowing down at the 50-yard-line.
It was alumnus Gus Curtin’s tribute to the iconic look once sported in the same stadium on fall weekends by the late coach Joe Paterno.
A weekend during which the annual Blue-White spring game gave fans a glimpse into the Nittany Lions’ future under new coach Bill O’Brien also allowed people like Curtin to remember the past. From the bouquets of blue-and-white carnations left at the bronzed Paterno statue outside the stadium to the charity 5K race run in Paterno’s honor Sunday, fans paid tribute to the Hall of Fame coach who died in January at age 85.
“It’s nice to know that the support and the love is all there, because all the people who love and support … he’s been a part of them for so many years,” Paterno’s widow, Sue Paterno, said before the race Sunday. “They’re feeling a loss like we’re feeling a loss. Our (loss) is maybe more acute.”
The spring football game marked the first event at the stadium since her husband’s death. Many alumni still question the circumstances behind Paterno’s ouster last November by university trustees in the aftermath of child sexual abuse charges against Jerry Sandusky.
The retired defensive coordinator has maintained his innocence and awaits trial. Paterno testified before a grand jury investigating Sandusky that he relayed a 2002 allegation brought to him by a graduate assistant to his campus superiors, including the administrator overseeing the police department.
Authorities have said Paterno wasn’t a target of the probe. The Board of Trustees ousted him, citing in part a moral obligation to do more to alert authorities outside the school, and a “failure of leadership.”
Last week, Penn State agreed to provide millions in payments and benefits to Paterno’s estate and family members under the late football coach’s employment contract, although a family lawyer says the Paternos did not sign away their right to sue.
But unless the subject came up in conversation, there were no outward displays by fans of protest against school administrators or trustees over the weekend. Fans were eager to see what the team looked like under O’Brien.
“It seems like he’s genuinely excited to do new things and to put a good team out there, but he’s also respectful of tradition,” said Curtin, 39, of Annapolis, Md. “So far I like him.”
Like Curtin, dozens of alumni, students and other spectators wore attire that offered some kind of reminder of Paterno.
Some people donned “Joe Knows Football” T-shirts, a play off the old Nike ad campaign slogan featuring Bo Jackson.
Others wore T-shirts or sweatshirts that read “Team Paterno” on the front and “Make an Impact” on the back — the latter phrase referencing a command from Joe Paterno’s father, Angelo, to his son.
The “Team Paterno” shirts were a gift to some donors for the cause of Sunday’s race, Special Olympics of Pennsylvania, a charity long championed by Sue Paterno.
“We were in it together,” Sue Paterno said when asked about the “Team Paterno” phrase. “I said, ‘I help you all the time. Now you help me.’ He got hooked … It turned out to be a real good tagline this year.”
The charity said Sunday it hoped to raise nearly $300,000 from the race, which would triple the amount it raised last year.
“I’m 55 years-old, and I’ve never known another coach here,” Rich Ellers, a lifelong season-ticket holder from Centre Hall, said Saturday at the Paterno statue. “His spirit will live on. He’ll never be gone in that sense.”
The statue served as a gathering point for mourners after Paterno died, and visitors returned to the site in droves again this weekend. One effort organized by alumni left 409 bouquets of the blue-and-white carnations at the site — one for each of Paterno’s Division I-record career victories.
“Obviously I miss Joe,” 2011 Penn State graduate Erin Davis said at the statue. “He’s like a grandfather to this university.”
The small cemetery in State College where Paterno is buried has seen increased visitors since his death. Many well-wishers have left flowers there, too, and Penn State hats. Police say some mourners have held candlelight vigils. A family spokesman and police say there have been no major problems, though the cemetery last week decided to start closing at dusk.
The Paterno family is planning to start a “Paterno Foundation” charity, from which sales of a DVD of the Jan. 26 memorial service for Paterno are being sold. The family has said proceeds will go to Special Olympics.
Sue Paterno said she no plans to leave the modest ranch home in town where she and her husband raised their family. She plans to continue helping Special Olympics, including the state Summer Games held on the Penn State campus each year.
“Absolutely, they’re my people,” she said about working Special Olympians. “They become your buddies. This gives you a bigger family.”
Sue Paterno also offered backing to her husband’s successor, the 42-year-old O’Brien. She called Penn State a “magic place.”
“The guy has got a job to do, and we’ve got to support him,” Sue Paterno said. “Joe was in that position at one time, a little bit younger. But I hope (the O’Briens) love it here as much as we did.”
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