‘Somebody should have noticed, but they didn’t’: Sandusky’s adopted son shares his story
By Mark Wineka
SALISBURY — Where do you start with Matthew Sandusky’s story?
Does it begin with his drunken and abusive biological father, who was burning Matt’s toes when he was 3?
Maybe trace it back to his maternal grandfather, who would beat him relentlessly with a wooden broom handle until Matt would admit what he had done wrong, even if it was nothing.
No matter what happened to him as a small boy, Sandusky says, he learned to keep his mouth shut.
But for most people, Matthew Sandusky’s story becomes of interest when he is introduced to a charitable program in Pennsylvania, the Second Mile, meant to help troubled kids such as him.
Only this program led him directly to its most prominent figurehead — and predator — onetime Penn State University football coach Jerry Sandusky, who used Second Mile to groom hard-luck, vulnerable boys such as Matthew.
You probably know where the story goes, for Jerry Sandusky at least.
Once heralded as a defensive mastermind and a Penn State coach for 32 years — one of legendary Joe Paterno’s top assistants — Sandusky was convicted in 2012 on 45 counts of molesting 10 different boys.
He received a sentence of 30 to 60 years and is jailed today in a medium-security state prison in Somerset, Pennsylvania.
It was only during his adoptive father’s trial in 2012 that a then 33-year-old Matthew Sandusky broke his silence and told about the abuse — from ages 8 to 17 — that he had suffered from Jerry Sandusky.
Matthew shared his story Friday as featured speaker for Prevent Child Abuse Rowan’s annual brunch at the Rowan Museum.
Not once did Matthew Sandusky say Jerry Sandusky’s name. He referred to him only as “this person.”
Their relationship started with Jerry Sandusky asking the young boy how was camp, how was school, how was his life, and would he like to go to a football game?
When Matthew was 8, Jerry Sandusky first put his hand on the boy’s knee while they were driving alone in a car. It would be his initial overture and suggestion that he wanted and expected more, in a sexual way.
Thus began the years of abuse from a man no one suspected. Matthew said Jerry Sandusky pushed the boundaries. It started with wrestling, showers together and wrestling in the showers, until he eventually became a regular sexual victim of Jerry Sandusky.
The abuse occurred mostly on weekends at Second Mile, at the Sandusky home, on the Penn State campus or on road trips. All the while, Matthew said Friday, nobody was taking notice, describing Sandusky as the “nice guy pillar of the community offender.”
“We teach children ‘stranger danger,'” Matthew Sandusky added, but of 300,000 abuse cases each year, only 700 involve strangers. He said 93% to 95% of abuse cases happen with someone a child knows, loves or trusts or is somehow in their lives already.
Matthew said Jerry Sandusky’s abuse led him to try drugs and alcohol before he was a teenager. At 13, he was burning himself as a way of escaping and thinking of something else.
“I started to act out,” Matthew said. “Somebody should have taken notice, but they didn’t.”
He started committing crimes as a juvenile.
Jerry Sandusky was always the person seen as coming to the rescue, no matter how much Matthew said he tried to break away.
“I ran away from this person,” he said, “but he found me.”
The Sanduskys soon were providing Matthew a foster home.
At 17, he tried suicide with pills and carbon monoxide poisoning. He was unsuccessful and hospitalized. One of the first people to walk into his hospital room was Jerry Sandusky.
“You can’t even kill yourself right,” Sandusky told him.
“He knew he was never going to be caught,” Matthew added.
Jerry and Dorothy Sandusky legally adopted him at the age of 18, and Matthew Heichel became Matthew Sandusky. The abuse finally stopped. He had to stay in their home because he was on probation until he turned 21.
He stayed quiet in adulthood.
In the years that have followed the Jerry Sandusky scandal and all its repercussions for Penn State, its top officials and the community at large, Matthew became a central figure in a documentary titled “Happy Valley.” He has done a long interview with Oprah Winfrey. He also has written a memoir, “Undaunted.”
In addition, Matthew Sandusky has founded and serves as executive director of the Peaceful Hearts Foundation aimed at preventing child sexual abuse and helping survivors.
Today, he often gives talks about what happened to him. He lives with his second wife and their son in State College.
“It will forever be a part of me,” he said. “I can’t make it go away, but it will never mean anything about the life I can lead. … What I feel does not matter. What you feel about me does not matter. I know what I’m trying to accomplish. I’m very clear on that.”
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263.