Something terrible happened on my street when I was kid, something that I had screened from my consciousness for many years until last weekend. My neighbor Scott Holderman and I were futzing about near the side of his house, setting up one of those epic Star Wars tête-à-têtes or digging for earthworms or doing whatever children do on nice days in quiet neighborhoods, and then there came a horrible screeching, the braking of an automobile that could not stop in time. The car had crested the steep hill of our street and slammed into a child who wandered into it. I can still see the child lying there, and I can still hear the mother’s tortured shriek when she realized it was one of hers. An ambulance arrived, and then a medevac helicopter touched down 30 feet from our house, and they took the child away. He survived, but he wasn’t the same.
A few years earlier, back when I was 5, my parents moved from suburban New York City to State College, Pa. They did this because my father took a job as a professor at Penn State, but I assume they also did this because State College was considered a good place to raise children, a placid college town set in the geographic center of Pennsylvania. Those of us who grew up there like to say we lived three hours from everywhere. We resided in a development called Park Forest, on a street named after a British county.
The kids from the neighborhood would gather to play basketball in my driveway, not because I was particularly popular, but because we had a good hoop. In high school, we engaged in epic pick-up football games in Sunset Park, a little patch of grass right next to a house owned by Joe and Sue Paterno. In the second grade, my Little League coach was an enormous neighbor of ours named Mr. McQueary, and his son Mike was the best player on our team.1 We went to school at Park Forest Junior High, and then we went to State College High School, where we learned how to drive and how to date and how to do quadratic equations. We were the sons of farmers and college professors and football coaches. One of my brother’s classmates was named Sandusky; one of my classmates was named Sandusky, too.2 I goofed off in the back of Latin class with a kid named Scott Paterno.3 We knew who their fathers were; their fathers were royalty to us, even if we acted like it was no big deal. Our football team’s nickname was the Little Lions. There was no way to extricate the happenings at our school from the happenings at the university, and the happenings at the university always centered around football. Everything in State College — even the name of our town — was one all-encompassing, synergistic monolith, and Joe Paterno was our benevolent dictator, and nothing truly bad ever happened, and even when it did, it was easier just to blot it from our lives and move on.
I can’t add a lot to what’s been written about the facts of the burgeoning scandal at Penn State, except to tell you how strange it feels to type the phrase “burgeoning scandal at Penn State.” I know that I’m in denial. I know that I’m working through multiple layers of anger and disgust and neurosis and angst. I know that I’m too emotionally attached to the situation to offer any kind of objective take, though I don’t think I realized how emotionally attached I was until this occurred. I never understood how much of an effect both football and a sense of place had on my persona. I apologize if what follows seems disjointed, because I am still coming to terms with the fact that this is real. “What can I say?” my mom wrote me from State College on Monday afternoon. “We’re sort of going around in a daze.”
I do not mean to make excuses for anyone involved, nor have any of the alums or townspeople I’ve spoken to or corresponded with, including my friend Brad, who is the most rigidly optimistic Penn State booster I’ve ever met. There’s a group, about 15 or 20 of us, who have kept in touch since college, and I haven’t seen some of them in years, and I’ve never met some of the others, but I still consider them close friends because we share a bond that was forged through football. And I know that, if you attended a secondary institution where football was not a priority, that sounds like an absurd basis for a relationship. But this is why college football evokes such extreme emotion, and this is why schools work so damn hard and often take ethical shortcuts to forge themselves into football powers: If they are successful, then the game serves as the lifelong bond between alums and townspeople and the university, thereby guaranteeing the institution’s self-preservation through donations and season-ticket sales and infusions into the local economy. It is a crass calculus, when you put it that way, which is why there will always be skeptics and there will always be those of us for whom college football is (other than our own families) the purest emotional attachment of our adulthood, and there will always be some of us who bound between those two poles.
Every year, Brad sends out an eight-page e-mail, a meticulous scouting report on a team that is inevitably destined for an Outback Bowl berth but that Brad believes really has a shot at 12-0 this time around. This is what Brad wrote on September 6, a few days before Alabama pounded Penn State in a game none of us believed we could win: “We’re gonna hang on Saturday. I think we’re gonna give ’em a run.”
And this is what Brad wrote on Monday: “The nature of this crime is the worst that has ever happened anywhere.”
We moved to State College in 1978, the season Penn State lost to Alabama on a goal-line stand in the Sugar Bowl. I was in first grade, and I didn’t have much in the way of social skills, and Penn State football was the language by which I could relate to the world and through which I could speak to the adults around me. I drew pictures of Curt Warner and Todd Blackledge; I memorized the rosters so that when people in our section at Beaver Stadium would ask who made that play, I could tell them. To this day, when I try to recall the combination of my gym locker or a friend’s birthday or the license plate of my rental car, I think in terms of uniform numbers. It is not 31-17-03; it is Shane Conlan-Harry Hamilton-Chip LaBarca. Those were great years, and Penn State was in its heyday and Joe Paterno was the Sportsman of the Year and State College was a community that never gave in to the ethical lapses of the ’80s and early ’90s, because our coaching staff would not stand for it. One former player called it Camelot, and that sounds apt enough.
Jerry Sandusky had been promoted to defensive coordinator the year before we arrived in town. For decades, Penn State defined itself through its ability to stop people when it mattered, and, speaking from a strict football perspective, Sandusky was as responsible for the school’s glory years as Paterno was. Linebacker U. thrived under Sandusky, and Penn State won its first national championship in 1982, and then won another in 1986, defeating Miami 14-10 in the Fiesta Bowl in a game predicated entirely on defense. It is widely acknowledged that Sandusky’s game plan was the difference, that he rattled Vinny Testaverde and Miami’s impetuous wide receivers by devising confusing coverage schemes and instructing his defensive backs to hit Michael Irvin until he cried. The day after it happened, they played that game on a continuous loop in our high school cafeteria. It is still my favorite football game of all time, a metaphoric triumph of the unadorned hero over the flamboyant villain. I wrote a long piece about it for ESPN, and a portion of a book, that now rings completely hollow. I have the original video recording of it in my living room, and I have thought several times over the past couple of days about taking a hammer to it.
I remember one Saturday morning in the autumn of my adolescence, the coach shambling along in his parka, brow furrowed, glasses shadowed in the sharp glare of the sun, black sneakers kicking at the leaves as they eddied and then parted on the asphalt path before him. I did not intend to follow him; it just happened that way, so that one moment I was headed to a football tailgate and the next moment I was trailing along behind Joe Paterno.
I walked behind him for several miles that day. Back then, in the late 1980s, it was still a routine of his to walk from his house to the stadium where he coached, slipping across the Penn State campus, past science labs and classroom buildings and parking lots occupied by stunned tailgaters who could never quite get over the fact that it was really him. Sometimes we were guilty of regarding him as more deity than man,4 as if he presided over us in mythological stand-up form. He was as much our own conscience as he was a football coach, and we made that pact and imbued him with that sort of power because we believed he would wield it more responsibly than any of us ever could. Maybe that was naïve, but we came of age in a place known as Happy Valley and naïveté was part of the package, and now that word isn’t in our dictionaries anymore.
As a journalist, of course, you’re taught to be skeptical of everything, and in college, we tried our damndest at the college newspaper to cover Penn State football like professional journalists did. At one point, a talented young reporter thought she’d caught Paterno in a loophole regarding the housing policy at the school, but nothing much ever came of it. Most of the time, Joe got what he wanted. We grew older, and we came to understand one of the central truths of human nature, which is that when you brush up against a truly powerful force, it is never quite as benevolent as you imagined it to be. In order to acquire power, you have to be at least a little ruthless.5 All you can hope for is that those who do acquire power operate by some sort of rough ethical standard, and even if I no longer deified Paterno, I continued to believe that the monolith I’d grown up inside was essentially a force for good. They did things I found untoward, but I always presumed they did them for the right reasons.
A few years ago, I drove down to the University of Maryland to research a story on Len Bias. I’d gone to see his mother speak at a high school, and now I sat in her office, and I asked her what went wrong at Maryland, whether the administration and the people in power deserved to share any of the responsibility for her son’s death, and I remember precisely what she told me. “There was no covering,” she said.
I don’t know if there are any apt analogies to anything when it comes to this case, but this seems a little bit like our Len Bias moment at Penn State. Our leaders failed to cover, and while they deserve the benefit of due process, they deserve to be held accountable for whatever mistakes they made. If it means that this is how Joe Paterno goes out, then so be it; if it means that 30 years of my own memories of Penn State football are forever tarnished, then I will accept it in the name of finding some measure of justice. Every sane person I know agrees on this. It took Maryland the better part of two decades to regain its soul, and it will take us many years, as well, and in some way it will never be the same. We’ve come to terms with the corruptibility of the human soul in State College, and we’ve swept away the naïve notion that this place where we lived so quietly was different from the rest of America.
I have two close friends, a husband and wife, both alums, who moved to State College from New York City a few years ago. They did this because they couldn’t afford to raise children in Manhattan, but they also did it because he couldn’t imagine a safer place to raise their kids than a little town in a valley situated three hours from everywhere. I don’t know what it feels like to grow up there now. I want these things to disappear from my consciousness, but they won’t. The place where I grew up is gone, and it’s not coming back.
Michael Weinreb is a Grantland staff writer and the author, most recently, of Bigger Than the Game: Bo, Boz, the Punky QB and How the ’80s Created the Modern Athlete.