The Joe I Know
Douglas Robb grew up in State College, during the time that Penn State football was emerging as a National powerhouse and when coach Joe Paterno's star was rising. News of Joe Paterno's passing happened so quickly that it was a shock to Penn State and the Nittany Nation. Below is Doug's unedited, wonderful story of his childhood experiences and what Joe Paterno meant to him and residents of "Happy Valley".
Landing in State College
For me, growing up in State College, PA was a great experience. Those who come to live and work in "Happy Valley" generally have a sense of loyalty about the place that endears itself to people who have lived there long after they leave. For those of us who are "townies," that is especially true. And part and parcel of that experience revolves around Penn State.
After all, State College probably wouldn't exist without Penn State. There is no major employer other than Penn State, save for the businesses that support State College and it's surrounding community. Many come to State College to attend Penn State, only to find employment there after they graduate, or some start businesses and stake their claim to their niche in "Happy Valley."
That's how my family came to be at State College. After serving with the US Navy, my dad, Big Lou, attended Penn State as thousands of others had, through their GI Bill benefits. Many veterans came from the cities, towns and rural communities around the state to the school whose mission was "to educate the working class sons and daughters of the Commonwealth."
And so my Dad and my Mom came from their childhood home in Johnstown and began their life in "Happy Valley." Like so many people before them, my Dad attended Penn State and my Mom raised our family, and then when my Dad graduated, he began working for Penn State and our family “took root” in State College.
Football: A Way of Life
From my earliest days as a boy, football was a natural part of the fabric of life at Penn State. The cool, crisp days of autumn bade us return to the Nittany Lion Inn, and Beaver Field nearby. There was the Lion Shrine and the rustle of fallen leaves as Syracuse, or Army, or West Virginia, or Pittsburgh and many other schools came to do battle with our beloved boys in blue and white.
There was the thundering clatter of the drum line of the Blue Band and the magnificent sound of the chorus of horns belting out the Fight Song or the Alma Mater. The roar of the crowd as Penn State scored a touchdown or made a spectacular play that would bring the Beaver Field crowd to it's feet in a cacophonous roar that would shatter the fall air like a thunderclap. These were some of my earliest childhood memories.
To a young boy growing up in State College, Penn State football was THE excitement. Spring was beautiful and summer was sultry and idyllic, but the fall in “Happy Valley” signaled the beginning of the Nittany Lion’s raisson d’etre. Me and my brothers lived for football. Many Saturdays in the fall in State College consisted of me, Big Lou, and my brothers raking leaves in our backyard while WMAJ belted out of a transistor radio and Mickey Bernstein called the action as the blue and white fight took place at Beaver Stadium.
Suddenly, sleepy State College’s pace and pulse quickened as thousands of fans descended from across Pennsylvania to witness “the Beast of the East” in lofty grid-iron action. So for me and my brothers, and every boy who lived on every street in Park Forest Village, Penn State football reigned supreme. Our heroes were starting to gain national fame and recognition. Jack Ham and Franco Harris led legendary Penn State teams only to go on to become Pittsburgh Steelers, as the dynasty years unfolded in the 1970’s in Pittsburgh.
And Joe Paterno was becoming recognized as one of the elite coaches in American college football. This was heady stuff. Our Joe on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Our Joe being compared with names like Schembechler, Hayes, Osborne, Bryant, Switzer, Johnson, Royal, Dooley, and other top coaches from top college football programs throughout the US. Penn State, the little farm school from nowhere in Central Pennsylvania was being compared to the greatest teams and coaches in America.
For us, Joe was the man. He was our coach, the man who had led us out of rural Eastern football obscurity to national prominence. Everything about Joe was classy. Substance over style. Discipline over flash. Team over the individual. Success with Honor. Athletes who were talented on the field and in the classroom. Solid, reliable, decent, upstanding young men. Guys we looked up to and idolized. They got to Fight! Fight! Fight! for the Blue and White on national television.
The "Toilet Bowl"
On New Year’s Day in most years, Penn State played in major bowl games like the Cotton, the Sugar, the Orange, the Fiesta, and later the Rose Bowl. Only Joe had coached a football team in all of the major bowls. We lived, breathed, ate and slept Penn State football. In State College, just about every guy we knew played touch football. On fields all over Park Forest Village, we played football every day after school. We played football in the rain. We played football in the snow. We played football after dinner until it grew dark. We played football on Saturday morning and Sunday afternoon. We played football at recess in school.
Sunset Park was located right behind Joe’s house at the end of McKee St. In that park was a beautifully maintained regulation football field. For guys living in State College, you had to be REALLY good as a football player to play high school football for the only high school in State College, my alma mater, State High. The Little Lions. All of us dreamed of one day being Nittany Lions, and playing for Joe Paterno. To run out of that tunnel into the cool, fall air and be enveloped by the deafening roar of the Beaver Stadium crowd. To burst free into the clear and score a touchdown before our hometown fans. To stand victorious in the end zone with our arms outstretched to the welcoming adulation of the students in a glaring “white out” in the stands.
These were our Penn State dreams of glory. For those of us who couldn’t live those lofty dreams, we settled for “sand lot football” in venues like Sunset Park behind Joe’s house. On the first Saturday in December every year, right after the Pitt game on Thanksgiving weekend, we played “The Toilet Bowl” in Sunset Park. And most of the time, the first real snow of winter covered that field. We’d carry a keg of beer from the parking lot, and stick it in a snow bank off the field, and go about the business of our yearly football ritual.
This was the game played by all the “also-ran” guys who couldn’t make the State High team in high school, or the Penn State team in college. But our love of football made us preserve the time-honored tradition of “The Toliet Bowl.” It was our grid-iron valentine to Joe and the Penn State team we loved-but couldn’t really be a part of ourselves. We’d choose up sides and then the game would begin. But this game had a few twists from our regular touch football games. This was a tackle game-no touch, no flag, you got your butt knocked to the ground, usually by four or five guys from the other team.
There were no shoulder pads or helmets allowed, just knee and elbow pads only, to keep you from getting “turf rash” too bad. It was rough, it was tough. It was snot-slingin’, knock-down-drag-out football, the way we loved it. There were no “do-overs.” In this game, you kicked butt-or got your butt kicked!
Now most years, Joe would still be at his McKee St. home when the Toilet Bowl took place. Because he wouldn’t have left yet for the bowl game Penn State was inevitably going to compete in, and so Joe was enjoying what little time he had for his family. Even though Sunset Park began where Joe’s yard ended-they NEVER built a fence between their yard and the park. So sometimes during a Toilet Bowl, I could see Joe standing at his back door watching us knock each other silly.
We’d wave to Joe when we would see him and he’d wave back at us, and we were hoping upon hope that we would see him come out that back door and make his way to our pick-up game, and make our Saturday-and our dreams-come true. Not often, but a few times during the many years we played this game, we’d see Joe coming across his back yard out to the field. He’d have on that blue winter coat he wore at the stadium, khaki’s rolled up, white socks, black shoes. JOE! That head of tousled hair and those black glasses told us what we’d all lived for but hadn’t dare say-Coach was on his way!
We would all stop cold in our tracks and cheer, and applaud Joe as he’d make his way toward us. “Hey, Coach” we’d yell with obvious affection. This was our man, our leader, our coach. The one and only Joe Pa. “Hi ya, fellas!” Joe would exclaim as he shook our hands. “I heard you in my house, making enough racket to wake the dead, and the whole bit!” He’d say in mock disgust. We’d all laugh and say, “How ya’ doin’ coach?”
And then just like the coach he was, he’d say, “Well, are ya’ gonna stand around all day, or are you gonna play some football?” We’d line up for the kick-off, and away we’d go! Joe would take his place on one sideline, and before each play, we’d run over to Joe, where he’d call the next play and give us our assignments. Then we’d run out to the line of scrimmage where the defense was waiting, and line up to snap the ball. Joe would coach one sideline until we’d get ahead by a couple of touchdowns, and then he’d run over to the other sideline and coach the other guys for a while.
All the while he’d be yelling instructions to guys, chewing guys butts if they failed to carry out what he’d told them, and sometimes stopping us to show us a point of technique, or how to get an advantage on a guy to make a play. He was a teacher. He was a mentor. He instructed us. He showed us. He explained to us. He lectured us. He laughed with us. He celebrated our touchdowns. He told us why we failed. He praised our good plays. He told us how we “fouled it up.” He gave us his insight, his knowledge, his wisdom. We hung on every word.
We would run through a brick wall for that man. And then ask him where the next one was so we could run through it again. To score a touchdown or make a big play and hear Joe’s praise for what you’d done was like Christmas morning is to a kid. To have Joe chew your butt was like bringing home a bad report card to your Dad. We did our best for Joe. We gave our all for Joe.
And then, a familiar voice would call from the distance across the snow swept park, “Joe! Joe! Time for supper!” Sue would call out from their back door, arms folded across her chest trying to keep warm. Joe would look at us and say, “Looks like the boss is callin’ me, fellas, I gotta go! You fellas take care, now!” Joe would shake a few of our hands, and then turn and do that “Joe heading for the locker room” trot he would do at halftime. We’d seen it a thousand times. But this time it made us sad, because it meant our time with Joe was done. “See ya’ coach! Good luck in the bowl, coach! We love ya’ coach” we’d yell as Joe would run toward his house, waving to us but not looking back as he covered the distance back home.
We’d watch him disappear inside, then we’d kind of look at each other like “what’s the point?” With Joe gone, suddenly our ritual game would lose it’s appeal. With Joe gone, the excitement was over. Winter had arrived.....
Jan. 21st, 2012 was a horrible day filled with dread. The word had come down that Joe was in serious condition, that his health had taken a turn for the worse. The moment I had been dreading for years was coming to pass, and I could not bear the reality of it, the finality of it. This wonderful man, who had always been “our coach” for so long, who had given us so many beautiful memories and memorable moments of triumph, achievement, and greatness, was losing his battle.
Then the news of Joe’s passing came and my heart sank to the depths of the ocean. Tears streamed down my face as I realized that my coach was going, that I would never see him again. Then the joyous reprieve, when the message came through that Jay Paterno had announced it was a false, inaccurate report. I cursed the idiots who got it wrong, somehow falsely hoping that Joe would regain his strength enough to carry on the fight, to gain another yard, to score yet again.
That night I barely slept. My mind drifted back, to those wonderful football games with my buddies, and those halcyon days when Joe graced our sidelines, when WE were Joe’s team. I awoke early the next morning, dreading to even look at my computer screen. I could not bear the news. It took several hours, and then the inevitable came. Joe was really gone now. The shock gave way to a dulling sadness. I couldn’t wrap my mind around it. It was surreal.
That day, I communed with fellow Penn State people via computer and Facebook, trying to deal with the loss and console ourselves. The pain of Joe’s passing was made all the worse because of the ridiculous circimstances leading up to his death. The stupidity of the media “rush to judgment.” The vicious jerks in the court of public opinion who claimed Joe was at fault for Sandusky’s alleged crimes. The inept fools that seized on Joe’s lament that “with the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more.”
As if the remorse of an honest man who wished he could have spared the victims the horror they faced was admitting he did something wrong, when we all knew Joe was blameless. And then the disgraceful humiliation the board of trustees subjected Joe to when they fired him like a pack of cowards. We all knew Joe had done the right thing under the rules of the university he gave the bulk of his life to nurturing and supporting with everything he had.
But in spite of all of this, I will always remember Joe with love and affection. Because I know he remained steadfast and true to the principles and values he held so dearly in his heart and mind. Joe was our coach, our mentor, our symbol, and our friend. He always had time for everyone in the Penn State community, and he cared about and served our community faithfully and well for over 60 years. His legacy is intact and will forever remain the standard by which those among us who strive for excellence and humanity will measure themselves.
But I will also remember him best for those special, cold December days when Joe took the time to commune with a group of rag-tag young men united by their love of football that Joe gave us in a snow swept park behind his house on McKee St.
What do you want me to do on this play, coach?