Though the situation precipitating his uncompleted 46th season currently veils the positive impact he’s had on 62 year’s worth of young men, Coach Joe Paterno will be remembered by most football fans for his more than 400 career victories, two national championships and five undefeated seasons.
My middle son and I will also remember him as the man who cleared the air between us.
Strange as it sounds, as a result of the coach’s dismissal under unfortunate circumstances, my son will be a better man. Joe Pa has led by example one last time, and thus released me from the bondage of a long-standing point of contention between me and my 14 year-old, who has maintained, for 2½ years, his stance that he suffered unfair management of the facts and the resulting consequences.
Perhaps J.P. can relate.
Last Thursday morning, the boy walked into my room just in time to hear the radio news announce that Penn State had relieved Paterno of his duties. The lad exclaimed, “They fired Joe Paterno? But he didn’t do anything!” I could not have been more thrilled at his reaction.
“You’re right,” I agreed. “He didn’t do anything.” And then I pounced, reminding my son about the hotly disputed golf car incident that occurred shortly after his 12th birthday. The golf car incident that I only learned of through a phone call from my mother. The golf car incident that she only learned of via a report from my father, who learned of it by discovering the abandoned vehicle in the pasture.
My son was not alone in the debacle, nor was he directly involved with it. His younger brother drove. His cousin sat in the middle seat. He held down the wheels on the right side as the three went zipping and flying through fields. I’m positive that, as my older boy asserts, he told his baby brother to slow down and not to run over the dog and to look out for the tree. But his instructions were probably pretty hard to understand as they passed through the giggles of a good time.
Meanwhile, the cousin in the middle seat distracted the young, inexperienced driver by holding a Coca-Cola in front of the child’s face and threatening to pour it on him. Before anyone could react, the golf car had run up on a huge stump and stopped dead, as did the giggling and shouting and fun.
How dare I bring up The Golf Car Incident in the middle of a football crisis? “I didn’t do anything,” he cried in self-defense for the 999th time.
Of course, he’s right. His cousin and brother never implicated him in the crime. Yet, I required him to help pay for the golf car repairs, an outcome he has held up as a burning hole in the innocence of his childhood.
“Not doing anything is what you and Coach Paterno have in common,” I educated him, drawing the parallels: Neither put forth concerted effort to stop the crime; neither persisted in presenting the crime to authority. “And that’s why you both were punished. Better to learn that there are no innocent bystanders when you’re 12 than when you’re 83.”
A flicker streaked across his face. Finally, he got it. He let go of the grudge. We would have come around to this much sooner, except I didn’t know how to make my point in the language of football.
So, thank you, Joe Pa, for bridging the gap of understanding between my son and me.
(Lucy Adams, a Columbia County native and a teacher at Augusta Prep, is the author of Tuck Your Skirt in Your Panties and Run. She lives in Thomson.)