Blue Friday

I started writing this blog three weeks ago, picked it up again several times, but was never able to finish it. I have so many ever-changing thoughts on what’s taken place at Penn State, and solidifying them into one post seemed like an impossible task. But yesterday I realized I haven’t blogged in nearly a month becuase I haven’t been able to move on to more lighthearted topics until I finally hit “post” on this one. So, today, I finally finished it.

For many years, the real photo in the image above has hung in various places in my life: in a frame on a wall in my first post-college apartment in New Jersey, above my desk in the ESPN The Mag office in NYC and, for the past few years, on my refrigerator in Santa Monica. Practically every day since college, I’ve looked at this picture. I often tell people it’s one of my favorite possessions. If there’s a fire, I’m grabbing my Paterno picture! Should I have it insured?

Looking at it has always made me smile. The moment captured in this photo was the collision of my childhood split between Pennsylvania and South Florida and my newfound adulthood. (We all think we’re adults in college, don’t we?) It also makes me laugh. As a girl who grew up worshiping Penn State football, I couldn’t believe the moment I got to meet JoePa, the man to whom my dad compared every coach in the country, I was wearing an orange-and-blue Gators cheerleading uniform. How embarrassing!

“Ignore the orange and blue!” I shrieked at Coach Paterno, after chasing him down a hallway following a Citrus Bowl luncheon in 1998 and practically crashing into him. “I’m a Nittany Lions fan in my heart! Forget Spurrier! You’re my favorite coach! The 1994 team is my all-time favorite college football team! Also … umm … Would you mind posing for a photo with me?”

At that moment, a security guard stepped between us. I hadn’t noticed him until he spoke, but he was making sure to be noticed now. “Mr. Paterno does not pose with fans wearing the opposing team’s colors,” he said. “Or uniforms.” I thought I was going to cry. I turned to walk away and then felt a hand on my arm. “Young lady,” Coach Paterno said, “It would be my pleasure to take a photo with you.” I thought I was going to cry.

When I told this story to my parents, who had driven up to Orlando for the game, they were jealous. But they weren’t surprised. He’s a classy guy, they said. He’s Joe Paterno. Of course he took a photo with you.

A few years into my job at ESPN, my college football editor passed a copy of that photo along to Jay Paterno, Joe’s son, a coach at Penn State and a friend of my editor. Jay had his pops sign it and then he FedEx’d it back to me in California. When I told my parents what he’d done, they said, of course he followed through. He’s Joe Paterno’s son. An alligator magnet has been holding this signed copy to my refrigerator since 2008.

It’s not anymore.

It took me a few days to take it down. I don’t remember where I read the first Sandusky story the Friday the Grand Jury report was made public, but I remember how I felt. Anyone who covers college football or has worked or played in a university athletic department (I’ve done all of the above) understands how they run, especially at a football-first university like Penn State with a head coach who’s been in power longer than nearly all of its students–and some of its staff–have been alive. “He had to have known,” I thought. “They all must have known.” Then, the Penn State fan in me, the girl in that cheerleading uniform, in that photo, felt sick.

I thought I was going to cry.

In the days and weeks since that Friday, I’ve read countless stories on Sandusky and Penn State University, many of them written by friends and colleagues. Each one tries, in some way, to make sense of what went on inside that program. How could a man against whom so many coaches measured themselves turn a blind eye to a coach on his staff abusing young boys? How could a program so seemingly steeped in a team-first culture hell bent on “winning the right way” allow this to happen?

Perhaps that reputation, and the drive to protect it, is exactly why it happened.

I remember when I made my decision to attend the University of Florida and try out for the cheerleading team. I told my folks, “We’re Gator fans now!” My dad had such a hard time adjusting to this idea. He wasn’t upset that I’d chosen a college recently named the number-one party school in America. He was too busy figuring out how he would find it within himself to root for a loud-mouthed, visor-throwing, score-running-up coach like Steve Spurrier. “Doesn’t Florida State have a cheerleading team?” he asked. “Or Miami?”

My dad, too, had grown up on Penn State football, played in an idyllic land where receivers and running backs scored touchdowns and then politely handed the ball to the referee. Where, as the story goes, Coach Paterno once suspended star running back Lydell Mitchell for one game for walking onto the field wearing a towel his girlfriend had given to him with his name and number stitched onto it. (Penn State players do not wear their names on their jerseys.) That suspension, as dad tells it, cost Mitchell the Heisman. But, as we’re supposed to believe, it taught him a lesson. Team above self. Team first, always. At all cost.

Maybe team-first isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. In fact, at the moment, that philosophy seems downright broken.