I was a journalism student at BYU, just getting used to the idea that my position as a sports writer for the student paper might bring me access to people I had previously only seen on television.
He was Joe Paterno, a legendary football coach even in 1981.
All these years later I don’t remember why I decided to call him. BYU didn’t play Penn State that season. I may have wanted him to comment on a piece I was doing about crimes college football players commit with few consequences. I spent several weeks working on a story that involved a BYU player and some assault charges. That seems so ironic now.
The details are fuzzy, but not the encounter with Paterno. I left a message with his secretary, figuring I’d never hear back. But he called me shortly thereafter. He was warm and open. We talked at length, and he didn’t want to hang up without making sure he had answered all my questions.
Ever since then I always regarded JoePa as one of the genuine good guys in college sports. That is, until recently.
A colleague at the Deseret News told me my story just confirms what a tragic figure Paterno was — a good person with a horrible flaw, like King David and his Bathsheba problem.
Human beings may never get beyond their weakness for the strongest or the fastest, or the ones who either perform physical feats at levels others only dream about or who can create winners year after year.
Winners of the Olympics in ancient Greece were worshipped as heroes. No doubt they could get away with things the average people could not.
In this country, abuses started almost as soon as someone began kicking around an inflated pig bladder.
In the book, “Stagg’s University: The rise, decline and fall of big-time football at Chicago,” Robin Lester notes it was between 1895 and 1905 when student-players became “player-students.” Back then, the University of Chicago sometimes enrolled good players before they could finish their high school courses.
Today we call those things recruiting violations. They can earn a team severe penalties from the NCAA, including sanctions that keep the team out of postseason play.
This week, the NCAA put pedophilia and its cover-up on the same level as a severe recruiting violation. It isn’t even in the same league.
NCAA President Mark Emmert talked about the need to change a culture that made sports “too big to fail, indeed too big to even challenge.”
I don’t think the punishment fit the crime. We will look at Penn State as if it’s a vehicle that has been in an accident but still can limp down the street.
Like most people I’ve met, Paterno was complicated and flawed. But this scandal is big enough to eclipse anything he might have done in his football career.
Sometimes, you just need to throw a broken car into the junkyard and try to build a new one. The NCAA should have put an end to football in Happy Valley for awhile.