What’s in a name?

Joe Paterno's family won't quit the fight to restore his legacy

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Jay Paterno tells a story. It is autumn, and his son is playing in a ninth-grade football game. Early in the first quarter, his son pushes through and brings down the ball carrier. The public address announcer says: “Tackle made by Joe Paterno.”

When the game ends, Joey Paterno goes to his mother, Kelley, and admits that he grimaced when he heard his name called over the loudspeaker.

“Why?” Kelley asks.

“Because,” he says. “I didn’t know how people would react to hearing it.”

“And that,” Jay Paterno says, his eyes filling with tears, “is why we fight.”

* * *

“The most saddening findings of the Special Investigative Counsel is the total and consistent disregard by the most senior leaders at Penn State.

“They exhibited a striking lack of empathy for Sandusky’s victims by failing to inquire as to their safety and well-being, especially by not attempting to determine the identity of the child who Sandusky assaulted …”

“Paterno told a reporter that ‘I didn’t know exactly how to handle it, and I was afraid to do something that might jeopardize what the university procedure was. So I backed away and turned it over to other people.’”

“The Special Investigative Counsel finds that it is more reasonable to conclude that, in order to avoid the consequences of bad publicity, the most powerful leaders at the University – Spanier, Schultz, Paterno and Curley – repeatedly concealed critical facts relating to Sandusky’s child abuse.”

— From Findings in the Freeh Report.

* * *

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – On July 12, 2012, former FBI Director Louis Freeh announced that he and his group had investigated, prosecuted, tried and effectively convicted the late Penn State football coach Joe Paterno of heinous crimes that included covering up the child sexual abuse by a former coach, Jerry Sandusky. The Freeh group did so without subpoena power, without identifying accusers, without guidance from sexual abuse experts, without putting anyone under oath and without testimony from Joe Paterno or anyone speaking in his defense. There were no appeals granted.

The Freeh Report ended all arguments and closed all doors. It was accepted across America. Media reports called it an “independent investigation,” though the Penn State Trustees – who controversially had fired Joe Paterno – paid more than $8 million for it. Media reports also called it “exhaustive” – repeatedly parroting Freeh’s claim that the group spoke to 430 key figures and that 3.5 million documents were analyzed – ignoring that the Freeh group, by its own admission, did not talk to a dozen or so key figures, save for an eleventh-hour interview with Graham Spanier, the former Penn State president. Spanier is now suing Freeh for libel and defamation.

The Freeh Report led directly to the ruination of Joe Paterno’s reputation, built over 61 years as a football coach at Penn State. Penn State scrubbed clean its stadium and gameday program of Paterno references. His alma mater, Brown University, removed Paterno’s name from its athletic award. After a threatening banner was flown over State College – “TAKE DOWN THE STATUE OR WE WILL” – a statue of Joe Paterno that stood outside Beaver Stadium and had been a landmark for Penn State fans was torn down and hidden.

Then the NCAA swooped in, announcing crushing sanctions against Penn State football: the cutting of scholarships; probation; a bowl ban; a $60 million fine and the removal of 112 victories, 111 of them under Joe Paterno. The NCAA left the impression that the Penn State program was lucky to not get the dreaded death penalty. “Worry about getting your culture right,” NCAA President Mark Emmert lectured Penn State.

The most piercing example of the Freeh Report’s power involved Nike chairman Phil Knight, who had spoken many times about his love and admiration for Joe Paterno. “I’m a man who needs heroes,” he said on numerous occasions. “And Joe Paterno fills my need.” He spoke lovingly of Paterno at his funeral. After the report, though, he entirely changed course. “It appears Joe made missteps that led to heartbreaking consequences,” Knight said. “I missed that Joe missed it.” He then announced that Nike would take Paterno’s name off its child care center.

In State College, the family of Joe Paterno watched it all in disbelief and horror.

“The lies they’re telling about Joe,” Sue Paterno told Dan McGinn, the crisis manager the family had hired. “I can’t believe the lies they’re telling about Joe.”

“Sue,” McGinn told her. “They are having their moment now. But I can promise you this: We will write the final chapter.”

“I want to believe you,” Sue Paterno said, as her voiced cracked. “But will I live to see it?”

* * *

This is a story of how Joe Paterno’s family wins back his legacy, inch by inch by inch. You will no doubt have strong feelings on the matter; it’s likely that no sports story of the last decade has sparked more emotions. Some have decided that Joe Paterno knew about Jerry Sandusky’s crimes because he had to know, because he knew all that happened at Penn State. Some have determined he turned away from his duty to protect children, and that his much-celebrated life as a coach, teacher and humanitarian was either ruined by his inaction or a lie in the first place. Many will not revisit the story no matter what new evidence emerges; it is filed under “old news.”

The Paterno family, more than anyone, realizes this. Still they fight back — against the Freeh Report, the Penn State board, the NCAA and those who continue to insist that Joe Paterno is responsible for the crimes of his one-time assistant coach Jerry Sandusky. They fight back. And, more and more, they win.

Let me state the obvious up front: This is a personal story for me. I wrote the biography “Paterno.” This led me to know Joe Paterno’s family – his wife Sue, his two daughters Diana and Mary Kay, his three sons David, Jay and Scott. I have seen that they are good people, who did not ask for this fight. But they have not backed down from it despite immense pressure, horrific criticism and seemingly impossible odds. I have seen them win ground. I have seen them pay a hard price for their efforts.

The crimes of Jerry Sandusky against children are terrible and well-known. Sandusky was convicted of 45 counts of child sex abuse. He will spend the rest of his life in prison for them. Three Penn State officials – Spanier, former Penn State Vice President Gary Schultz and former athletic director Tim Curley – were charged with perjury, obstruction of justice and child endangerment. They have all insisted repeatedly and voraciously on their innocence; the charges against them are still pending after more than three years. Court observers say there is almost no chance their cases will go to trial in 2015. They are in what seems a permanent limbo.

Then there is Joe Paterno. He was head coach at Penn State for 45 years, and assistant another 16 years before that. There is no way to catalogue the almost universal praise he received for his coaching — his teams won 409 games, the most for any Division I coach – and his integrity. His teams consistently graduated a high percentage of players. The NCAA never sanctioned them. His former players consistently call him one of their greatest teachers. The hard-hitting “60 Minutes” once did a segment on Paterno so glowing, that even he was embarrassed. On the November 2011 day of the grand jury presentment that indicted Sandusky, Pennsylvania politicians were in the process of nominating him for the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Joe Paterno was mentioned only in passing in that grand jury presentment. He was never charged with a crime. To the contrary, he was praised by the attorney general’s office for being forthright in his testimony.

Still, Paterno has taken much of the brunt for Sandusky’s crimes. He said to his death that he did not know Sandusky was a pedophile and did not understand what he was dealing with. Freeh and others said he had to know and understand. Paterno said that with the benefit of hindsight, he wished he had done more. Those words of regret have been misquoted and twisted into a tortured admission of guilt.

He never hid from the fact that a graduate assistant named Mike McQueary came to his home one morning in 2001 and told him of seeing former coach Sandusky in the football facility showers with a young boy. McQueary, by both of their accounts, was vague in his description of the event; it is still unclear what McQueary actually saw (the night before, he had reported the incident to his father and a local doctor and they decided it wasn’t clear enough to call the police). Nevertheless, Paterno followed by all accounts Penn State procedures and promptly reported McQueary’s account to Curley and Schultz.

“This isn’t my field,” Paterno told me. “I don’t know what to do. I had not seen anything. Jerry didn’t work for me anymore. I didn’t have anything to do with him. I tried to look through the Penn State guidelines to see what I was supposed to do. It said I was supposed to call Tim (Curley). So I called him.”

It is very difficult to separate Paterno from the rest of this story. To do so prompts furious charges of insensitivity toward Sandusky’s victims and accusations of loving all-mighty football more than children in danger. No one, Paterno included, claims that things were handled properly. Sandusky, a prominent man in the State College community, was convicted of stomach-turning crimes. This left many wondering how they missed it.

In the aftermath of the Freeh Report, though, the lion’s share of the nation’s rage pointed squarely at Joe Paterno, the most famous man in State College. And it is precisely the difficulty of separating Paterno from the rest of the story that made it all but impossible for his family to be heard when they spoke out in his defense.

“I’ve never encountered an intensity like there was in this case, and I’ve been involved in some pretty controversial cases, including at the White House,” says Wick Sollers, the family’s attorney. “After the report came out it was a terrible, brutal, landscape. It looked very bleak. Any time any one of us tried to point out the fallacies of the Freeh Report, the fallacies of the NCAA’s extreme rhetoric, we were shouted down as protectors of pedophiles or supporters of child abuse in the worst possible way.”

This was the snare the family of Joe Paterno found itself in on July 12, 2012, and more or less every day since. To say what they powerfully believe — that Joe Paterno’s half century of accomplishment and teaching was maliciously darkened by an inaccurate and grandstanding report and a compliant media eager for a scandalous Shakespearean tale to tell – is to bring down the wrath of every person sickened by Sandusky’s crimes.

That day the Freeh Report was released, Jay Paterno says, was in some ways an even harder one than the day six months before when Joe Paterno died. “They killed him again,” he says. That day in July, he wrote a short note to his mother, Sue, that reflects the depths of his despair:

Even in the darkest moments when doubt tears at the threads of my sanity, I cling to the truth that at the bottom of Pandora’s box was that one word: HOPE.”

Meanwhile Scott Paterno, Joe’s youngest son, was defiant. He would remember telling his wife, Heather, “This is the nadir. This is as bad as it ever will be. They fired all the shots they have, we are still alive, and from here forward we start taking back ground.”

Every member of the Paterno family says that fighting back was their only option.

“I know what my father would say,” says Mary Kay Hort, one of Joe Paterno’s two daughters. “He’d say, ‘Whadya worrying about what they say about me? You know the truth. Go home, take care of your families, live your life, let them say what they want.’”

Then she sets her jaw and says, “But we couldn’t stop. It was literally impossible for us to stop because of how we were raised. My Dad raised us to fight for what’s right and what’s true. He didn’t care about what people said about him but if this had been anyone else, he would have been fighting harder than anyone else. We couldn’t stop. We had to fight.”

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* * *

In a three-week span after the Freeh Report came out, Dan McGinn says he had informal conversations with several Penn State administrators. According to McGinn, one administrator said that he was sure Freeh had gotten it wrong specific to Paterno and his culpability, but there was simply nothing to be done about it. The die was cast. The bell was rung.

McGinn says that meeting was a turning point for him.

“I knew then that we should win,” McGinn says. “And I had confidence that we would win. The whole plan was getting access to documents and putting people under oath. … The Freeh Report, the rush to injustice, all of it relied on an atmosphere where there are no rules. In a courtroom, there are rules. There are consequences for lying. I knew we had to get this into a courtroom.”

* * *

The family stayed silent for months after the Freeh Report. There were some people and several groups trying to fight publicly for Paterno’s name – most prominently, NFL Hall of Famer and Penn State star Franco Harris — but they were largely written off as quacks or truthers.

“There was no way a voice in the wilderness could succeed at that point,” Sollers says.

Silence was particularly hard for Jay Paterno. He was not only Joe Paterno’s son, he had been Penn State’s quarterback coach. His entire life had been tied up with his father. When he lost his father, he lost his best friend, his boss and guiding light. In the aftermath of the scandal and with the ushering in of a new coaching staff he was let go from Penn State. He could not find another coaching job or work in sports broadcasting, and he has become convinced it is because of his last name. He is involved in a separate lawsuit against Penn State for tainting his name, lost wages and damaging his reputation.

Jay Paterno, more than anyone else, became the stand-in for people’s rage in the aftermath of Joe Paterno’s death.

“It was all so toxic,” Jay Paterno says. “People would just say whatever they wanted about Joe. They demonized him. I would get messages every single day – every single day — about how my father was rotting in hell. Imagine being a son who gets those kinds of messages every single day.

“My father was a man of integrity, of honesty, of high morals. He always tried to do the right things, in every situation, no matter the personal cost. And every single day, people described to me what was happening to him in eternal damnation.”

He says this without emotion in his voice. After three years, he says, he has lost his ability to be shocked.

“I guess you can say I learned a lot about the human condition,” he says.

* * *

The family’s first public move came in February 2013, almost seven months after the Freeh Report was released. They commissioned several experts, including former U.S. Attorney General Dick Thornburgh and former FBI agent and profiler of sexual crimes Jim Clemente, to review the Freeh Report. Those two reviews of Freeh’s work, in particular, were unequivocal and scathing.

Thornburgh’s conclusion: “The lack of evidence supporting the Report’s most scathing findings and the serious flaws with respect to the process of the investigation cause me to conclude that the Report’s findings concerning Mr. Paterno are unjust and wrong.”

Clemente’s conclusion: “There is no evidence to support the conclusion that Paterno engaged in ‘an active agreement to conceal.’” … “There is absolutely no evidence presented that Paterno ever expressed any fear of or aversion to bad publicity.” … “The Report is a failure. It does a tremendous disservice to Penn State, Joe Paterno, and the victims of Jerry Sandusky.”

At first glance, it wasn’t entirely clear what the family hoped to gain from these reports. Even though Thornburgh and Clemente had distinguished reputations, most media observers immediately wrote off their conclusions. What else, after all, would something called “The Paterno Report” say?

But the Paternos say that they didn’t commission the reports to change minds of critics or to move the intractable.

“We just wanted to get a conversation going,” Jay Paterno says. “At that point there was no viable way to talk about the many flaws of the Freeh Report. There was no viable way to ask how Jerry Sandusky could have fooled an entire community – and that’s what happened here. This wasn’t a football story. This was a story about a whole town. Freeh impugned everyone in State College by making it seem like Sandusky’s crimes were an open secret. Nobody knew.”

Scott Paterno says the Paterno Report’s greatest contribution was how Clemente delved into the psychology of what he calls the “Pillar of the Community” predator. Clemente says the most dangerous type of predator is not the so-called “monster” people often talk about; monsters, he says, are not difficult to identify. The scary part of such crimes, he says, is that child predators are so often widely respected and liked – teachers, coaches, religious leaders and, in the case of Sandusky, founders of charities. Sandusky founded “The Second Mile,” a charity so admired that the first President Bush listed it among his thousand points of light.

“These ‘nice-guy’ offenders escape detection even by those who are vigilant,” Clemente wrote, “because they are on the lookout for evil predators, not pillars of the community.”

“He really opened my eyes to why we had to battle the ‘culture’ perception in the NCAA Consent Decree,” Scott Paterno says. “When you dissect it logically, the idea that the problem here was a culture problem is ridiculous. In essence it says that thousands knew (about Sandusky) but we placed football above all and let kids knowingly be hurt. That’s beyond absurd. It was accepted nonetheless; it is far easier to sleep at night when it could ‘only happen there in a sick culture.’”

Wick Sollers: “It is stunning that Freeh did not consult with or incorporate the perspective of anyone, not even one person, who studies and works with child sexual abuse in any meaningful way. How’s that possible? It is beyond irresponsible. … Certainly when (the Paterno) report was released, we started to see some of the more thoughtful people scratch their heads and openly wonder whether the commonly accepted narrative made sense.”

Efforts to reach Louis Freeh were unsuccessful; he has not spoken publicly about the report in two years. Penn State declined to comment, citing ongoing litigation.

“Joe gave us one mission, and that was to find the truth,” McGinn says. “That’s been our guiding principle: Follow the truth wherever it leads. The family has made it clear: They are not afraid of the truth. When you look at this case objectively you see a lot of other people are hiding things at every turn. They want every document hidden. They don’t want to answer questions. They do not want the truth to come out. We are not afraid of the truth.”

Shortly after the reports were released, the Paterno family sued the NCAA. “We were finally ready to really fight back,” Jay Paterno says.

* * *

The victories have been persistent the last two years, even if they have not always garnered big headlines. Many people – some in concert with the family, some connected with Penn State, some who have made this their cause because they see an injustice – have hit hard against the Freeh Report, the NCAA and University officials. And, from the Paterno family perspective, the tide has substantially turned.

The NCAA, subdued after a long series of embarrassing emails and facts were uncovered in association with a lawsuit launched by Pennsylvania State Senator Jake Corman, settled that lawsuit, withdrew all its penalties against Penn State football and returned the victories to Paterno and the school.

“The NCAA continues to publicly stand behind what they did,” McGinn says. “But they didn’t give back the wins just because they wanted to give them back. They gave them back because they have no leg to stand on.”

Frank Fina, the lead prosecutor in the Sandusky case, has said publicly that he has seen no evidence, nor does he believe, that Paterno was involved in any sort of cover up. “This was a man who saw a lot more (evidence) than Freeh,” Scott Paterno says. “And he put the lie to Freeh’s main and most damning conclusion [that Paterno concealed facts about Sandusky]. Fina’s statement means Freeh’s ‘reasonable conclusion’ was not.”

Tom Corbett, the former Pennsylvania Governor and attorney general who launched the Sandusky investigation, was directly involved in the firing of Paterno. He has since softened his view and said that Paterno “probably shouldn’t have been fired.”

Penn State president Eric Barron has cut against the school’s reticence and lambasted the Freeh Report. “There’s no doubt in my mind,” he said, “Freeh steered everything as if he were a prosecutor trying to convince a court to take the case.” He said the report arrived at an “absurd” conclusion about the students, faculty and alumni.

There is now even talk of returning the statue; according to a Quinnipiac University poll, 59 percent of Pennsylvanians believe that the Paterno statue should be returned to a place of prominence.

And perhaps most telling of all, Phil Knight has turned hard on the Freeh Report – which he now calls “worthless” — and hard on himself for caving in to the pressure after it came out. He says Joe Paterno and his track coach Bob Bowerman were the two most moral men he ever knew, and he berates himself for losing sight of that in the emotion and madness that swirled around in the moments after the Freeh Report came out.

“I have to recognize myself,” he writes in his foreword to Jay Paterno’s book. “I am a child of the west, who grew up to be the sheriff with the lynch mob outside the jail. ‘Give us the prisoner or we’ll kill you both,’ is the cry of the mob. I forestall for hours, then say, ‘Take him.’ No rewinds. I have to live with this. … Because I believe if the situation had been reversed, Joe Paterno would have left my name up, lynch mob be damned.”

So, yes, the Paterno family has won back a lot. But two difficult questions remain. One, how do they know when the fight is over?

And two: Can any of this bring them peace?

* * *

The Paterno family lawsuit against the NCAA and Penn State is ongoing, with depositions scheduled and angry motions going back and forth. The family says they just want a public admission that Joe Paterno was unfairly and unjustly blamed for Sandusky’s crimes. They want the many positive contributions of Joe and Sue Paterno to Penn State to be acknowledged and remembered.

“The case isn’t going away,” Dan McGinn says. “The NCAA and Penn State and Louis Freeh took a tragic situation and made it worse. The fact that this case is still being contested so forcefully 40 months later tells you that their strategy was, and is, a failure. They have always wanted to ‘put it behind them.’ That will never happen until they acknowledge the flaws in their approach.”

Jay Paterno has written a book, “Paterno Legacy: Enduring Lessons from the Life and Death of My Father.” He travels around Pennsylvania to talk about Joe Paterno.  This has led to numerous clashes. Jay says there is one person in State College who rarely misses an opportunity to berate his family; he once screamed obscenities at 15-year-old Joey Paterno. But, he adds, it has led to many more touching encounters with people who remember Joe Paterno lovingly and with deep admiration.

“I know there’s nothing here like total victory,” Jay says. “The damage that Louis Freeh and Penn State and the NCAA did here, it can’t ever be completely fixed. My life will never be the same. … I guess for me ‘peace’ is knowing that we did everything we could to fight for the truth. My father believed in the truth. I believe in the power of the truth.”

Scott Paterno has returned to his life as a husband, father and lawyer; for enjoyment he sometimes gets into Twitter spats about politics or sports. These spats sometimes deteriorate and end up with people saying the worst thing that comes to their minds about Joe Paterno. He has come to accept that for himself. But he cannot accept it for his children.

“When the first wave happened and before Dad died,” Scott says. “I told him that we were going to fight like hell, and in the end the best we will do with most people is move you from condemned to controversial because there is no way to prove a negative to the ‘He must have known’ crowd.

“I am very sanguine about my father’s role. I lose no sleep. I know my father did his best. But I am 42. I have young kids who will be in the world someday and will have an idiot throw something like that in their face. At 21, I would have beaten the crap out of someone, and I worry that my kids will have to learn a level of patience that may be too much to ask. So peace, like winning, is a relative term.”

Mary Kay Hort says her view of the world has changed. She doesn’t believe much of what she reads or sees in the news now. Long before Jerry Sandusky was indicted and convicted, long before the Freeh Report, she resented how people would treat her father like a demigod or a saint. She knew he wasn’t any of those things. She knew her father as a man – a good man, a decent man, but a man who had flaws and made mistakes like everyone else. For years, she thought, those impossibly positive portrayals gloried Joe Paterno beyond human boundaries. And she thinks that glorification led people to not treat him like a human being after the Freeh Report came out. There was no benefit of the doubt. There was no concession to his limitations. He became, in the eyes of a nation, all-knowing, all-powerful. This made it easy for people to tear him down cruelly and automatically.

“I never really got to mourn my father,” she says. “He was fired by Penn State, and he died two months later and not long after that the Freeh Report came out and the NCAA did what they did, and we have had to fight back for the truth about him. There was never time to mourn, no time to think about how much we miss him.

“I don’t know what can bring peace. I think about what all this did to my mother. I think about all those people who knew my father, knew what he was about, and still said these terrible things about him. I don’t know about peace.”

Mary Kay Hort looks down at the ground, and tears are in her eyes.

“But then,” she says, “I think about what my father always said. It’s not how hard you fall. It’s how quickly you get back up.”