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Paterno made them better men, ex-players say

| Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2012

As Mike Russo and his Penn State teammates boarded a bus to take them to a game in Iowa City against the University of Iowa in 1984, coach Joe Paterno handed each player a small keychain with miniature boxing gloves on it.

"He said we were going to need them because we were in for a hell of fight," said Russo, a native of the Bronx, New York City, who now resides in Lower Burrell.

The Nittany Lions upset the fifth-ranked Hawkeyes that day, and Russo held on to the boxing gloves keepsake for 27 years -- until recently, when he thought Paterno, who died Sunday at 85, needed them back.

Russo played for Paterno and Penn State from 1983 until 1986, starting at nose tackle for the 1986 national championship team.

Days after the Penn State board of trustees fired Paterno, and just one day before the legendary coach announced to the public he had been diagnosed with cancer, Russo visited his old coach.

"I was in Jay Paterno's office showing him this old picture of me, his dad, and my dad standing in Joe's backyard," he said. Jay Paterno was an assistant coach with Penn State until he, too, was let go this month. "I had on a pair of really short shorts, as was the style back then, and Joe had these really 'out there' plaid pants on. Jay said, 'You have to go show this to Dad -- he'd love it.' "

Russo, 41, knocked on the door of the famously modest ranch-style house that Paterno had lived in for more than 30 years. Once there, Russo was greeted by Sue Paterno, who after an introduction by Russo, quickly invited him in.

"I sat down at the table with Joe and showed him the picture," Russo said. "Sue made fun of his pants and we were all laughing."

Before the reunion with his coach was over, Russo pulled out the small, metal boxing gloves and handed them back to his coach.

"I said, 'I think you need these more than I do now, Joe,' " he recalled.

Russo said the fact that the Paternos were so quick to welcome him back into their home showed Paterno practiced what he preached.

"He was always trying to develop you as a human being and a man," he said. "His death is the end of an era and the end of a big chapter to a lot of people's lives."

Others honor Paterno

Russo's sentiments about Paterno were shared by many current and former Alle-Kiski Valley residents who played for the coach during his 61 years at Penn State.

"When he was recruiting me, he came to my parents' house and took off his shoes before he went in to talk to them," said Eric Ravotti, a 1989 graduate of Freeport Senior High School, who played linebacker for Paterno from 1989 until 1994. "He was all about respect. When he came to Freeport (High School) to talk to me, he asked my teacher permission to pull me out of class."

Ravotti, 40, who is now the head football coach at Fox Chapel Area High School, said he chose Penn State because of Paterno's values -- something he didn't see in every coach who he came in contact with.

"I was lucky enough to be recruited by a lot of schools," Ravotti said. "There are some schools I automatically disqualified because the coaches would put their feet on my mother's coffee table.

"Joe had more class and character than anyone else."

Bob White, a 1982 Freeport Area High School graduate and a defensive lineman for the 1986 team that won Paterno his second national championship, said that because Paterno carried through on what he taught, he now has people that will carry on his legacy.

"His legacy is the thousands of people out there whose lives he's touched," said White, who was an assistant on Paterno's staff and now works in Penn State football's front offices. "They're doctors, lawyers, fathers, and just great people.

"That's what an unselfish leader does: He gives people the talents to continue the message."

In a 1990 interview with the Valley News Dispatch, Paterno offered praise of his own to White and the Alle-Kiski Valley.

"I've found a lot of good kids down there, like Bobby," he said of the A-K Valley. "Bobby's genuine charm and enthusiasm just naturally lifted him to become the spirit of the 1986 national championship team."

Patrick Weber, a 2003 Valley High School graduate, remembers Paterno as someone who kept a large promise.

Weber, a one time walk-on long-snapper with the team, was promised a scholarship by Paterno.

"He said if I worked hard enough he would give me a scholarship," said Weber who now lives in Ross, where he teaches in the North Hills School District and coaches lacrosse and football. "I'll never forget get the day I was standing at my locker and they told me to go up and see coach.

"I went up there and he told me I was 'on scholarship.' I just ran out and called my parents, I was so happy."

For players Paterno's legacy untarnished

Tom Giotto, a 1972 Kiski Area High School graduate and defensive back at Penn State from 1972 until 1976, said that recent criticism of Paterno stemming from the Jerry Sandusky child sex scandal won't affect what the people who knew him best think of Paterno.

"His legacy isn't hurt with me or the people he meant the most to," said Giotto, 57, who now lives in Mt. Lebanon and works as a labor lawyer in Pittsburgh.

"Coach Paterno's influence was constant. Every day he was teaching you something. Whether it was how to play your position or how to succeed in life."

White said people critical of Paterno didn't know much about him.

"People who make comments or have opinions about what they think they know, have no idea," said White. "With the people who he meant the most to, nothing can change how the feel."

Giotto recalled a story that showed how committed Paterno was to his players, Penn State, and to loyalty.

"He had accepted the New England Patriots (coaching) job and was going to make something like a million dollars," Giotto said. "I just happened to be in the football building the Saturday after he accepted it and he came up to me and said: 'Tell your parents and your uncle that I'm going to stay here an fulfill the commitment I made to the school and to you and your family when I told you I'd watch you graduate.'

"He started to walk away but then he turned around and looked at me and said, 'You better graduate.' "

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