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Starkey: Paterno's shadow looms at PSU opener

| Saturday, Sept. 1, 2012, 6:08 p.m.
Tribune-Review
Former Nittany Lion Franco Harris sits next to a cardboard cutout of Joe Paterno at Beaver Stadium in University Park, Pa on Saturday September 01, 2012. Penn State suffered a 24-14 loss to Ohio University under new head coach Bill O'Brien. Barry Reeger | Tribune-Review

UNIVERSITY PARK

Joe Paterno was everywhere. And nowhere.

Others may speak of missed calls, tipped passes, clipped postgame comments from new coach Bill O'Brien (“No” was a particular favorite) and a sloppy loss to “Ohio” minus the “State.”

But all of that, on a white-hot afternoon at Beaver Stadium, shriveled into the late Paterno's considerable shadow.

Take the woman on the grassy hill. Seated at the site of the since-removed Paterno statue, about two hours before kickoff, she held a sign that read, “JoePa is in heaven. He does not care what you think, haters (love always wins). We love JoePa.”

Me: “Aren't you hot out here?”

Her: “No, there are gentle angel breezes blowing.”

Angel breezes? I nearly ran for the hills surrounding Happy Valley. But I wondered, how long would she sit there?

“As long as I'm supposed to,” she said.

Fair enough. Clearly, this woman had answered for herself the question facing not only Paterno's most deluded worshippers (Hello, Franco) but also everyone else on hand, including administrators, coaches, players, relatively sane fans and media: What are we supposed to do with Paterno's legacy?

For many, it seemed, the answer fell into one of two extreme categories:

1. Expunge all evidence of his existence.

2. Glorify him as a saint.

To pretend Paterno never existed is silly. One could easily make the case that PSU stands for Paterno State University. He is the reason this place earned a good name, long before he helped to sully it. He is the reason nearly 100,000 people showed up again for a football game.

That is simply a matter of record.

Yet, as I leafed through the 134-page game program, I was astonished to see almost no mention of Paterno, save for his appearance in team photos. There was only a tiny individual shot of him, between O'Brien and predecessor Rip Engle, where it simply identified Paterno's tenure: 1966-2011.

Sorry, but erasing Paterno from the history books isn't going to make the horrors disappear.

That said, the horrors were unimaginable. If you believe Paterno turned a blind eye to child rape — and I believe he did — then you had to believe honoring him in any way, shape or form Saturday would have been well beyond inappropriate.

Credit, then, to the folks who crafted the “moment of reflection,” 10 minutes before kickoff.

The P.A. announcer spoke of the “extreme difficulty” and “profound sadness” that has enveloped State College over the past 10 months. He asked us to “especially consider” victims of child abuse and “those who have endured suffering and loss.”

He did not mention Paterno. Appropriately, there was no official acknowledgment of Paterno during the game.

The main unofficial acknowledgement emanated from a suite inhabited by Franco Harris — call it the Immaculate Delusion Suite — where a cardboard cutout of Paterno's visage was placed against a window. The words “Due Process for PSU, JVP” were written under it, the JVP standing for Joseph Vincent Paterno.

A few hours earlier, a walk down Curtin Road — which runs from the stadium into the heart of campus — revealed that Paterno was everywhere. And nowhere.

Among the T-shirts spotted:

• “We Are, Because He Was … ”

• “Not Just a Coach ... Philanthropist, Leader, Mentor, Legend.”

• “Coach Paterno, Only One Thing: Thank You.”

I wonder if Jerry Sandusky's victims would share that sentiment.

At the famous Berkey Creamery there was, perhaps, a semi-rational middle ground. The fact that an ice cream called “Peachy Paterno” remains available was a bit off-putting, as was the fact that it's the best-selling flavor. But at least the proceeds are going to charities that benefit child sex-abuse victims.

Back at the old Paterno statue site, somebody placed a JoePa bobblehead next to three small bouquets and a T-shirt that read, “Hey Media, We Know the Truth.” Cell-phone cameras clicked like crazy.

A man then planted a photo of the Paterno statue in one of the bouquets and said, “The statue's back up!”

After the game, somebody asked O'Brien an unfair question about what Paterno would have thought of all this.

“I have no idea,” O'Brien said, testily.

Joe Paterno was nowhere to be found.

Nowhere, and everywhere.

Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 “The Fan.” His columns appear Thursdays and Sundays. He can be reached at jraystarkey@gmail.com.

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