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Starkey: Paterno's toughest call

| Sunday, Aug. 15, 2010

Myron Cope had lost his fastball. He just needed someone to say so.

That can be an issue with fading sports legends: Nobody wants to tell them it's time, and even then, there is no guarantee they'll listen.

Not that they should be required to.

For while it would be easier on the rest of us if our sporting gods adhered to their expiration dates, the greatest of the great have earned the right to hang on for as long as they please, no matter how messy their final acts play out.

And they do get messy. You know as much if you saw the once-graceful Willie Mays wobbling the base paths for the New York Mets. Or the once-gifted Jerry Rice running futile routes for the Seattle Seahawks.

Or the once-godly Mario Lemieux flubbing a shootout attempt in his final days with the Penguins.

The storyline repeats itself among athletes, coaches and even iconic broadcasters such as the late, great Cope, who was more popular than most of the players -- maybe all the players -- from the Steelers' dynasty of the 1970's.

But this was 2004, and whispers of Cope's decline made their way to former Steelers' public-relations director and long-time Cope confidant Joe Gordon. Though he hadn't listened to a radio broadcast in years, Gordon tuned in to form an opinion. Within minutes, he realized the sad truth. His friend had slipped badly and was at risk of embarrassing himself, if he hadn't already. Gordon listened to the next week's game, just to make sure, then arranged a one-on-one meeting at Cope's home.

Gordon had seen other Steeler greats bow out gracefully and was hoping Cope would do the same. On the morning of Dec. 20, 1981, Gordon was sitting in his hotel room when Mean Joe Greene stopped by and quietly informed him that he would be playing his final game that day, against the Houston Oilers.

Gordon also remembered the way coach Chuck Noll stepped down in 1991, when team owner Dan Rooney emerged from a routine end-of-season meeting looking stunned.

"Chuck's retiring," Rooney told Gordon, who immediately went to Noll's office.

"I said, 'Dan says you're retiring,' and Chuck said, 'Yup,' " Gordon, 74, recalled Saturday. "I said, 'We better call a press conference.'

"He said, 'That's good.' We did it early that afternoon."

This time, with Cope, Gordon was going to be the adviser.

"I remember it vividly," Gordon said. "I said, 'Myron, I've been listening to the broadcasts, and I think it's time.' He immediately said, 'That's it.' It was no more than 10 seconds."

Myron being Myron, he called Gordon the next day and jokingly said, "I thought you didn't listen to the games." But in trusting Gordon, he was able to execute the kind of clean, quick and timely goodbye that eludes so many sporting luminaries.

Which brings us to 83-year-old Penn State football coach Joe Paterno.

If you saw Paterno's recent media addresses, in advance of training camp, you had to come away wondering if his health will allow him to make it through the season incident-free.

Like a lot of 83-year-olds, Paterno seemed frail and forgetful. One veteran scribe says Paterno appears to have aged more in the past year than in any three- or four-year span in recent memory.

Let's be honest: Paterno is not capable of running a major college football program at this point in his life. His assistants have been doing the heavy lifting, leading the Nittany Lions to a 51-13 record over the past five years.

Paterno has not entered a recruit's home in two years. He has "coached" some games from the press box in recent years, due to health issues. He has worked from home during spring drills and traversed the practice field in a golf cart.

He also has sustained two injuries on the field -- a broken leg during a 2006 game against Wisconsin, when a player smashed into him, and an injured hip in 2008, when he attempted an onside kick in practice.

Would you say Paterno does 60 percent of what the Urban Meyers and Nick Sabans and Jim Tressels of the world are doing to maintain their programs• Fifty• Much less than that?

Many long-time Penn State observers will tell you the only person who could convince Paterno to quit is his wife, Sue. School president Graham Spanier already tried, in 2004, and was rebuffed

But guess what• As a bona fide legend, one whose impact has been felt way beyond the football field, Paterno has earned the right to call his final shot.

No matter how messy the final acts play out.

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