An Elegy for JoePa
Kahlil Williams is a 2001 Penn State graduate. He has previously posted on the practice of striking lawyers from venire pools during jury selection and on the public reaction to the executions of Troy Davis and Lawrence Brewer.
I vividly remember the day I decided to attend Penn State. I’d been eight for less than a month when the Nittany Lions played Miami for the national title in 1987, a game that has been described alternatively as the “Game of the Century,” and “The Night College Football Went to Hell.” As much as the drama of the game, the experience stood out because my mother (Class of ’73) considered it totally acceptable to jump on the couch and pound on the coffee table—maybe hell had frozen over?–in order to force Vinny Testaverde to throw a pick. Sure enough, we forced five, and Penn State won 14-10, giving us our second championship in four years. I would have signed my admission letter that evening, but my penmanship needed work, and, thus, I waited a full decade to enroll.
In 1987, Joe Paterno had been the head coach at PSU for 20 years, and some thought that game might be his last. With that presumption, Penn Staters have been forced to contemplate what things would be like without JoePa. And despite the fact that we’ve been bracing ourselves for the inevitable for more than a generation, today, it’s still utterly unthinkable: Joe is gone. We’ve lost our coach, our leader, our mentor. We’ve lost family.
It didn’t fully hit me until I read his obituary on Sunday morning. Like many people, I wept when I read it. I felt actual surprise that, when it listed his survivors, I wasn’t mentioned. I couldn’t understand why it didn’t say, “Mr. Paterno is survived by 147,000 grandchildren, 450,000 great-grandchildren, and a host of nieces and nephews.” I certainly felt like I was in there somewhere.
The relationship between Penn Staters and Paterno is intensely familial. He was a wonderful and stubborn constant in our lives, a tie that bound generations of alumni to one another, uncle, father and niece, or, in my case, mother and son and daughter. Because he was a family member, we loved him very deeply, and we looked to him as a source of wisdom. We reveled in his accomplishments, and he in ours. And, as families are wont to do, we shielded him from criticism and blame that was warranted and ignored shortcomings that were obvious to outsiders, because to acknowledge those flaws might say something about the rest of the flock.”
Over the past three months, Penn Staters have shown the world all of the emotions that test families daily—compassion, anger, irrationality, defensiveness, strength, and, now, deep sorrow for the loss of a patriarch. Having been a member of this family since age 8, if not birth, I know that it’s okay to love someone for who they are without having to feel guilty or crazy, even if they let you down. Most importantly, I know what it’s like to believe, without an ounce of reservation, that my family is the best one that has ever existed. And I, like every Penn Stater, owe Joe a lot for that.
So, though I only met Coach Paterno twice, for a total of maybe forty seconds, I walked into my white-shoe law firm on Monday with a blue tie and brown slacks rolled up over black shoes to pay my respects. I’ll miss you, fam.