Commentary: The movie of Joe Paterno's life

The Myrtle Beach SunJanuary 27, 2012 

I frequently contemplate death. It’s a hazard of my chosen profession and the result of being part of a family that has seen death come in too many ways to ignore.

I don’t much think about heaven or hell, though. Those seem other-worldly and unimaginable.

We can only conceptualize just what an eternity is.

But I think about the life movie that those who have experienced near-death experiences said each of us will face.

According to that belief, we will be forced to look back upon the impact of each of our decisions. And we’ll have to experience it through the point-of-view of those we affected.

Spit in someone’s face?

One day you’ll know what that person felt as he was being spat upon.

Curse or belittle someone? Harm them physically? Cheat them out of money? One day, you’ll know how they felt when you were belittling or harming or cheating them.

Treat someone with kindness? Provide a soothing word when others only condemn?

Willingly take on discomfort to comfort a stranger?

One day, you’ll be showered with the feelings of gratitude that person felt.

By that measure, I imagine Joe Paterno, the iconic former Penn State University head football who recently died of lung cancer months into probably the worst period of his life, was able to prop his feet up, lean back and chomp on some popcorn as he watched the reel of his life.

He would have been drenched in the good that came from being the primary reason a school out in the middle of nowhere became one of the iconic institutions in the nation.

He would have taken a few sips of soda as the parts that showed how his message about hard work and moral fiber transformed wet-behind-the-ears boys into men who are now leading stable families and making names for themselves in countless industries.

How many kids who have the privilege of living with upstanding dads owe a debt to Paterno? During his life reel, he’d get to feel their joy, even if he never met them.

Paterno would have grabbed a handful of Goober’s as his life reel let him feel his wife’s gratitude for loving her the right way, feel his children’s admiration and his supporters’ undying devotion.

He probably would have asked for a replay from some of the most important plays during his half-century of football games. He probably would have begged to repeatedly see the national title game during which his team stifled Heisman Trophy winner Vinny Testerverde and shocked the juggernaut that was the University of Miami.

All the wonderful feelings experienced by tens of thousands, if not millions, of Penn State fans would have rushed through him as he watched his life being recounted.

He would have gotten to experience the wonder in the world he helped create, would have been inundated by the joy he facilitated.

Then he would have had to look back over the final few months of his life, a time during which his role in an ugly scandal came under intense scrutiny because a man who helped Paterno win that Miami game and was by his side as he coached countless young men had been charged with heinous crimes.

Paterno didn’t hurt any of the children who were allegedly molested. And he did speak briefly with his supervisors about activity he was made aware of.

Before he died, Paterno said he wished he had done more to protect the alleged victims.

During his life review, I don’t know what kind of feelings that would have generated.

But I know that the rest of us are still in the process of producing our own reels, and that makes what we do from here on out more important than what Paterno did or didn’t do during a moment of questionable judgment – a moment that shouldn’t overshadow all those that came before it.

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