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Joe Paterno’s tearful talk saddens players
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Joe Paterno was in tears, his players in shock.
"All the clips you've ever seen of him, you never saw him break down and cry," quarterback Paul Jones said. "And he was crying the whole time today."
Struggling to keep his emotions in check and old school as always in a sweater and tie, Paterno stood in front of his players and coaches Wednesday and said the words many already knew were coming but never thought they'd actually hear. After almost a half-century of head coaching at Penn State, and more victories than any other Division I coach, he was resigning at the end of the season.
Paterno told his players it was the best decision following the child sex-abuse scandal involving former defensive coordinator and one-time heir apparent Jerry Sandusky. In just a few days, the tawdry allegations have managed to sully the pristine reputation that Paterno built with such care all these years.
When he finished talking, his last group of players rose and applauded.
"Obviously, it was pretty emotional," safety Nick Sukay said. "He's spent his whole life here and dedicated everything to Penn State. You could really feel that."
Criticism of Paterno has grown all week, and his support among the Penn State trustees was "eroding" ahead of a board meeting Friday. On Wednesday morning, as players were waking up or heading off to class, they got phone calls and text messages telling them to report to the Lasch Football Building as quickly as possible for a team meeting.
While players were making their way to the glass and cream-colored brick building on the northeast side of campus, Paterno arrived at the football offices in a white Mercedes-Benz SUV driven by his daughter, Mary Kay.
"I had a feeling," said junior fullback Michael Zordich, whose father was an All-America safety at Penn State. "I'd heard some things."
As a statement from Paterno announcing his resignation was being released, the 84-year-old coach delivered the news to his team personally. He spoke for about 10 minutes while his players and staff listened in silence.
As Paterno broke down, so did some of his players.
"I've never seen players get that way. I've never seen coaches get that way," junior cornerback Stephon Morris said. "I've never seen coach get that down before."
Added senior offensive tackle Chima Okoli, "It wasn't anything that felt good for anybody at all."
Paterno asked his players to stay focused and beat No.19 Nebraska on Saturday, the final home game of the season.
But the coach who has preached "Success with Honor," demanding academic excellence and good behavior from his players, also asked them to continue being "great young men," sophomore tailback Silas Redd said.
"Continue to have good character," Redd said Paterno told them. "That's the thing he's been teaching us the whole time."
While other powerhouse programs have been embarrassed by NCAA violations in recent years, Penn State had avoided any major troubles - until now.
"For coach Paterno, the greatest coach of any sport really, to go out like this is unfair," Okoli said. "He's meant so much more to the university [than football]. He's had such a legacy, and this isn't a fitting end."
Paterno finished by reminding his players they would always share a bond, would always be a family, and they responded by giving him a standing ovation. The coach then left with his daughter, looking somber and sad as he got back into the SUV. He declined to say anything more. He waved and they drove off.
His players stayed for a few more minutes to talk with their position coaches. Several stopped to talk to reporters. Others walked away with their heads down, some wearing head phones to drown out questions.
"We're all still feeling the effects of it," Sukay said. "We're pretty shocked, pretty sad."
At Paterno's house, just a few blocks off campus, it was largely quiet aside from a few deliveries: flowers, what looked like a fruit basket. One student stopped to leave a letter in Paterno's mailbox.
"He gave his life to the university for 50 years," Okoli said. "You'll never see that again in college football."
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