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STATE COLLEGE, PA. (AP) - Happy Valley was perfect for Joe Paterno, a place where “JoePa” knew best, where he not only won more football games than any other major college coach, but won them the right way: with integrity and sportsmanship. A place where character came first, championships second.
Behind it all, however, was an ugly secret that ran counter to everything the revered coach stood for.
Paterno, a sainted figure at Penn State for almost half a century but scarred forever by the child sex abuse scandal that led to his stunning dismissal, died Sunday at age 85.
His death came just 65 days after his son Scott said his father had been diagnosed with a treatable form of lung cancer. The cancer was found during a follow-up visit for a bronchial illness. A few weeks later, Paterno broke his pelvis after a fall but did not need surgery.
Mount Nittany Medical Center said in a statement that Paterno died at 9:25 a.m. of “metastatic small cell carcinoma of the lung.” Metastatic indicates an illness that has spread from one part of the body to an unrelated area.
The hospital says Paterno was surrounded by family members, who have requested privacy.
Paterno had been in the hospital since Jan. 13 for observation after what his family called minor complications from his cancer treatments. Not long before that, he conducted his only interview since losing his job, with The Washington Post. Paterno was described as frail then, speaking mostly in a whisper and wearing a wig. The second half of the two-day interview was conducted at his bedside.
His family released a statement Sunday morning to announce his death: “His loss leaves a void in our lives that will never be filled.”
“He died as he lived,” the statement said. “He fought hard until the end, stayed positive, thought only of others and constantly reminded everyone of how blessed his life had been. His ambitions were far reaching, but he never believed he had to leave this Happy Valley to achieve them. He was a man devoted to his family, his university, his players and his community.”
Paterno’s death just under three months following his last victory called to mind another coaching great, Alabama’s Paul “Bear” Bryant, who died less than a month after retiring.
“Quit coaching?” Bryant said late in his career. “I’d croak in a week.”
Paterno alluded to the remark made by his friend and rival, saying in 2003: “There isn’t anything in my life anymore except my family and my football. I think about it all the time.”
Two police officers were stationed to block traffic on the street where Paterno’s modest ranch home stands next to a local park. The officers said the family had asked there be no public gathering outside the house, still decorated with a Christmas wreath, so Paterno’s relatives could grieve privately. And, indeed, the street was quiet on a cold winter day.
Paterno’s sons, Scott and Jay, arrived separately at the house late Sunday morning. Jay Paterno, who served as his father’s quarterbacks coach, was crying.
Paterno built a program based on the credo of “Success with Honor,” and he found both. The man known as “JoePa” won 409 games and took the Nittany Lions to 37 bowl games and two national championships. More than 250 of the players he coached went on to the NFL.
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