Loss, death make for a season unlike any other

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“Obviously Joe Paterno is a worldwide icon and has done a tremendous amount for the university,” trustee Joel Myers said this week, explaining the board’s decision to fire the coach. “We have sorrow and all kinds of emotions, empathy, sympathy for what has occurred. That’s universal.

“But the university, this institution is greater than one person.”

Enraged students flooded State College streets in protest of Paterno’s firing, some throwing rocks and bottles and tipping over a TV news van. But tempers had calmed by Saturday, when Penn State hosted Nebraska in the Nittany Lions’ first game in 46 years without Paterno in charge.

Though tailgates parties went on as usual under sunny skies, a sense of surreal surrounded the stadium, as if fans weren’t quite sure how to react to Paterno’s absence and the events that caused it. Beaver Stadium was awash in blue _ the color associated with child-abuse prevention _ and public-service announcements flashed on the scoreboard throughout the game. Fans wore shirts and carried signs in support of Paterno, and several students came dressed as JoePa in rolled-up khakis, white socks and thick, dark glasses.

Finally, when Paterno’s image was shown in a video montage before the second-half kick-off, the student section let loose with chants of “Joe Paterno! Joe Paterno!”

The joy would be short-lived. The following Friday, Paterno’s son Scott announced that his father was being treated for lung cancer, diagnosed the previous weekend. The cancer was treatable, Scott Paterno said, and doctors were optimistic his father would make a full recovery.

But it was apparent Paterno’s decline was accelerating. A fall at his home Dec. 10 left him with a fractured pelvis, and he was hospitalized for a week to make it easier to receive his chemotherapy and radiation treatments while he recovered.

The cancer had clearly taken a toll. A picture of a frail Paterno showed him wearing a wig, his thick, dark hair gone. Washington Post columnist Sally Jenkins, who landed Paterno’s only interview after the firing, wrote that his gravelly voice was now a soft rasp, “like wind blowing across a field of winter stalks, rattling the husks.” The second part of the interview was done at his bedside; later that day, Jan. 13, he was re-admitted to the hospital, where he died nine days later.

“You know, I’m not as concerned about me,” Paterno told Jenkins. “What’s happened to me has been great. I got five great kids. Seventeen great grandchildren. I’ve had a wonderful experience here at Penn State. I don’t want to walk away from this thing bitter.”

Walking away at all was hard for Paterno to imagine. Football, along with family, was his life, and he saw what happened to his friend and rival, Paul “Bear” Bryant.

“Quit coaching?” Bryant once said. “I’d croak in a week.”

He died less than a month after he retired at Alabama.

Bobby Bowden, the longtime Florida State coach and a contemporary of both Paterno and Bryant, said it was more than coincidence.

“I thought the same thing about Coach Bryant,” Bowden told the Tallahassee Democrat on Sunday. “He stopped coaching and Coach Bryant died a month later. Here with Joe, he stops coaching and he dies a few weeks later.”

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