STATE COLLEGE, PA. (AP) - A capacity crowd of 12,000 filed into Penn State’s basketball arena Thursday for the school’s final tribute to Joe Paterno.
Among those finding their seats as video boards flashed a smiling image of the coach _ Paterno’s last team and new Ohio State coach Urban Meyer.
Paterno’s death on Sunday from lung cancer at age 85 came less than three months after his stunning ouster as head coach in the wake of child sex-abuse charges against a retired assistant. But this week, thousands of alumni, fans, students and former players in Happy Valley are remembering Paterno for his record-setting career, his love for the school and his generosity.
Small clusters of mourners continued to visit Paterno’s statue outside the school’s football stadium hours before the memorial.
Sharon Winter, a 1963 graduate and long-time season ticket holder from Wernersville, dabbed tears from her eyes as she looked at the hundreds of items that well-wishers since Paterno’s death.
“If you haven’t lived it, you can’t explain it,” said Winter, who, with her husband Carl, keeps an apartment in State College. “We never knew the place without Joe. He’s always been a part of our lives and who we are.”
Many Penn Staters found themselves reflecting on Paterno’s impact and the road ahead.
“What’s Joe’s legacy? The answer, is his legacy is us,” former NFL and Nittany Lions receiver Jimmy Cefalo said Wednesday before Paterno’s funeral. Cefalo is scheduled to be one of the speakers at the tribute called “A Memorial for Joe” at the arena across the street from Beaver Stadium _ the place Paterno helped turned into a college football landmark.
Paterno’s son, former Nittany Lions quarterback coach Jay Paterno, also is expected to speak at the memorial, which will cap three days of public mourning for Paterno. Viewings were held Tuesday and Wednesday morning, before the funeral and burial service for Paterno on Wednesday afternoon at the campus interfaith center where family members attended church services.
Cefalo, who played for Penn State in the `70s, said it will be the most difficult speech of his life. But he offered a hint of what he might say.
“Generations of these young people from coal mines and steel towns who he gave a foundation to,” Cefalo said. “It’s not (the Division I record) 409 wins, it’s not two national championships, and it’s not five-time coach of the year (awards). It’s us.”
The memorial Thursday is expected to feature a speaker for each decade of Paterno’s coaching career, according to Charles V. Pittman, a former player who said he will represent the 1960s.
Pittman said he was in Paterno’s first class and was the coach’s first All-America running back. Pittman’s son later played for the Nittany Lions as well, making them the first father-son pair to play for Paterno, Pittman said. They wrote a book about their experiences called “Playing for Paterno.”
Pittman said he spoke with Paterno two or three times a year. In 2002, the coach chided Pittman for moving to South Bend, Ind. _ home of rival Notre Dame _ to take a job as a newspaper executive.
“He called me a traitor,” said Pittman, senior vice president for publishing at Schurz Communications Inc., an Indiana-based company that owns television and radio stations and newspapers, and a member of the Board of Directors of The Associated Press.