Joe Paterno and the Mystery of Idol Worship

Joe Paterno and the Mystery of Idol Worship

Bobby was a 47 year old recovering addict with a rough voice and ragged appearance.  The man was a descendant of bar fights, deals on the west side gone bad, and homeless evenings sleeping below the expressway.

Whenever Bobby spoke of his years 'out there', people leaned in close.  His message of pain resonated with many young recovering addicts and alcoholics.  These were people of 'The Program'; a step-by-step design of living to lead people into a life of sobriety.  Bobby knew what books the kids were reading.  Front and back.  He could quote passages.  He could speak about his pain, his work, and his newfound light.  The light was Jesus.  God and The Program had overtaken him.

Bobby helped people find jobs.  He picked up people that needed rides to and from work.  He would show up at people's houses who wanted to sober up and empty their remaining bottles or flush down their drugs.

As the years went by, Bobby was in high demand.   Bobby began as a humble man beaten down by drugs and alcohol...but his resurgence transformed him into a Baptist-like preacher.  He was 6'5" and built like a brick shithouse; commanding a presence not normally seen in the rooms of recovery.  He spoke passionately with unrivaled fire.  Bobby seemed at home on the big stage.

Bobby would take on several 'sponsees'.  These were young people in recovery who needed somebody to show them around 'The Program'; teaching them their new life 'steps' and how to live clean.

During his speeches, you could see people turning into children.  Their faces if in awe of an idol.

In only a few short years, Bobby had become Christ-like.  He was a rock star of sobriety.  He used to say that 'nothing in your life can be bigger than The Program'.  Oddly enough, it was Bobby that was now bigger than the program.


It was known as Pennsylvania State University.  The football team, clad in simple navy blue and white, was known as the Nittany Lions.

They had this football team.

They were known for running the ball...their tailbacks were collegiate royalty: Harris, Cappelletti, Warner, Moore, Carter, Johnson.  On defense, they stopped the run...their linebackers dominated so fiercely, the team became known as Linebacker U.  The names: Jack Ham, Shane Conlan, Matt Millen, LaVar Arrington, etc.

The Lions competed From 1939 to 1987 they had 49 consecutive non-losing seasons.  In the midst of this run, in 1966, PSU hired Joe Paterno.

The school would soon be known throughout the country as simply 'Penn State'.

This Paterno was a humble man.  A child of Italian immigrants, Paterno had a funny Brooklyn accent and a 'good-golly-gee' humor that resonated with rural farmers and steel working grinders.  He earned everything he got.  That was the Pennsylvania way.

Paterno ran his program clean.  By 'clean', we mean neat.  The game day pants were always bright white.  The home jerseys were a full navy blue.  The team arrived to each home game in plain blue buses.  The players would walk in order from the bus to the game.

Paterno's order off the field was exact.  Paterno's order on the field was precise.

When the game started, the running game was always the priority.  However, routs would still be run to a 'T'.  The defense held their gaps.  Their technique in the defensive backfield was impeccable.

The man responsible for the order was Paterno.  'JoePa' kept it all clean.  One the field, he demanded his team respect others.  In the classroom, he demanded excellence.

After two national championships and countless bowl victories, JoePa's success and respect made him the most popular person on PSU's campus.

He was now bigger than the university.  Some would argue that he was Penn State.


Gary was a 32 year old mechanic living in Wauconda.  He joined 'The Program' only three weeks prior to meeting 'Bobby'.  He was wandering in the parking lot of a church after one of The Program's meetings when Bobby approached him.

"He told me, 'Son, pacing around this parking lot won't keep you sober.'  He sat down with me and talked to me about where I was...he told me my story and he'd never met me.  I lost my license a couple weeks he drove me back to my house...he actually bought me food on the way.  He told me to call him every day.  He answers the phone every time.  He's the guy I want to be.  His kindness is staggering."


Paterno implemented something called 'Success with Honor'.  It was an appeal for football players to put the classroom above all else.  The request worked, making Penn State one of the best football programs in the country when it comes to academics.

He kept it hard-working and simple.  And that's pretty much all anybody needs in rural western Pennsylvania.  Paterno's Penn State gave area residents something they could rally around: simplicity and honor.

They packed Beaver Stadium to watch the old man in glasses lead his team onto the field.  They had reason for their worship: 409 career victories, 24 bowl victories, and two national championships.  The players graduated.  The team played with respect.

It was Paterno State.


Bobby's sponsees were growing in droves.  Everybody that heard Bobby speak wanted a piece of him in their lives.  Unfortunately for Bobby, his weakness was that he couldn't turn them down.  He wouldn't be living up to his message of 'to be willing to go to any length.'  Plus, (and he would never admit this) he enjoyed the attention.

Bobby had given Gary an assignment before their meeting on a Friday night.  Gary was to make a list of people, places, and things that he felt 'wronged him' in his life.  It would be a cleansing of sorts for Gary...another phase of his redevelopment.

But Bobby didn't show.  Bobby couldn't show.

Bobby wouldn't be located for weeks.


We're all searching for something.  We love institutions and individuals that provide stability and comfort in a lifetime of uncertainty.

Joe Paterno provided a sense of order and security.  In exchange for football victories and discipline, he was granted eternal life.

His eternal life came in the form of buildings being named after the successful coach.  Naming monuments to individuals, especially living, is a rush by humanity to solidify that person's meaning.  It's as if we're saying, 'People need to know...If we keep the name alive, the message will stay alive.'

Paterno's simplicity became honored, then glorified...and eventually worshipped.

So, when the news came've never seen buildings shake...


Gary is convinced.  The Program doesn't work.

His sponsor, Bobby, was found dead from an overdose.  His hero, the first person in his life that made him believe that sobriety was attainable, was found with a needle in his arm on the outskirts of Waukegan.

Everything that Gary learned ceased to matter.  The all-powerful Bobby was just another dead addict and alcoholic.  So, what did that make Gary?  If the man who knew it all couldn't make it, then how could he?

"He let us down!" cried Gary.  "He let his whole group down!"

Gary wouldn't waste time angry.  He'd be drinking in just a couple of hours.  Somebody needed to pay for The Program's failure...and it might as well be Gary.


Paterno State was an institution.  Pennsylvania State was the university.

So, when news broke of the horrific abuses by former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky, it was a swift kick to the pride of the university...but it was a crippling blow to Paterno State.

Paterno State consists of fans, players, coaches, and administrators institutionalized into a way of living that does not permit curiosity...only conformity...and anything that threatens the tranquility, must be squashed immediately.

This football version of Camelot kept life simple.

After the news, simple was no more.  With the institution being threatened, the outsiders must pay for their crimes!

The fans tried...and it backfired.  The opposite happened.  JoePa would be fired and people were being subpoenaed.

'Then we'll riot!' they screamed.  And it backfired, too.

The house was burning.  Joe's holy water was no longer there to extinguish the flames.


Two weeks after his relapse, Gary found his way back into a familiar coffeehouse for a conversation.

"I wonder how the hell I let one guy define me.  His word was the end-all-be-all.  I wonder how the hell I let one guy define what The Program for recovery meant."

This time, Gary has been clean for four days.  He walks himself to work, pays for his own food, and listens to everybody in The Program.  His new goal: not to unnecessarily heighten somebody's importance.

"I'm human.  He's human.  People have faults...weaknesses...I just need to be open and talk....just gotta talk."  Gary's voice trailed off.

We spoke about Bobby for a couple minutes and I relayed an interesting piece of information about his burial.  I informed him that Bobby's famous saying 'nothing in your life can be bigger than The Program' didn't make it on to his tombstone somehow.  We laughed at the cruelty...we did so with the knowledge that we could be next.


People are reeling.  Everything that they've known is in flux.  It's all in disarray.

'They did this!  They're responsible for this!"  Declarations are made via social networks...the people responsible will pay for destroying this fine institution!

When the Freeh Report is released, some people defect.  The chinks in the armor are now visible.

This God, this idol, this leader of men...he was fallible.  Fallible.

The networks show an interview of the NCAA President.  He talks of the death penalty.  More people are leaving.

If you turn around quickly enough to see who's left, you notice something eerie...the people are scarce.  The institution of Paterno State is no longer is dead.

Word on the street is that only one institution remains. It is called The Pennsylvania State University.  Paterno State, now without accreditation, sits dejected in a corner.

The worshippers stand around.  They ask if a funeral should be held in honor.  They agree.

A few sad fanatics gather around to say their good-byes.

The instituion no longer walks.  It only wails...and hopefully loud enough for everybody to hear.  'Nothing can be bigger than the program,' they say....and they're right.

Only they're years too late.

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