Paterno biography explores much more than football
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 7, 2012 - When he started writing his newly published biography of Joe Paterno, Joe Posnanski had no idea that the man best known for his legendary football coaching career Penn State would soon be humiliated and fired in the wake of a child sex abuse scandal, then die of lung cancer.
But though the ending of the book – and to a certain degree, its focus – changed as the fast-moving story began to develop less than a year ago, Posnanski said the purpose of “Paterno” remained the same: to give readers, sports fans or not, an inside, honest look at the man whose name was synonymous with football in State College, Pa.
With a high degree of access to Paterno, his family and the trove of written material that traces his coaching career from 1966 until he was fired last November, Posnanski balanced what happened on the field to what happened in the life of the man who was responsible for it all.
And though he was hesitant to do so, he even inserts himself in the narrative at one point, trying to get across the sense of what Paterno felt and thought as the end of his life neared.
As he was writing, Posnanski told the Beacon, a friend emailed him and said he should read Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s book “The Ox-Bow Incident.” There, Posnanski said, he found words that he said helped guide him as the book progressed:
“We desire justice. And justice has never been obtained in haste and strong feeling.”
Explaining how that sentiment is so apropos in a situation where the truth is still emerging, he said:
“That quote stuck out for me, this idea that my mission was not to allow haste or strong feeling to prevent justice. I think that justice was what everybody wanted, and I think it is still what everybody wants, but when you are so angry and want it so quickly, it is difficult to step back and see what is real.”
Posnanski will appear at the headquarters branch of the St. Louis County Library, 1640 S. Lindbergh, on Monday, Sept. 10, from 7 to 9 p.m. to discuss “Paterno.” The event is free and open to the public.
A veteran sportswriter who has worked for The Kansas City Star and Sports Illustrated, Posnanski is now a senior writer and first hire for Sports on Earth, a new online venture of USA Today and Major League Baseball Advanced Media. He spoke with the Beacon from his home in Charlotte, N.C.
Beacon: What has been the reception for the book, given how the reputation of its subject has changed so drastically in the past year? Have you been surprised?
Posnanski: Obviously the reception has been interesting, to say the least. The book has sold very, very well. Many people have been reaching out to me about how much they liked it. There also have been very strong voices of people who are not really interested or ready to read a book about Joe Paterno right now, so fresh after the controversy.
If I’ve been surprised, I’ve been surprised at how open the reception has been. I came into this with my eyes wide open, and I have been through the wringer over the past nine months. I know how strongly people have felt about it, so to have as many people buy the book and read and to have heard from so many of them has made me pleasantly surprised.
Beacon: When the child sexual abuse scandal broke, and then Paterno died, since you were in the middle of writing, how did the whole project change?
Posnanski: That obviously had a great effect. First came the actual charges against Jerry Sandusky, then Paterno died in January. Obviously, when you’re writing a biography, that becomes a pivotal day. It changed things quite a lot.
I was in State College when it happened. I was spending the entire football season there, to try to get really close to what he was about, so I was in the middle of it when it happened. I had started writing the book, and it’s better to have started writing knowing that than to have started writing and having all of that going on around you. The timing for something that horrible is never good, but I was in a place where I thought I could still write.
Beacon: What was your relationship with Paterno before, so that you were given such complete access?
Posnanski: I had written a story about him for Sports Illustrated in 2008, and it went well. I really built a lot of relationships with the people around him, family and close friends. They really pushed to have this book written about him, because they thought that nothing had explained what he was really about. I thought it would be a good project. He didn’t want it, so I put it away, but then the people around kept pushing for it, so we really went with it.
It was never authorized in the sense that he had any editorial control at all. It was always my book. But he did give me tremendous, tremendous access, especially in the weeks after the Sandusky scandal hit. He and his family gave me his personal notes and his files, some letters that he wrote back from World War II, which I thought was very striking stuff. They really opened up, without every asking for anything in return. All they ever asked is that I write the truth.
At the end, he did not shut down, but certainly a lot of people around him did. People became leery of talking about Joe Paterno. A lot of people I had set up interviews with, before that all happened, canceled on me or postponed. Before the scandal struck, it was difficult to find anyone who would say a bad word about Joe Paterno. Afterward, it was hard to find anyone to say a good word about him. It was that striking, and that sharp.
Things changed, but what I really say to people is that in a way, nothing changed. I was always trying to write the most honest biography I could write of the man’s life. Obviously, the ending was much different from what anyone expected. But it’s still a case of trying to get as close to the truth as I possibly could.
Beacon: How did you try to balance writing a lot about football and Penn State’s record and about Paterno the man?
Posnanski: Any time you write about somebody, especially a sports person, someone you believe whose life is much bigger than sports, you really do have to weigh that. I talked quite a bit about that with David Maraniss, who wrote a book about Vince Lombardi. I wanted to highlight football moments, to make it fun for football fans, but I had to write more.
For me, I certainly had to write about the national championship seasons, and the seasons that stuck out for football reasons, plus other seasons that stuck out for the effects they had on him as a person. I don’t think this book is very football-centric or very football-heavy. It’s very much about who he was and what he was about. That certainly will be what people enjoy. I have heard from quite a few people who said they liked it, and that is something a writer always wants to hear.
Beacon: One of the book’s most touching scenes features you and Paterno, toward the end of his life, sitting in his house and his asking you what you thought of all that had happened. Talk about that moment.
Posnanski: One of the things I so much wanted to do in this book was stay out of it as much as I could. I knew I had to be in it some, but I wanted people to see the story and make up their own minds about things. That scene was one I was very leery about putting in the book, because it was very private and personal. But I thought if I didn’t put it in, people would ask if I ever stated directly what I thought.
He was very very sick. He was trying his best, but he was coughing a lot and was very very ill. It was at that moment, he asked point blank what I thought, and I said, you’re Joe Paterno, and because of that you should have done more. He didn’t say anything, but I really took away from that that that was how he thought.
He didn’t look at himself like he had done anything evil, that there was any cover-up or any effort to protect his name. He would have fought to the end to prove that wasn’t true. That said, when he realized just how awful the charges were against Jerry Sandusky, he had his regrets that he did not do more to stop him.
Beacon: Did Paterno have blind spots? In a way, was he victimized by his own image?
Posnanski: Whenever anything this horrible happens, you have to ask why didn’t people stop it. It’s a much larger question than necessarily has been portrayed. I don’t think anybody would say the single most important person to stop Sandusky should have been Joe Paterno, but he was the most famous person.
Did he have blind spots? I suspect he did. He was not friends with the people on his staff. He did not hang out with them or do much of anything with them except professionally. He was definitely, especially toward the end of his life, very very focused on coaching and didn’t really think about much else. It’s not an excuse. It’s not a defense. It’s sort of a reality and I think that’s a good part of the last 15 years of his life.
He obviously was a very different coach when he was young and fully of energy and full of life. He still had energy the last 10 years of his coaching career, but he was a legend, and that carries weight with a lot of people. There was a Penn State way they did things, from their uniforms to the way they got off the bus. I think players respected him. I think they admired him. That was a big part of what the scandal has hidden. His players have had to ask themselves whether he was worthy of the admiration they gave him. Even people who didn’t like him or didn’t think he always did the right thing admired him, and this obviously struck directly at that. That’s why this is such a compelling saga.
One of the themes of the book was that Joe Paterno was never really given human qualities. For years and years and years he was just treated as a sainted figure who did everything right. That was the national perspective, and that’s difficult. I don’t think anybody can live up to those measures. What inevitably happens, when you create a paper saint, somebody who is bigger and better than anyone else, it’s easy to tear that down. Now, many people have the worst possible image of Joe Paterno, and they can’t find the middle ground, the person between the saint and the devil. I don’t think it’s simple, and I don’t think it’s easily summed up. It took a whole book for me to say it.