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What It Was Like to Be a Student at Penn State During the Paterno Years

I remember exactly where I was on November 5, 2011, when I first heard about the criminal sexual abuse charges brought against Jerry Sandusky, former assistant coach of the Penn State football team. It was my senior year at Penn State, and my friends and I were returning to school after a weekend in the wilderness outside State College, the sleepy central PA town that’s home to the school’s main campus and its revered football team. As we made our way back to civilization and cell phone reception, we began to see the news via texts. We didn’t think much of it at the time, although we knew it was serious business. But we could not have anticipated that in the weeks and months that followed, our lives as Penn Staters would be forever changed and colored by the Sandusky scandal.

This weekend marks the premiere of Paterno, HBO’s original movie based on the now-infamous events. The film stars Al Pacino as Joe Paterno, the legendary head coach of the Penn State football team, whose rapid professional downfall following the Sandusky revelations shook my alma mater to its core. Like hundreds of other students, faculty, school officials and local residents, I watched the events unfold as a captive onlooker — in disbelief and horror, yet unable to look away.

Seeing the HBO trailer, I am instantly transported back to certain key moments: Watching a televised press conference given by Joe Paterno outside his own home just a few streets away from campus, which we had all walked past a million times; recalling the night that many of my fellow students rioted on Main Street in defense of Paterno, overturning news vans, their rage swelling in the cold night air; reading internet comments charging that Penn Staters were lemmings, blindly worshipping and protecting the legend of Paterno and Penn State football over Sandusky’s victims. It’s all there in the trailer, and it’s all there in my memory.

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It’s odd, in a sense, that a movie trailer would have such an effect on me. I am not a victim of Sandusky’s, nor was I directly connected to any of his victims. I was never involved in the Penn State football organization (I’d never even been to a game, which was almost unheard of), and I didn’t know anyone even remotely connected with Sandusky or Paterno directly.

And yet…

HBO Paterno Football Practice Still
Image: Atsushi Nishijima/HBO

And yet there is something both intriguing and disconcerting about the contrast between the real-life events around the Sandusky scandal and the way it’s now being told in Paterno — primarily by (as far as I can tell) a cast and crew comprised of folks who cannot relate to the material in the same way those who were there as it was unfolding can.

Intriguing in that it gives a fresh perspective on these events from a safe distance nearly seven years later. Disconcerting because it’s difficult to watch a dramatized version of the events that defined my senior year of college and changed my perspective on the school I loved so profoundly now being retold for entertainment purposes. But it’s difficult to deny it all makes for a singularly compelling story.

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Here’s what we know: Paterno in real life was a bona fide Penn State icon. I’m a third-generation Penn Stater, so I’d grown up thinking of him as a monolithic figure — a man who prided himself on creating a strong football team full of players in whom he instilled first-rate values. Affectionately known as JoePa, he joined the Penn State football coaching staff as an assistant coach in 1950, bringing his signature Brooklyn toughness tempered with an unmistakable mid-century optimism and wholesomeness.

But it was his time as head coach, from 1965 until his dismissal in 2011 (just days after the Sandusky charges were brought to light) that made him a legend at Penn State. The pervasive sense within the school community that Paterno could do no wrong and always knew what was best for his team is something the film appears to get right. That respect for Paterno is part of the reason so many people reacted violently to his dismissal. There was a widespread refusal to believe he could have had any knowledge of what Sandusky had done.

HBO Paterno Press Conference at Home Still
Image: Atsushi Nishijima/HBO

Paterno appears to get some other things right too: for one thing, the overwhelming public anger and disgust many of us felt. Students, locals and the nation were gripped by a collective sense of grief that an institution like Penn State could have been affiliated with, let alone protected, a person as vile as Sandusky. There was a great deal of confusion, and that is captured in the Paterno trailer. Had anyone in a position of authority truly known what Sandusky had done and allowed it to happen? Was Paterno actually culpable — willfully ignorant and thus complicit — or was he just a scapegoat for a mortified university administration that desperately needed someone to blame?

The movie also seems to accurately depict how hard it was for many of us on campus at the time to know which side we were supposed to be on. Most of us were in our late teens and early 20s, still getting to know our bodies and forming our beliefs, developing the worldview that would carry us into adulthood. We wanted to protect and respect Sandusky’s victims, of course. But we also wanted to protect and respect Paterno, a man many of us had been raised to believe was infallible. We wanted to tell the world, “Hey, we’re not lemmings. We just love our school.”

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Looking back, when I think about that period, from the fall of 2011 to the winter of 2012, my strongest memory isn’t of where I was when I first heard the news. It isn’t watching students gather on Paterno’s lawn to show their support in the bleak autumnal chill of State College in November. And it isn’t even of watching in disbelief as a riot began to form just down the block from my apartment.

The thing I remember most is walking to the lawn outside the iconic Old Main building with my college roommates for the candlelight vigil that was held after Paterno died in January 2012, just two months after his firing. I remember crying for this man who died in the shadow of disgrace but whom I felt didn’t entirely deserve it. I remember feeling like this marked the beginning of a shift in my perspective — a lesson in the importance of maintaining a healthy skepticism of institutions and authority. I remember praying that history would remember these events truthfully and honestly and that it wouldn’t turn us Penn Staters into punch lines.

And while my feelings remain deeply conflicted and complicated, and likely always will, I’ll be tuning in to watch Paterno — let’s hope HBO gets it right.

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