Joe Paterno, the former Penn State football coach, died today at the age of 85. His life was full of impressive accomplishments, including two national championships, five victories in major bowl games, and the record for most victories for a major-college coach. Unfortunately, he may be most remembered for a child sex scandal for which he was fired in November of 2011.
But there is a greater lesson to be learned by this man's life and from any hero who falls. The lesson is this: You cannot delegate influence. You cannot defer your story to another. It is yours and yours alone.
His life as an epic
Paterno graduated from Brown University with a degree in English literature. This education undoubtedly influenced how he approached his career and lived his life.
The college coach was especially fond of Virgil's epic The Aeneid and often referenced it in speeches and interviews. "It's probably had as much influence on me as anything in my life," he told GQ in 2007. "I could relate to Aeneas so much in the sense that you were fated to do something."
Like the recently-deceased Steve Jobs, Paterno brought his love for the humanities into his work. He saw football as more than a technical field, more than mere competition. Primarily, he saw his role as more of an educator than a coach. His classical understanding of heroism and courage influenced his daily hustle and grind, but he also had an almost mythical understanding of his accomplishments. He wrote in his 1989 autobiography:
"Aeneas cannot choose not to found Rome; he's destined to create it. But he has to wrestle with himself, inch by inch, hour by hour -- play by play! -- to figure out how to endure the struggle and torment of doing it, and take all the bad breaks along the way."
Paterno's journey is similar to that of any hero -- full of challenge, hardship, and victory. But ultimately, his is a story that ends in tragedy -- more Shakespearean than classical. Unlike Aeneas, he does not finish as champion over his foe, but instead makes one terrible mistake and pays the price for it.
The scandal that killed him
"I didn't know exactly how to handle it and I was afraid to do something that might jeopardize what the university procedure was," Paterno said in an interview with the Washington Post in January 2012, referring to the Jerry Sandusky sex scandal.
"So I backed away and turned it over to some other people, people I thought would have a little more expertise than I did. It didn't work out that way."
Whether Paterno was deferring to institutional processes or just plain afraid, we may never know. What's certain is this: Every person is responsible for their own actions. And when things take a turn for the worse, it is you who will be held accountable, you who will pay the price, and you who will be remembered for it.
The end of a journey
Every hero returns home -- some to fanfare and others to ruin. Some of this we can control, and much of it we cannot. As Paterno noted, there is a fate involved in the life of anyone who endeavors to leave an impact on this world. It's ironic that his journey took place entirely at home and ends as he leaves. Only days after losing his job, he was diagnosed with lung cancer, the disease that killed him months later.
Earlier today, his family expressed their grief in a public statement:
"His loss leaves a void in our lives that will never be filled... He died as he lived. He fought hard until the end, stayed positive, thought only of others and constantly reminded everyone of how blessed his life had been. His ambitions were far reaching, but he never believed he had to leave this Happy Valley to achieve them. He was a man devoted to his family, his university, his players and his community."
Although it seems cruel to rush to what we can learn from the loss of life, this may be part of the legacy our heroes leave us. Their lives -- both the victories and the failures -- can teach us how to make our own stories matter. The mistake this hero made can only be described as tragic. But it can also be instructive.
May we honor Joe Paterno's memory by grieving his loss and appreciating the mistakes he made -- and how precarious influence can be. This is important, necessary even, to leaving our own legacies. Yes, it may be crass, but perhaps he would prefer it that way.
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