Remembering Joe Pa
With a lull in the stormy weather ahead, I am using early this week to share my memories of Joe Paterno, Penn State’s beloved football coach who died on Sunday.
Growing up in Philly, there were plenty of sports teams to follow. The 76ers, Iggles (Philly-ease for Eagles), Phillies and of course my beloved Flyers. Seasons overlapped and at times it seemed I was driving my mom crazy between playing sports and following our local teams. “No TV until homework was done”… was the best way to get me to study, mom soon found out.
But one team caught my interest at a very young age. The Penn State Nittany Lion football team managed to steal many a headline from the Philly teams while I was growing on general principles; namely, the Lions always seemed to win while the pro teams didn’t. Sure there were Wilt Chamberlain and Hal Greer (MU great) on the Sixers and Chris Short and Jim Bunning (of Kentucky Congressional fame) on the Phils, but winning was just not synonymous with the Quaker City back in the late 60s and early 70s.
However when Saturday afternoons in the fall came around, a team of blue shirted-white helmeted good guys from Centre County PA went on a long winning streak over 3 years. They beat the likes of Texas and Baylor, Maryland and yes WVU! 10-20-30 wins in a row. They played on New Years Day every year and were led by a feisty Italian coach named Joe Paterno. Growing up in the Italian market section of town, my family naturally took a liking to Paterno and his Nits.
The first game I remember was played on New Years night at the 1969 Orange Bowl against Kansas. Penn State was led by QB Chuck Burkhart with Charlie Pittman and Bob Campbell at RB. Ted Kwalick was their tight end and a future Cincinnati Bengal and concert pianist Mike Reid was an ALL-AMERICAN lineman. Penn State scored with a few seconds left then managed to win on a two point conversion despite the Jayhawks using not the allowed 11 players on defense, not even 12, but 13 players. I was 12 years old and hooked.
As the 1970s unfolded, I would follow Paterno and the Lions every Saturday in the fall. By 1978, I was deciding which meteorology school to attend for my grad studies. The two top schools in the land had offered me assistant- ships, Wisconsin and Penn State! But which would I say yes to?
That September, a bunch of my friends and me jump in a few cars and drove to Penn State for the Maryland game. Both teams were undefeated and ranked in the Top 5. Two of us (Munchie DiRugeris and I ) went to the game, while the rest hunkered down at the Skull House frat. As the Blue Band came on the field, there was the man, Joe Paterno, leading his team onto the field to the roar of 80,000 fans. I was hooked on Penn State and committed the next week.
My 2 years at Penn State were good ones as I earned my Masters in Meteorology and lived in a community that was wild on its football team. Coach Paterno had earned the reputation of winning and winning fairly. Academics were always important with Joe Pa and his record of players earning a degree the envy of most coaches. So you see the Penn State football player was a true scholar-athlete! Novel concept, I know.
At my first pep rally, I was amazed at the rah-rah atmosphere of a college football game. Then I heard it for the first time. We were playing Texas A & M the next day and at the conclusion of the rally, Paterno with his steely eyes, looked out to the masses and proclaimed with clenched fist, “WE ARE, PENN STATE”!
Paterno’s philanthropy is well documented and his love for the university unmatched. I only read about those deeds. But thirty years from now, when I am near the end of my life, I will bet I will look back and say, Joe Paterno and Penn State provided me with some of the fondest memories I had on earth.
WE ARE INDEED PENN STATE, thanks to Jo Pa.