Joe Paterno long identified with Virgil’s reluctant Trojan hero Aeneas, who eschewed individual glory on his way to founding Rome. Aeneas fulfilled his destiny in a way that the late Penn State coach admired. Aeneas, like Paterno, was a team player. In his new biography, Paterno, author Joe Posnanski paints a complicated picture of the consummate team player and his rise and fall as a coaching legend.
Posnanski cleverly organized Paterno’s story into five operatic acts, beginning with his success-driven upbringing in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, and concluding with the tragic repercussions of the 2011 Penn State sexual abuse scandal. By the end, and in a span of about three months, the winningest coach in college history had been consumed by scandal, cancer, and ultimately death.
Excellence and success meant different things to Joe Paterno. Examples of both are in plentiful supply in Posnanski’s book. There are anecdotes and testimonials but also contradictions. A former writer for Sports Illustrated, Posnanski visualized a different book when he was granted full access to Paterno last year. Then the Jerry Sandusky case erupted. A chapter entitled “Sandusky” explores the emotional armor of these powerful men. Apparently there was no love lost between the two. There are some interesting sidebars about Paterno’s impressions of the second most popular coach in Happy Valley.
Although the author’s tone is generally sympathetic, it is still a white-hot topic as to why Paterno, a lifelong rule follower who valued his young men, did not step up for those most vulnerable. "One of Paterno's great strengths, and perhaps one of his great flaws was his fierce loyalty and absolute trust in the people closest to him," according to Posnanski. That observation remains the crux in evaluating the aggregate of a remarkable 46-year career that reached the pinnacle of heights before plunging to the depths of misery.