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Sunday, January 22, 2012

Joe Paterno, judgment and grace

What are you supposed to think about a football coach who steered hundreds of young men, by their own testimonies, to a better life … and whose career abruptly ended following allegations of failing to protect young boys from a sexual predator?
My wife Amy (left) can't remember the joke, but Joe found it funny
I worked for Coach Joe Paterno as an academic athletic counselor while pursuing a master's degree at Penn State, where I had also attended as an undergraduate. I remember him asking me if the players I was responsible for were keeping in line, and I had told him I hoped so.
"You hope so?" he pressed. "You better make sure they are." That comment impressed on me the no-nonsense drive for excellence that Coach Paterno instilled in his teams.
I also remember--confession time--walking into his office as a young undergrad who had on the spur of the moment arranged for a player to hand off to me after practice one of the practice footballs I had coveted. As a new follower of Christ, I had to learn the hard way that you can't steal stuff.
So I walked into Coach Paterno's office one day, ball in hand, and said, "I stole this ball and got convicted about it. I came to ask forgiveness and to give it back."
"That's good to hear," the coach responded. "Here, let me see it," he said, and I handed him the ball. "Here--keep it," and he flipped it back to me.
Judgment suspended, grace extended. Lesson learned.
Sandusky with Hostetler family (PSU players Doug, Jeff and Ron in back)
I also remember Coach Jerry Sandusky, now accused of horrific and systematic sexual abuses of young boys. My roommate Ron Hostetler, played as a linebacker under Sandusky's tutelage and also captained the team. Sandusky seemed to everyone like a good guy, and the foundation he later started seemed an extension of his desire to help others. Both he and Paterno graciously let our small athletes' fellowship group meet weekly in the coaches' office, where guys like future NFL linebacker and now ESPN commentator Matt Millen learned to put first things first.
I had also, as a result of my roommate's harebrained idea that I should take up football for the first time as a field goal kicker for the nationally ranked Nittany Lions, agreed to try out for the team, by then in mid-season. I had never played football and had only fooled around kicking field goals off a tee. Nevertheless, under Coach Fran Ganter's watchful eye, I gamely booted a few extra point tries (wide right--my career ended before it ever began) with the help of a holder, Tom Bradley. Tom thankfully fared much better than I in football, and this past year, he took the reins of the team as head coach after Paterno's firing.
Despite these personal contacts with Paterno and the team, I never swallowed the myth either about the coach himself or the program he had created. He was just a man, flawed like the rest of us, and I knew enough about the players to know they were not saints, either. Friends who played on the team more than once had to endure Paterno's annoying, high-pitched critiques fired across the snowy practice field for all to hear. Some didn't always feel that Paterno upheld his own rules, such as when he played a disgruntled player apparently just to keep him from quitting instead of playing the player who had practiced best that week.
And yet to this day, despite the coach's obvious imperfections and failures, these same players and hundreds more will tell you that he changed their lives for the better.
So what are we supposed to think about such a man, considered at once so great and so tragically flawed?
First, neither ignorance of details nor referring the problem to others can suffice as reasons for failing to stop the abuse of children. When we see abuse, we simply must take whatever steps are needed to stop it. God help us to do so.
Having said that, I would suggest that before completely condemning this coach for his failures that we first think of our own. How have we failed others? How do we want our own lives to be judged?
It may be that the approach the coach took with this undergraduate thief might actually be a good way to think about Joe Paterno's life: Judgment suspended, grace extended.
"Do not judge so that you will not be judged. For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you." --Matt 7:1-2
"Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy." --Matt 5:7

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