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Jay Paterno: Remembering Joe Sarra

by on July 26, 2012 6:00 AM

If you’re lucky enough in your life, you get to meet giant people who willingly sacrifice of themselves to help others. Monday morning, I attended coach Joe Sarra’s funeral celebrating a giant of a man.

In my travels around the country, I cannot tell you how many times I would meet someone who would ask if I was from Penn State. The next question was, “Do you know Joe Sarra?” They knew him as a coach at Lafayette, or Miami (Ohio) or grew up with him in the Mon Valley outside of Pittsburgh.

They talked about funny stories, and we’d share a laugh. But always they spoke with reverence for a dedicated husband, coach and father not only to his children but to the student-athletes he coached.

I met Joe Sarra in the early 1980s when he became Penn State’s inside linebackers coach. He was best described by one word, intensity. On cold practice days he wore short sleeves, in hot days he’d wear a jacket. He wanted his players to understand worrying about the elements diverted your focus away from the task at hand.

During the season he appeared at 6:30 a.m. in the dining halls for breakfast with my teammates who played for him. But this was no social call. He was armed with scouting reports covering the details that might be the difference.

Guys like Mark D’Onofrio, Andre Collins, and Andre Powell all dreaded that moment they sat down to eat in peace only to be quizzed on coverage and defenses. Yet the guys who played for him, the guys he recruited, remain grateful that he cared about them like a father.

Even when I coached elsewhere he always kept tabs on me. When I was in town visiting, I spent an entire day with him discussing linebacker technique. A non-coaching friend sat in and learned a lot about life and not just football.

I coached with him from 1995 through his last season coaching in 1999. He was relentless. On the road recruiting, if my cell phone rang after 11 p.m., I knew who it was. Usually Joe Sarra had a question about an NCAA rule and wanted to be absolutely sure he was within the rules. Even after I answered him, he’d call our compliance coordinator, John Bove, just to be sure.

No one was ever a more fiercely loyal advocate for the young men he recruited and coached than Joe Sarra. But he was more than that. In a coaching world full of egos Joe Sarra was an exception. He coached and educated only because it was his life’s passion. The ultimate team player, Joe Sarra would drop everything and do whatever needed to be done even after he stopped coaching.

In 2000, when Adam Taliaferro was injured and hope was in short supply, Joe Paterno knew Joe Sarra was the right man to be there for the family. That family will tell you how invaluable Joe Sarra became for them. Monday at the funeral were Adam’s parents, tears in their eyes, nodding along as each speaker spoke of Joe’s virtues.

After Joe finished coaching, he’d stop in to meetings at night and sit to watch film. He loved being in that room, but not nearly as much as we loved his presence there. He’d ask about his favorite play, the quarterback sneak.

As his health deteriorated, we no longer saw him in the office and we all knew a presence was missing. There was a tangible void there.

I regret how busy my professional and family life have kept me and how I did not make the time to visit Joe Sarra the past couple of months. He was one of the people you just figured would always be there.

As I look at the long arc of his life with his wife Barbara, his children and his career I can see a bigger picture.

Despite his blustery exterior, and intense demeanor there was a gentle soul, a man always willing to help. Early in the last decade when we were struggling on the field, I’d get an occasional call from him to encourage me and to tell me the good things he saw on the field. That meant more to me than he probably realized because I respected him so much.

In 2012, the words he said in 2003 still carry so much meaning so much weight. In football he’d tell us all we needed were “Feet and Courage” to get to the right place and do what we had to do.

In life he’d tell me not to worry about what people said or wrote. “Keep moving and keep sticking to what you believe. If the turtle doesn’t stick his neck out, he can’t cross the road.”

Thanks, Joe Sarra, for the lessons, the words we’ll all carry. Above all, we offer thanks for a life well lived and shared with so many who benefitted from your light in our lives.

Goodbye coach, we’ll all miss you.

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State College native and Penn State graduate Jay Paterno is a father, husband and political volunteer. He’s a frequent guest lecturer on campus and at Penn State events and was the longtime quarterbacks coach for the Nittany Lions. His column appears every other Thursday. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/JayPaterno
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