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Penn State Football: For Joe Paterno, 84 Is Still a Walk in the Park

by on May 22, 2011 7:17 PM

“…this report of my death was an exaggeration,” wrote Mark Twain exactly 114 Mays ago.

And, in body and spirit, that mark of eternity has been echoed this spring by Joe Paterno.

(And to you wise guys out there: No, Joe was not yet born at the time of Twain's early era Twitter.)

True, the 84-year, 5-month-old coach is not making the rounds of the three or so offseason booster club dinners and alumni events as he used to do. (No functions of the sort are even on the Penn State Alumni Association’s summertime docket.)

Still, he is certainly getting around. Quite well, in fact.

By most accounts – some by yours truly, who’s seen the coach a few times – Paterno is doing just fine, thank you. In fact, better than he has over the past few years.

No bouts with antibiotic reactions. No broken bones. No busted hips. No hacking November coughs.

Last spring, he bagged the Big Ten May meetings that included athletic directors and football and basketball coaches. He made it this year; he was in Chicago this past week for the meeting.

For Joe, the return to Chicago was a trip to the scene of maybe he’s past his prime:

This whole Paterno on his last legs thing really gained speed last summer, when he was definitely out of sorts at the Big Ten’s preseason football kickoff in the Windy City. His ill-fated (lack of) performance was the combo of bad med reactions, a late evening out at a party the night before in State College, a flight into Chicago that morning and, yes, bad old-fashioned aging.

That was then, this is now.

JOE AT PRACTICE

By accounts of several folks -- plural -- who were at team drills this spring in Holuba Hall, Joe was much more active than last year. Maybe the past few years.

He mixed it up with the players, got into the flow of things, was very hands-on. A year ago, he was cautious, standing back away from the drills. I saw this myself when the media was allowed a 20-minute glimpse in 2010, and when I took an unofficial gander at a practice in 2009.

Prior to a spring practice last month, Ryan Hockensmith, a Penn State grad who is an editor at ESPN The Magazine, and I got a chance to spend a few minutes with Paterno before practice officially started. Wearing his trademark grey sweatshirt, rolled-up kakhi pants and Nike coach’s shoes, he looked fit and was on top of his game.

Paterno was caustic, joking, active, bouncing about and acted like – although it was no act – he was having a blast.

“Hey, what are you doing here already?” he growled, as he pointed at us as he walked into Holuba. “I thought I told you to come when stretching started?”

We were early, we explained, because we didn’t want to get yelled at for being late. He yelled anyway. But he also laughed.

As we chatted, Ryan asked about when Joe’s high school team, Brooklyn Prep, played against rival St. Cecilia High School of New Jersey, coached by Vince Lombardi, in the 1940s.

“They had a fullback named Larry Higgins,” Paterno clearly recalled. “A big guy. Went onto be an FBI (actually, CIA) agent. He came right at me and I tried to tackle him.”

With that, Paterno crouched down, spread his spindly legs, extended his arms, clenched his fists and gritted his teeth. He looked a bit like he does in that Big Ten commercial, when he growls, crazed-coach like, “COME TO PENN STATE!”

“I was standing there like, getting ready to hit,” the coach said. “And he came right at me, didn’t move either way, and knocked me straight back.

“I was usually a better tackler than that,” he grinned. “But hey, I still hold the (Brown) record for interceptions.”

At an earlier practice, opened up to all the media, the coach was mobile, involved, alternating interacting with players and coaching with moving across and around Holuba’s two parallel practices fields.

After all, the practice field -- not on the rubber chicken circuit, fielding questions -- is where Joe really wants to be these days.

JOE OFF THE FIELD

I’ve talked with Joe on the phone – to set up Ryan’s visit – and we talked a few times at the retirement party for John Curley over the winter. Curley is the co-creator and benefactor of the eponymous John Curley Center for Sports Journalism in Penn State’ College Communications, the former head of Gannett and was a revered professor at Penn State for a decade. Especially at the party, Joe was incredibly sharp, in great spirits and although he’s getting shorter, very much like the guy I first wrote about in 1979. Only nicer.

Compared to the last few years, Paterno is fitter, in good measure because he has hit the roads and sidewalks of campus and State College. Again.

This is what son Jay Tweeted 10 days ago to the 10,486 people who follow the quarterbacks coach on Twitter: “Joe P is great despite what someone may have written. He's walking several miles a day & was all over spring practice.”

JOE AT THE CREAMERY

A couple of folks have told they have seen Joe out walking recently. This story comes second-hand, from a friend who says it was told to him last week by a Berkey Creamey ice-cream scooper.

Seems Joe was out for a walk a few weeks ago and he decided to stop by the Creamery, located on Curtin Road on campus. He hustled in, went to the counter and quickly ordered a Peachy Paterno cone (that’s what the scooper said). With that in  hand, he rushed out the door as the scooper saw him continue his workout.

As Joe has gotten older, so has his staff. Galen Hall came back to Penn State in 2004 to bail out Joe and run the offense for a year after Fran Ganter shifted to an associate athletics director.

Hall, who graduated from Penn State in 1963, is in his seventh decade. And for most of the past eight years at Dear Old State, he looked a bit like the well-fed Wilford Brimley. No more. The Lions’ offensive coordinator has dropped in the neighborhood of 30 pounds.

Call it in Penn (in) Shape.

AT PENN STATE, AVERAGE (AGE) JOE

Joe’s not the only old coach in town who’s age-defyingly active.

Longtime Penn State track and cross country coaching legend Harry Groves coached into his 70s. And now, even past 80, he walks up to two hours a day. Every day. His cussing hasn’t slowed down either.

John Lucas, Groves’ predecessor, is well into his 80s – older than Joe. He’s still an active presence in town and an avid exerciser. The world’s preeminent expert on the Summer Olympics, Lucas has logged over 150,000 miles running, jogging and walking over the past seven decades.

Lucas has attended every Olympics over the past half-century, and always runs (now jogs/walks) 10,000 meters on the Olympic track the morning of the Games’ finals in that event. He’s already made plans to continue the streak in London this summer.

FRAN KNOWS JOE

And then there’s Fran Fisher.

The legendary Penn State announcer, although he doesn’t join Lucas on the track, is also in that outlandishly on-spot octogenarian club. I see him regularly, and although this is damning him with faint praise, his wit, intellect, analytical powers and historical acumen all easily best mine. He’ll be ticked that I wrote that last sentence, but that just shows his authentic humility hasn’t aged either.

In fact, Fran is so smart that he still knows what Joe Paterno knows:

The ’ole Nittany Lion ball coach doesn’t plan on retiring anytime soon.

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Mike Poorman has covered Penn State football since 1979. He is a senior lecturer in Penn State's College of Communications and teaches a pair of classes in the John Curley Center for Sports Journalism: “Sports Writing” and “Introduction to the Sports Industry.” He created and taught for several years the Center’s course on “Joe Paterno, Communications and The Media.” Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/PSUPoorman. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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