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Penn State Football: Joe Paterno…He’s One in Two Million

by on August 29, 2011 1:45 AM

The U.S. Census Bureau estimates there are 1.816 million American males age 85 or older. And there are a couple hundred thousand more 84-year-olders who are knocking on the door.

That means if Penn State football coach Joe Paterno is on the sidelines against Indiana State on Saturday he will truly be one in a million.

Times two.

Paterno will be 84 years and 255 days old on Saturday, when his team hosts Indiana State in its 2011 season opener in Beaver Stadium.

Thirteen days ago, the legendary coach was asked if he’ll be on the sidelines of Saturday’s game despite suffering significant injuries to his pelvis and shoulder.

“Absolutely,” shot back Paterno, sitting in a golf cart, partially immobile.

Hard to believe at the time. The other 149 people there inside Holuba Hall, including his doctor, were shaking their heads. I know I was.

Somehow, Joe answered without hesitation. No surprise there. For 62 years at Penn State, the last 46 as head coach, Paterno has known he is different. And acted that way, for better and for worse.

ONLY ONE JOE LIKE THIS

Now that he’s 84, he’s still not like your other two million average Joes. This is a guy who was walking up to six miles a day before he was injured during practice on Aug. 7.

And this is a guy who expects to be on the east sidelines of Beaver Stadium 27 days later. Joe is The Story. Again.

Doesn’t matter that the Nittany Lions’ starting quarterback hasn’t been named. Or that the team captains haven’t been publicly announced.

Perhaps news of both will be forthcoming when Paterno meets the press at 12:30 p.m. on Tuesday in the Beaver Stadium media room.

Frankly, though, those answers don’t matter, much – for a week at least.

The reason? Any success against Indiana State is immediately null and void. Indiana State was 6-5 last season, its first winning campaign since 1996, ending a 13-season 29-117 free-fall (a .199 winning percentage). Before 2010, the Sycamores won two games in five seasons.

They are hardly the trees that try men’s souls.

TIDE WILL TELL

Penn State’s performance against Indiana State won’t tell us much that we don’t already know about Rob Bolden, Matt McGloin or a defense that gave up more Big Ten points than its offense scored in 2010.

That day of reckoning will come soon enough, on Sept. 10 against No. 2 Alabama.

For now, with his health in question once again, all eyes are on Paterno – whether he likes it or not. (He doesn’t.)

In one way or another, the glare of the public’s MRI has been focused on Paterno for much of the past six seasons: Cracked knee, broken hip, ailing stomach, now a busted pelvis and shoulder. 

Yes, we know that Joe isn’t getting any younger. (But he doesn’t...or at least won’t admit it.)

Yet, as he showed this summer, his drive and focus and sheer doggedness are still intact. It's why his players used to call him The Rat.

He has bounced back with remarkable vigor after a riveting series of ailments that would have sidelined lesser men and forced the average major college-football coaching sexagenarian into retirement. Somehow he always recovers, like one big fractured fairy tale.

These days, you’re as apt to see him in the pages of The New England Journal of Medicine as Sports Illustrated. You’d think his dad’s name was Jor-El, not Angelo.

We know Paterno’s not superman. But what he has done is almost superhuman.

Two weeks ago, when he met the press while sitting in that golf cart, Paterno appeared wiry, edgy, uncomfortable, a bit pissed off and determined. Very determined.

“I feel great,” he said, “except I'm in a lot of pain.”

This from a guy so tough he suffered for over two months in the fall of 2008 before taking something stronger than an aspirin for his dislocated hip.

This from a guy who took a blindside hit during practice that would have laid out someone 20, maybe 30 years younger. Seriously. Imagine your average 84-year-old man taking the blow Paterno did. Then getting up, dusting himself off, and continuing practice. (Jack Palance was a mere youngster at 73 when he did those push-ups at the Oscars, and America thought he was immortal.)

This from a guy who spent two days in the hospital -- a hospital he and his wife gave a million bucks to a few years ago, to show you the kind of folks they are – then went back to work.

Image the sick days and the comp days Joe’s saved up over the past six decades. He could have called in sick until Sept. 3, 2041, and not missed a paycheck.

PRESSING DETAILS

No time for sick days now. It's show time.

Paterno’s press conference on Tuesday, in and of itself, will be news. That’s his usual game week presser, when he typically takes a seat along a dais, which requires him to take a step up to get to.

We’ll see how he moves then -- not to mention how he covers the 80 or so yards he has to walk to and from the media room from his car, if he is driving himself.

Typically, the press conference is over by 1:05 p.m. Then, Paterno hustles to his car, parked outside the south end gate, and drives home in time to be on the Big Ten weekly coaches’ conference call. Paterno always has the 1:20 p.m. time slot. Those logistics might change; maybe he'll take the call from the stadium (and, given his driving history, hopefully not from the car).

Wednesday is the weekly meeting of the State College Quarterback Club inside in the Mount Nittany Lounge of Beaver Stadium. Paterno, a regular attendee for over four decades, drastically cut back his visits last season. So that he won’t be there when the booster club meets on Wednesday is not that big of a deal.

But, on Friday night, as has become a tradition the night before the home opener, “Penn State Football Eve” is scheduled to be held inside Beaver Stadium. Starting at 7:45 p.m., it is a glorified pep rally, and when the event was announced on July 19, Paterno was slated to lead the festivities.

Again, this will be a chance to gauge Paterno’s health and mobility, just 16 hours before the 2011 season officially begins.

FIELD HIS DREAMS

Before he was injured, Paterno was hoping to lead the Nittany Lions out of the tunnel on Saturday. Obviously, that’s not going to happen.

But what if Joe actually coaches from the sideline, if only for a half? Geez, if he’s walking around on the field during pre-game, even that would seem to be a big deal.

The odds have to be against it, right? On his feet for that long with a bum pelvis and a right arm not strong enough for grabbing facemasks or scolding refs? He’s 84. C’mon...

I can give you two million reasons why he can’t do it.

And just one why he can.

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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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