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Penn State Football: The Story Behind Joe Paterno’s Farewell Photo

by on March 08, 2012 11:45 PM

It took Pat Little a decade, more than 10 dozen midweek press conferences and nearly 25,000 clicks of his camera.

But when it happened, Little got the biggest shot of his life.

The result is a photograph that has literally been seen around the world, from France to Australia, from New Zealand to Germany.

Not to mention The Post and The Times. The front page of the Philly Daily News and  the back page of The New York Daily News. And even the Grand Forks Herald. Last November,  and then again in January, it ran in all of them.

The image is so strong, so evocative that when a framed print of it was presented to a Paterno family member two weeks ago, she wept.

It’s the shot of Joe Paterno leaving Beaver Stadium, one that Little now calls “Going Home.” It’s shown here, but no doubt you have seen it before.

The photo has been an instant classic, supplanting Paterno being carried off the field after bowls both Sugar and Fiesta. This one, however, is neither sweet nor celebratory.

The shutter on this pic was snapped 74 Tuesdays ago, around 1 p.m. on a crisp fall afternoon, as Paterno exited Beaver Stadium following his usual weekly press conference.

The 83-year-old coach was in the midst of a rough week of a rough season. Three days earlier, his team had lost 24-3 to Iowa. Four days later, it was pounded 33-13 by Illinois. His health and his squad were shaky.

Little, who had photographed Paterno and Penn State football for 35 years, thought that season was going to be the coach’s last. And as the guy who brought weekly images of Paterno to the world via his post as The Associated Press’ man at the Paterno pressers, Little felt a big obligation.

“AP was always bugging me: ‘Get something different, get something different,’ ” Little recalled recently. “I had this shot in my mind that I really wanted to get of him. I knew that season (2010) was near the end of his career.”

It had been a long journey for them both. You know Paterno’s story. Here is Pat’s:

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A LITTLE ABOUT PAT

A State College favorite son whose family moved to town in 1960, Little started shooting Penn State football for the Collegian in 1977. After a brief stint at the old Philadelphia Journal, he returned to shoot for the hometown Centre Daily Times. He stayed there for almost two decades, photographing a couple hundred Penn State football games in the process.

Little left the CDT in 2000 and went out on his own at PatLittleImages.us. He took a gig as the Collegian’s photo advisor and also worked part-time for The Associated Press. From 2000-2010, as part of his AP duties, every September through November, Little photographed Paterno’s Tuesday press conferences in the Beaver Stadium media room.

Through the years, Little got to know Paterno quite well, and the two developed a good – “unusual,” smiles Little – relationship. If the media corps was allowed to watch and shoot a few minutes of practice, when time was up Paterno would hunt down Little and make a show of booting him out.

“Even if there were 10, 15 photographers there, he’d always pick me out,” says Little, going into a Paterno falsetto: “ ‘Get outta here, Little, get outta here! Your time’s up.’ ”

Little especially raised Paterno’s ire in 2002, when he snapped a photo of a referee doll hanging in effigy on the Paternos’ front door, the handiwork of wife Sue after one of Joe’s famous run-ins with a ref. Little snapped a pic, sent it off to the AP and the ref quickly became a national image. Sue later added a JoePa doll, but the damage had already been done.

“A friend alerted me that Sue had a referee hanging from their front door, so I ran down and shot it and the photo ran everywhere,” Little said. “One day not long after that, Joe cornered me coming out of a press conference.”

Again the falsetto: “ ‘Hey Little, you got me in a lot of trouble with that picture.’ ”

But Pat and Paterno endured. As the coach’s age advanced, his driving skills – already in question – diminished even further. Every Tuesday afternoon at Beaver Stadium, Little made it his job to make sure that Paterno – and his car -- left the premises in one piece.

Paterno would arrive in a hurry and park his car near the south tunnel, often at a goofy angle that made exiting the south exit a difficult task when the press conference was over. So, several years ago, Little took to holding up traffic along Curtin Road and safely waving out the octogenarian.

“That became our routine,” Little said. “I didn’t want anything bad to happen to him while I was around. One day Joe joked that he was going to get me a uniform.”

Little’s Officer Pat routine actually began as soon as Paterno finished his 30 minutes of Q&A with the media. As a couple of players followed Paterno on the dais, the coach would race for the door and then race to his car and then race on home for a weekly Big Ten conference call. It was about 12 minutes door-to-door.

“When Joe was done with the press conference, so was I,” Little said. Only partially true, though.

HOW THE PHOTO DEVELOPED

Little took more photos of Paterno than anyone else – easily more than 100,000, counting games, press conferences and public appearances, Little estimates. He had Joe down pat.

But, both Little and AP wanted the one shot that one no else had. After exiting the media room, Little would normally walk Paterno to his car. When the photographer occasionally lagged behind, he saw glimpses of the shot that eventually became The Shot.

“I saw it a couple of times, with him walking up ahead,” Little explained. “I could see there was a shot there. I got a vertical of it once, and another time I thought I had it but it turned out to be a mess. The gates were closed one time, another time I didn’t shoot it right.

“I knew it was going to be a good shot…some day. So I kept an eye out for it. The lighting had to be right, I had to lag back just right.”

Then came Oct. 5, 2010.

“Finally, I nailed it. I knew I had it,” Little said. “When I transmitted it to AP, I knew this was one worth keeping.”

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Mike Poorman has covered Penn State football since 1979, and for StateCollege.com since the 2009 season. His column appears on Mondays and Fridays. 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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