Joe Paterno's Death Is A Sad Day For Happy Valley

Legendary Penn State football coach Joe Paterno died Sunday at the age of 85. He was fired by the university last fall following the sexual abuse charges against one of his former coaches.

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Pennsylvania State University begins this week without the man many consider the face of the school. Legendary former football coach Joe Paterno died Sunday of lung cancer. Paterno was 85 years old. He spent 61 of those years coaching at Penn State. The last few months, of course, a child sex abuse scandal involving a former assistant coach overshadowed his legacy. Last night, students organized a vigil on campus in memory of the man they called Joe-Pa. NPR's Jeff Brady was there.

JEFF BRADY, BYLINE: Just before the vigil started outside on a huge lawn, the sky took on a beautiful quality. It was dark all around, except for a patch of white in the distance. It was just the lights from the stadium reflecting on the clouds, but for junior Taylor Waligorski, this was a sign.

TAYLOR WALIGORSKI: He's up there, and he's making that sky white for us and letting us know that he's there. So, we're glad he's here with us and just showing him that we will miss him, that he was such a great impact on our school.

BRADY: The language people in this community use to talk about Joe Paterno can sound almost religious. Freshman McKenzie Wilson grew up in State College and says you have to be a part of the culture here to get the depth of what people are feeling now.

MCKENZIE WILSON: It's hard to understand if you don't live here, because it is, it's one of the saddest days we've had to experience, I think, because we lost not only the best football coach, but he basically built this college. So it's tough.

BRADY: Paterno's family has donated millions of dollars to Penn State. The library even has his name on it. For most of the vigil, students and football players clearly wanted to honor the good things Paterno has done.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AMAZING GRACE")

BRADY: But even here, the events since November couldn't be ignored. Prosecutors charged retired assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky with molesting boys, sometimes on campus. It appears Paterno met his legal obligation to report the allegations against Sandusky. But Penn State's board of trustees fired him, anyway.

They later explained Paterno had a moral obligation to also contact police. Former Penn State and now Oakland Raiders football player Stefan Wisniewski told the crowd that it's clear that Paterno was only a human after all.

STEFAN WISNIEWSKI: He's done things in his life that require forgiveness, and he's done things in his life that require redemption. But when I think back on Joe Paterno's legacy, the events that have happened over the last three months won't even cross my mind.

BRADY: Here's what Paterno said about the scandal, in an interview earlier this month with the Washington Post.

(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW)

JOE PATERNO: I'm not interested in getting in the negative part of it. I want to make sure this university understands we still have a future, and I want everybody to understand this is not a football scandal.

BRADY: In November, Paterno also issued a written statement saying, quote, "This is a tragedy. It's one of the great sorrows of my life. With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more." Back at the vigil, football alum Stefan Wisniewski said Paterno always led a post-game prayer.

WISNIEWSKI: We love you, Joe. And it's my prayer that that father God that you prayed to after each and every game would grant you rest and will let his eternal light shine upon you.

BRADY: Late Sunday, Paterno's son Jay posted a note on Twitter thanking mourners for their support.

Jeff Brady, NPR News, State College, Pennsylvania.

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