It's awfully hard to let go of JoePa   

Updated: April 16, 2008, 12:04 PM ET

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If there is one thing that makes my girlfriend reliably sad, it is the sight of an old man eating alone in a restaurant. I've been thinking of this image quite often lately, now that Joe Paterno is again facing questions about retirement.

I should mention here that I once asked Joe Paterno a question about retirement. That was 15 years ago. Penn State had just finished its first season in the Big Ten, and I was a student-newspaper reporter; Paterno was in his late 60s. It seemed to me like a reasonable query, given the circumstances and given that, as a senior at a state university, I was probably still half-drunk from the night before.

Joe Paterno

AP Photo/Eric Gay

The man really is something, isn't he?

Paterno did what he always does when asked such a question. He laughed at me. I think he may have said, "Awww …" and he might have said, "Come on," and he might have said, "I dunno," and he might have stammered something in that Brooklyn-inflected whine about coaching for five more years, which is the same material he's recycled since the heyday of Elroy "Crazy Legs" Hirsch. And then, if I remember correctly, he said something like, "Don't call me an old man."

It was perfect. It was precisely what I wanted to hear. At the time, I couldn't imagine Penn State without Paterno. And in some ways, I still can't imagine such a thing. And the reason I can't imagine such a thing is quite selfish: It's because if Joe Paterno goes away, I will have one more reason to face the fact that I am an adult.

Like most men of my generation, my maturation process has been hapless and disorderly and painfully deliberate. I often cling to the fact that "The Simpsons" remains on the air as material evidence that I am still a child. The problem with this view, of course, is that most episodes of "The Simpsons" are not especially funny anymore. It is drowning in self-reference. It began as satire, then morphed into a satire of a satire, and has now become a satire of a satire of a satire. The Simpsons are, themselves, the family that refuses to acknowledge its age. And yet I rejoice every year when it is renewed, because I am able to cling to it as irrational proof that the culture of my youth still maintains a pulse, even when I don't laugh at a single joke.

I suppose those of us who are determined to age as regretfully as possible view sports in the same way. (If you want to get especially Freudian, maybe this is why we watch sports in the first place.) But since the arc of the average athlete's career is compressed, time passes rather fast. This is why I still think of Avery Johnson as a scrappy point guard rather than a coach, and why I still think of Clint Hurdle as a failed phenom rather than a manager. This, too, is why Brett Favre was both idolized and ridiculed as his career lagged on into forever. Every year he came back, he became both a source of comfort and an excuse for comedy. In the end, we will miss him most for his constancy, simply for being around.

So it goes with Paterno. As I write this, the top results of a Google news search on Paterno are headlined, "Joe Paterno Can't Coach And Can't Complete An Airport Pickup," and "Harvard Archeologists (sic) Uncover Suspected Paterno Fossil." They are both satirical (as was DJ Gallo's recent piece on this site, in case you were one of those who assumed that Gallo actually managed to illicitly procure coursework from a Penn State professor). But then, an 81-year-old football coach given to screaming fits on campus thoroughfares, a coach who refuses to acknowledge his own vulnerability even as he suffers through intestinal emergencies on the sideline, tends to lend himself to satire. (To quote one Abraham J. Simpson: "I can't remember when I felt this young. Oh, I really can't!")

Still, just as Favre maintained a powerful arm, Paterno maintains a deceptively sharp mind. Witness what he did this week, with public scrutiny growing, with his contract status twisting in the wind: He invited the media to one of his practices for the first time since the McCarthy hearings, and then held an expansive news conference during which he (A) devoured a slice of pizza; (B) insisted he did not care about such things as a contract, and said that he's never had an agent and that he sees no need to name a successor; (C) deftly defended his record in recent years, and his ability to recruit despite the loss of Terrelle Pryor to Ohio State, and his players' seeming dearth of discipline off the field and his ability to "work from home;" (D) lauded his own son (and quarterbacks coach) for having the fortitude to publicly support Barack Obama, despite the fact that Paterno himself is a lifelong Republican; and (E) thoroughly disarmed the reporters he'd been openly insulting week after week for the past several years.

It was a remarkable performance. And when it was over, all the criticisms seemed petty and overblown, even though many have a great deal of validity. The last thing you hear on the tape, in fact, is Paterno asking someone else (presumably a reporter) how his son is doing.

"The man is a mystery, an enigma, a puzzle, even at 81," wrote Ron Bracken, a longtime columnist for the local newspaper, The Centre Daily Times.

Here, then, is an enigmatic quote to leave you with. It comes from Joe Paterno's own autobiography, "Paterno: By The Book," amid a discussion of Virgil's epic poem, "The Aeneid." Paterno is discussing the plot of this poem, one of his favorites, in which Aeneas lifts his aging father on his back and grasps the hand of his son amid an escape from the Greeks. "He was physically carrying, protecting, preserving the past, one could say," Paterno wrote, "and, in the same act, taking care of those who would live in the future."

I could argue that Paterno is not heeding the same advice, and that by refusing even to name a successor, he risks tarnishing both the past and the future of Penn State football. I could argue all of these things, but I won't, because then I start thinking again about that old man sitting alone in a restaurant. And I realize that one day soon the old man will be me.

Michael Weinreb's book "Game of Kings: A Year Among the Oddballs and Geniuses Who Make Up America's Top High School Chess Team" has been released in paperback by Gotham Books. He is currently working on a book about sports in the 1980s. He can be reached at michaelweinreb.com.


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