In his essay honoring Joe Paterno as Sports Illustrated's 1986 Sportsman of the Year, senior writer Rick Reilly -- making reference to the Penn State coach's famously oversized spectacles -- wrote, "From whom else but Paterno did we learn that you can have 20-20,000 vision and still see more clearly than almost everybody else?"
Nearly 20 years later, we're learning that lesson again.
Where everybody else saw a fallen program coming off its fourth losing season in five years, Paterno saw a talented team on the verge of a breakthrough. Where everybody else saw an outdated offense doomed to weekly 13-point scoring outputs, Paterno saw how a couple freshman playmakers could put it over the top.
Most important, where nearly everyone but his closest supporters saw a 78-year-old fossil who should have rode off into the sunset years ago, Paterno still saw more sunrises ahead. On Saturday, in what may be the most remarkable accomplishment of the 2005 college football season, the fossil with the 20-20,000 vision earned his first Big Ten championship since 1994 with a 31-22 victory over Michigan State.
In an age in which a coach (Nick Saban) signs a seven-year contract extension with a school (LSU) only to jump to the NFL a year later, and when a school (Nebraska) fires a coach (Frank Solich) who had the audacity to win just 75 percent of his games, Paterno's success this season is an uplifting story to anyone who still believes in the value of loyalty. Paterno has demonstrated plenty of it over his career, turning down numerous overtures to remain with the same employer for 55 years. Penn State showed it back by sticking behind the struggling coach during the school's worst two-year run (7-16 in 2003-04) in more than 70 years. The result: Paterno has returned his program to national prominence and added another chapter to his already considerable legacy.
Furthermore, a man old enough to have played against a Vince Lombardi-coached team -- in high school -- has taught us that, even at 78, it's possible to reinvent yourself without losing your way. To return to glory, Paterno was forced to make several changes contradictory to his nature -- installing a new-fangled spread offense, placing a bunch of freshmen in key roles. At the end of the day, though, he still wears the same windbreaker and lowriders, and his Nittany Lions still don the same unfashionable uniforms. He still gets in a lineman's grill for a bad block in practice. His players still graduate.
And he still sees things the rest of us never imagined.
React: Who's your Sportsman of the Year?
Sports Illustrated will announce the 2005 Sportsman of the Year winner on Friday, Dec. 9 at 9 p.m. ET on HBO. Check back every weekday until then to read more Sportsman picks from SI writers.