In his 51st season, in his 74th year, on the doorstep of becoming the winningest major college football coach who ever lived, everything went straight to hell for Joe Paterno.
He couldn't sleep. Sportswriters who had praised him for decades were frying him. His Penn State team was 1-4. His starting quarterback had been charged with aggravated assault, and critics wanted Paterno's neck for playing him. His prized freshman defensive back lay paralyzed in a hospital, maybe looking at a lifetime of puffing through mechanical straws.
"I really wondered if somebody upstairs wasn't trying to tell me something," admits the little man in the thick glasses. "Like, Get out of this business."
This isn't supposed to happen to your average college football god. He's supposed to go out waving from the porch of a caboose, not tied to the cowcatcher. By now Paterno was supposed to have gotten seven wins this season and passed Bear Bryant as the winningest Division I-A coach ever to wet his whistle. Instead, people were hoping he'd choke on it. "Everything that could've gone wrong did," says Joe's son Jay, Penn State's quarterbacks coach. "In my lifetime I've never seen him lower."
The quarterback, Rashard Casey, and a former high school teammate stood accused of beating a cop outside a Hoboken, N.J., nightclub last May. "Coach, I never laid a hand on him," Casey told Paterno. He decided to stick by the kid. "A great kid you've known for years doesn't just turn into a vicious thug overnight," Paterno says.
Columnists, letter writers, radio hosts howled, Hypocrite! Suspend him, or you're just another win-at-all-costs phony. In other words, Casey was guilty until proven innocent. They howled even louder when Casey led the Nittany Lions right into the dumper. A loss to Southern Cal, a loss to Toledo, a loss to Pitt. For the first time since anybody could remember, Paterno and his team were booed as they came off the field—at home.
Then, during a 45-6 thumping at Ohio State, fearless cornerback Adam Taliaferro lay motionless after a hit. Paterno ran onto the field and stared into the kid's eyes. "There was this look of pure fear," Paterno says. "He knew he was in real trouble. I'll see that look till the day I die." In 1977, Paterno's son David had fallen off a trampoline, gone into a coma and nearly died at age 12. "All that came flooding back to him," says Joe's wife, Sue.
At the hospital that night, the doctors told Adam's father, Andre, to prepare for quadriplegia. Paterno took Andre into a little room, just the two of them, and grabbed both his hands. "We've got to ask for a miracle." And they hugged and prayed and cried together. Paterno flew home with the team but returned to Columbus the next day. Had to stick by the kid. When Paterno spoke to the Nittany Lions about Adam's condition, he wept openly. "You see this man on television," Andre says, "but you don't know him. I know him now. His caring isn't an act."
Paterno held the team together. "Everywhere you looked, people were panicking," says Jay, "but not Joe."
It wasn't that Paterno didn't want to panic; it was that he couldn't. "Every time I'd get to thinking, Man, this isn't worth it, I realized how important it was, coaching kids like this," he says. "I knew they needed me—and I needed them."