Angelo, look at the way your son's eyes darken now. Look how he balls up his fists and uncrosses his legs, as if he's uncomfortable, as if he suddenly remembered someplace he needs to be. Look how the smile on his face—the smile that punctuates all the stories he tells, like the one about Bear Bryant wanting a lane of traffic cleared for his team (the Pennsylvania governor said no), or the time at a coaches' convention that Dan Devine mentioned an unnamed loudmouth coach at Oklahoma, and Barry Switzer shouted, "Switzer!" and raised his hand—look how that grandfatherly smile twists into a grimace. Madonn'! Someone is asking Joe Paterno about the wins record. Again.
The wins record. What the hell can Joe say about the wins record? That he doesn't care about it? That he does? Angelo, that record is like a noose around his neck ... no, it's like the white sweater he wore to the frat party at Brown all those years ago. Remember that sweater? Florence gave it to him with a mother's love, and Joe wore it to the party because he thought that was what young men at Ivy League schools wore to cocktail parties. What did Joe know about the Ivy League—a mouthy Italian kid from Brooklyn trying to fool everyone with street smarts and gritty confidence and soaring ambition?
That white sweater. Oh, Joe walked into that party, and everything stopped. Time stopped. All those rich frat boys with their olives swimming in dry martinis, they all froze, and they looked at him, only they didn't see him. They saw that sweater. That's all he was to them, a poor Italian kid's white sweater in a rich man's world.
And now? They still don't see him. They see that wins record. That's how so many people define your son, Angelo. After beating Minnesota 20--0 last Saturday, he has 389 victories, five more than Bobby Bowden (at least for now; the NCAA wants to take away 14 of Bowden's wins, but Florida State's appealing) and more than any other Division I coach ever. People act as if that's what it's been about. As if that's why he still coaches. "What am I gonna tell you?" Joe asks. "I try not to pay attention to it. But it's there. I don't want the record. I say that, and I know people say, 'Oh, who are you kidding, Paterno, with that humble pie?' But humble pie's got nothing to do with it. What am I gonna do with that record?"
You wanted him to be a lawyer, Angelo. He was accepted at law school. Then he called you, back in 1950, and said, "Pops, I think I'm gonna coach football awhile, make some money before I go to law school."
And you, the wise father, said, "You do what you want to do."
A couple of years later Joe called again and said, "Pops, I think I'm gonna be a coach."
"You are already a coach," you said.
"No, Pops, I mean, I think this is what I want to do permanently."
And you, the wise father, said, "What the hell did I send you to college for?"