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Nothing changed. In 1973 Joe was offered an unholy amount of money to go coach the New England Patriots, and he accepted—he remembered how much you struggled, Angelo, to support the family. Then, he says, Sue cried in bed. "We've lived such a good life here," she said. And Joe tried to guess what you would think, Angelo, if he went off to coach professionals. What impact could he make on professionals? So he called back, turned it down. Other offers came; he turned those down too. Impact. He had to make an impact.
Jay Paterno—your grandson, Angelo, an assistant coach for Joe—has never forgotten walking home with his father one day after a football game. That was the day he understood just what all this football coaching meant to Joe. Usually their talks revolved around certain plays, certain football decisions, but on this day Joe said, "Jay, you don't have any kids yet, but you will, and then I'll have my revenge." He smiled that smile. And then he said this: "You'll understand, once you have kids, that life changes. You'll find that your happiness is defined by your least happy child. You'll understand. Every player we have, someone—maybe a parent, a grandparent, someone—poured their life and soul into that young man. They are handing that young man off to us. They are giving us their treasure, and it's our job to make sure we give them back that young man intact and ready to face the world."
In 2000, something changed. In the fifth game of that season—a struggle of a season for Penn State—a gifted freshman cornerback named Adam Taliaferro dived headfirst to make a tackle against Ohio State. He broke his neck and bruised his spinal cord. He was paralyzed. Doctors said he had almost no chance of walking again.
Joe was heartbroken. He realized that in many ways he had lived a charmed life: A loving wife. Five healthy children. A job that did not feel like a job. And, feeling charmed, he drove his players, pushed them, demanded more from them on the field. Hit harder! Ignore pain! Be tougher! "The first time I ever saw my father cry was when his mother died," Jay Paterno says. "Then there was the time Adam got hurt."
Penn State had losing records in 2000 and 2001. Even so, things seemed to be chugging along, same as always. Adam walked again, he even led the team onto the field. The Nittany Lions won nine games in '02, and all four of their losses were by a touchdown or less (two in overtime). But people close to the program thought that maybe Joe was fading. He was not quite as insistent in his recruiting, not quite as sharp on the practice field, not quite as relentless. It seemed that after Adam, Joe no longer felt charmed. He shrugs. "What are you going to do about the past?" he asks. "It's over."
A friend says, "I think after Adam got hurt, Joe had a crisis of faith. I think he wondered in a small way if [coaching] was worth it."
In 2002 his brother died. They were so close, Angelo. Opposites attracting. George was a lifelong bachelor, a free spirit, a New York City cop, a football coach at the high school and college levels—who would spend much of his later years second-guessing Joe as a broadcaster on Penn State radio. The brothers were called the Gold Dust Twins when they were young, and they would get into the loudest arguments you ever heard. But you know, Angelo, arguing is just another form of love. When Joe worried about something, he would ask George to walk with him in the chill of morning. When George died, a piece of Joe died too.
Then came the awful seasons, 2003 and 2004, when the team could not win (seven victories in 23 games). There were off-the-field incidents before, during and after those two seasons. A player pulling a knife. A fight at an apartment. A marijuana charge. And so on. Joe's critics came out galvanized. Even Joe loyalists openly wondered if the time for retirement had come. The complaints hit a shriek pitch, and the school president had the wise idea to ask Joe to answer his e-mails.
"It was so tough for me," Adam Taliaferro says. "I was still in the program. I was at practice every day. I felt like even after all the years, these people still didn't know the man. It's like they still did not know what he was about. So we didn't win as many games. We were still graduating players. We were still having players go on to lead successful lives. Coach Paterno was still helping me, inspiring me. It's like nobody would see it."
Toward the end of the '04 season, before Penn State played Indiana after a six-game losing streak, Joe canceled practice and held a team meeting. He said, "We're so close. We're going to win our last two games, and then we're going to win the national championship next year." His players looked at him, stunned, unsure if they were listening to a prophet or a madman. And then Joe quoted the most famous soliloquy from Hamlet. "To be or not to be: that is the question: Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles...."