Jerry Sandusky fooled a lot people over years -- including me
Sometimes when you get fooled in this business, it's not so bad. You write that, say, the Patriots are unbeatable and then they get beat that week. Or you write that Kobe is in a severe shooting slump and he lays 58 on somebody the next night. A couple hundred people write you to ask, "Why do you even have a job?" and you smile and life goes on.
But other times? Other times you feel real bad when you get fooled.
I didn't even realize my small part in this foul, almost unimaginable debacle at Penn State until a friend emailed me after the sexual abuse revelations about former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky came to light.
"I guess you feel like a jerk," he said, reminding me of a 1999 feature I wrote about Sandusky and his Second Mile organization.
Then I remembered.
The genesis of the story has a subplot, as so many stories do. I had originally gone to State College to write about a 9-0 Penn State team that was challenging for the national title. I show up, and the Nittany Lions lose 24-23 to a not-very-good Minnesota team, scrapping a Penn State story.
"Well, you know, the defensive coordinator, Jerry Sandusky, is retiring so maybe I could get a feature out of that," I told my bosses. "He runs this organization called Second Mile to give at-risk kids a second chance so ..."
It sounded like a winner. So I did it, and it appeared in the Dec. 20, 1999 issue of SI. I recall getting a few thanks-for-recognizing-Jerry letters from Penn State stalwarts, of which there are thousands and thousands, many of them in the area of Pennsylvania where I live.
I have combed through my remaining brain cells to conjure up memories about that story and can't come up with much. I met Sandusky and his wife. The story wasn't long. It was written in a hurry and has a mailed-it-in feel to it. It wasn't very good.
More to the point and most obviously, I had no suspicions about anything untoward going on with Sandusky or Second Mile. I remember that I didn't particularly like the man -- he seemed a little strange and detached and not at all joyful about what he was doing -- but none of that tipped my cynical believe-the-worst-about-anyone-until-proven-otherwise journalistic dial toward high alert.
SI senior writer Phil Taylor, who wrote a column about Sandusky in the this week's magazine, called me and said, "I found it unusual that you didn't have anything in there from the other coaches, nothing from Paterno about how wonderful this guy is or anything like that."
"I wish I could tell you why, Phil, but I can't," I told him. "Maybe I was in a rush. Maybe it got cut out for space. Maybe their quotes weren't any good. Maybe I never got back to JoePa. I had already talked to him about the main story that fell apart so ..."
No answers. No nothing.
What I do remember about the experience was the world-unto-itself isolation of the Penn State football complex. I did a couple early-morning interviews over there (not with Sandusky) and we might as well have been on the moon. It was the perfect place for a predator like Sandusky, and it's like that on most high-profile, football-driven campuses. But I'm only thinking about the consequences of that now.
Two things in particular haunt me. By the time I wrote the story, Sandusky's showering with a youngster had already triggered a campus investigation, albeit one that never became public. And the revelations in the "Jerry Sandusky Grand Jury Report" -- I recommend that to those of you who feel that Sandusky and Penn State officials are being railroaded fire up Mr. Google and read it -- reveal that some of Sandusky's worst behavior was going on right around this time. So I wrote a favorable story about a guy who was already a sexual predator.
The other thing haunting me is my last line in the story: "Here's the best thing you can say about Jerry Sandusky: He's the main reason that Penn State is Linebacker U ... and linebackers aren't even his enduring legacy."
Writers love to have their stuff quoted ... unless the quotes make you look like a jerk, as these do. So go ahead, Deadspin, have at it.
What leaves me shaking my head is how badly I feel about this unfortunate story and how inconceivable it is that Joe Paterno, a man I always respected, asks us to believe that he has no culpability. He has already yakked himself into a corner.
Maybe he didn't know everything that was going on. But he knew enough. He wasn't fooled. And that's why his silence is unforgivable.