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Once a living legend, Joe Paterno dies amid modern-day tragedy

Joseph Vincent Paterno's epitaph will state that he passed away on January 22, 2012, but his death really unfolded over the past 11 weeks as a career, a reputation and ultimately a life ended in the most public and humbling light imaginable.

The final chapter of Paterno's six-decade run as a public figure was a 21st-century Shakespearean tragedy, dispensed in 140-character outbursts and in front of television cameras. We knew this day would come, and we knew it would be full of sorrow. But we could not have known how much the story would change in the last three months of an 85-year life.

Paterno was the head coach of the Penn State football team from 1966-Nov. 9, 2011, and if it had been up to him he would have coached even longer. But he could not overcome the revelation of a career-ending lapse of judgment, nor complications from lung cancer, and one has to believe the former impacted the latter. Perhaps before the Jerry Sandusky scandal, Paterno could have defied age yet again and fought his disease. But the guilt, embarrassment and emptiness Paterno felt in the wake of his firing probably made him as frail as the chemotherapy.

This is a truly and indisputably sad day, but that sadness is now part of a complicated array of emotions.

Our last images of Paterno came from Sally Jenkins' Jan. 14 Washington Post story, which depicted the ex-coach sitting at his kitchen table covered in a blanket, his radiation-ravaged hair replaced by a wig, his voice a whisper. The story that day was not Paterno's health, but rather his first public comments about the way he handled a report of Sandusky's alleged sexual assault in the Penn State locker room nine years earlier. With the horror from the gruesome Sandusky grand jury report still fresh in many minds, Paterno's answers to Jenkins' questions did little to appease the anger of millions still sickened by his inaction.

At a series of town-hall events that same week in the Northeast, various Penn State alums showed they too were still angry -- at the board of trustees that fired Paterno. A New York Times story last week in which the authors interviewed 13 Penn State board members prompted 400-plus reader comments, either by Penn Staters outraged at the board or non-Penn Staters outraged at the former commenters for expressing sympathy for Paterno.

All the while, it turns out, the man who spawned those polarizing reactions was dying. Which brings us to today: so sad and, for many, so complicated.

If you're a Penn State fan, you're mourning the most important figure ever to grace the State College campus, a man who dedicated his entire adult life to bettering the school and its students and engendered decades of national exposure and admiration along the way. Many of you felt betrayed after learning of Paterno's role in the Sandusky scandal, but that didn't erase your attachment to and appreciation of the man. If you're one of the fans who believed Penn State mistreated Paterno at the end, you're undoubtedly even angrier at the thought that his ouster may have expedited his passing in any way.

If you're a college football fan older than 25 who cares about the history of the sport, this is a sad day for you too, whether or not you have an affinity for Penn State. You may still be angry about how Paterno handled the Sandusky allegations, but you still hold a certain level of respect for the sport's all-time winningest coach and the man who once espoused of The Grand Experiment. You will mark his passing accordingly.

But for many, your opinion of Paterno was irreparably altered the day the grand jury report came out. You feel that Paterno's failure to report Sandusky to the police, thus enabling an alleged pedophile to abuse more children in the years that followed, was so unconscionable that it overrides all the good things Paterno did before and after, on or off the field. Or that it was all a myth to begin with. How will you mark his passing?

On the night of his ouster, Paterno said, "I wish I had done more," about the Sandusky allegations. Ironically, three months ago Paterno was known entirely for the things he had done. We know how much one damning mistake altered the narrative of Paterno's career; we can only imagine how much it impacted Paterno himself.

Though he wouldn't say so openly, Paterno had long feared suffering the same fate as Bear Bryant, the revered Alabama coach who died of a heart attack four weeks after coaching his last game. (Eerily, Thursday is the 30th anniversary of Bryant's death.) Paterno couldn't imagine a life without football, and when he was finally confronted with that dreaded reality, it was not of his own volition. Even worse, as that now infamous comment issued from his doorstep indicated, Paterno brought about his own undoing.

And so, an 85-year-old man found himself grappling with his unexpected professional demise while also fighting something as unmerciful as lung cancer. Whether you rooted for him or hated him, admired him or detested him, you can surely see the sadness and the self-wrought tragedy of Paterno's final days. One of the perks of becoming an idol is achieving historic immortality, but Paterno was never more human than during the final 11 weeks of his life.

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