July 24, 2012

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- A few hours after the NCAA announced unprecedented sanctions against Penn State on Monday, including the whitewashing of 111 victories from Joe Paterno's record, a college-aged couple could be seen pacing the sidewalk in front of the famed Heister Street Mural.

"Where is Joe Paterno?" the young woman asked. "Is the halo really gone?"

After Paterno died of lung cancer at age 85 in January, artist Michael Pilato added a halo above the coach's head in the painting. He removed it after former FBI director Louis Freeh determined in an independent review that Paterno and three others -- Penn State president Graham Spanier, senior vice president Gary Schultz and athletic director Tim Curley -- concealed child sexual abuse allegations against assistant coach Jerry Sandusky.

Is Paterno's halo really gone?

Across the country, the answer is a resounding "yes." But in Happy Valley, it's a question still being pondered.

"Other than Sandusky, no one has been convicted yet," said Keith Hildun, a 49-year-old Penn State alum and the father of a current student. "A lot of people are questioning the accuracy of the Freeh Report. I think this is a rush to judgment.

"It seems like they're going after Joe."

"We should be doing things to help the victims, but they shouldn't be taking it out on Joe," added Jimmy Olson, an 18-year-old freshman from Jamestown, N.Y. "They shouldn't be messing with him or his wins. He was the best coach ever and always will be."

A day before the NCAA announced a $60 million fine against Penn State, along with a four-year postseason ban and massive scholarship reductions, the university removed the statue of Paterno outside of Beaver Stadium. It was the first blow in a staggering 48-hour window for a community that faces an uncertain future and remains divided over the coach who served as the face of the university for decades.

"I am ashamed of the Penn State administration for turning Joe Paterno into a scapegoat," said Robbie Horton, a fifth-year senior and the son of a university professor. For the better part of an hour, Horton leaned against temporary chain-link fencing and tried to make sense of the emptiness where the statue once stood. "It's absolutely convenient to point the finger at the dead guy and that's why this is happening."

Near the players' entrance to the stadium, a 69-year-old Penn State alum named Vin Tedesco erected an impromptu statue of Paterno: a cardboard cutout of the coach.

"For 60 years this guy lived, talked and required his soldiers to have truth and integrity," Tedesco said. "That's why it's hard for me to accept what's going on here. That's why it's hard for me to believe everything the Freeh Report said. The report had nothing new in it. He didn't even talk with Paterno."

Tedesco weathered a handful of obscenities hurled his way throughout the day -- proof that not everyone in State College is rallying to preserve Paterno's legacy -- but most passers-by stopped to shake Tedesco's hand and have their picture taken with the cardboard cutout.

"The statue still exists!" one college student shouted. "He'll always be in our hearts."

Their denial begs the obvious question: What, exactly, is going on here?

"It's called a cult," said Charles Yesalis, a former Penn State professor of health, exercise and sport science who recently moved to Lynchburg, Va. "I don't think a lot of people in State College have really come to grips with how bad this is, and how bad this is playing in other parts of the country.

"This is an enormous scandal and I don't think they realize it. If they think this is going away in a year or two, no, this stain is going to last a very long time and it will never, ever be the same there. There's a lot of good people who work there, there's a lot of good kids who go to school there. The school had a very special reputation of doing things the right way. That was a facade. That was a big lie.

"I rile at people who say that Paterno made one mistake. No, he did not. Every time that old man got out of bed and he didn't do the right thing, he made a mistake. That's thousands of mistakes. The notion that that town will ever be the same is unbelievably naive. It's hard for me to imagine anybody using the term Happy Valley anymore."

Some locals express strong anti-Paterno sentiments, and a banner that read "Take the statue down or we will" was flown over campus last week. But the fact that Freeh didn't interview Paterno before Paterno's death remains a point of contention among the late coach's supporters.

"I think everyone has lost sight of the true monster," said L.J. Van Allen, 38, a Penn State alum and the mother of a current student who could be seen wiping a tear from her eye outside the stadium Sunday evening. "No one is pro-pedophilia, and more than anyone else we want the truth. No one in this community thinks football is more important than young lives being destroyed. I just need to know all the facts to know who is guilty. Freeh let JoePa die before he interviewed him. How can you let one of the main witnesses die without getting his side of the story? This town, this program, his family, is never going to have closure."

The healing process in State College certainly won't be easy. As current Penn State football players essentially become free agents, able to transfer without penalty, questions swirl about the viability of the program. Will people still care as much? Will fans still go to games? How can the school -- and town -- recover from crippling NCAA sanctions?

"The hotels, the restaurants, they survive because of the football program. Are small businesses going to suffer as a result of the punishment?" said Jacquie Serefine, a 47-year-old single mother of three who works as a family aide for Centre County. "The healing of the community is going to start with what happens with our football program."

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