In the moments after Joe Paterno died, it became common for people to write and say that he died of a broken heart. He did not. Joe Paterno died of lung cancer and the complications it caused. He did not die a bitter or broken man.
I know this because I spent time with Paterno in his hospital room during the last weeks of his life. I am writing a book about Paterno. We spoke different times about many things—from his days playing stickball in the streets of Brooklyn, to his time in the Army after World War II, through his playing days and his many coaching days, to, yes, the day a graduate assistant coach told him about seeing Jerry Sandusky in the shower with a young boy—and what stood out above everything else is that Paterno refused to be bitter or sad about the way it all ended.
"In every life," he told me, "there have to be some shadows. Look at me. My life has been filled with sunshine. A beautiful and caring wife. Five healthy children. I got to do what I loved. How many people are that lucky?"
This is how he talked in those final days. Oh, sure, he did not like the way the board of trustees fired him without asking him any questions. He was disappointed that so many people fastened dark motives to the way he handled what he was told about Sandusky, his longtime assistant coach. ("I made a lot of mistakes in my life," he said. "But I thought people could see that I tried my best to do the right things. I tried to do the right thing with Sandusky too.") He was hurt that the program he had spent his life building was in trouble.
January 30, 2012
But he kept coming back to his own good fortune and the wonder of his career and life. ("I read this book by Joseph Conrad," he said. "That was a mistake. It's depressing.") He watched M*A*S*H quite a lot ("I never got to watch it when it was on—that's a good show," he said), and he spent most of his time with family, friends and former players. His 85th birthday party in December was a family celebration. He told stories, and he was full of life. Christmas was hopeful. When he would see bald people, like yours truly, he would point at his own head, bald from the chemo, and say, "Hey, at least mine will grow back."
The last week or so was filled with pain and goodbyes, but even then Paterno did not falter into self-pity. In the last moment of his life, his son Jay recalled saying to his father: "You've done all you can do." And then Jay saw his father's shoulders shrug and his eyes close, and he stopped breathing. "My father did not have a broken heart," his daughter Mary Kay says. "His heart was too strong. It couldn't be broken."
I asked Paterno at one point in that last month if he hoped that people would come to see and measure his full life rather than a single, hazy event involving an alleged child molester. "It doesn't matter what people think of me," he said. "I've lived my life. I just hope the truth comes out. And I hope the victims find peace."