Still fighting for Joe Former PSU players make case for their coach's legacy
HERSHEY -- "You think back to all the little things he said, and it's amazing at the small things he instilled in us.
"He was only trying to raise young men. He's really a father figure, and aside from my parents, he was the most influential person in my life.''
That's Joe Nastasi, who played wide receiver at Penn State from 1995 to 1998, but it could have been almost anybody who played for Joe Paterno.
Everyone who has followed Penn State football, as a fan or otherwise, has heard similar words, identical words in substance, from literally hundreds of men who played for Paterno over what amounts to a half-century.
Except for my mom and dad (and in some cases, including my mom and dad), Joe Paterno has been the most important influence in my life.
You don't hear it as often, or at least as unanimously, about any coach, in any sport, or indeed any American public figure.
It's astounding, enviable, hard to even imagine, having had that strong, and that positive, an impact on so many.
It is JoePa's most impressive legacy. Nothing Jerry Sandusky did, and nothing that happened in Happy Valley in 1998 or 2001 or 2011, can make it go away.
And to them, to Joe's boys-become-men, it's all that matters.
Thirty of them showed up here Friday, when Penn State's largely reviled Board of Trustees met at Hershey Medical Center. Five of them -- Mickey Shuler, Thomas Donchez, Daniel Wallace, Mark Battaglia and Phil LaPorta -- addressed the board during an allotted time for public statements.
All five mentioned Paterno during their allotted three minutes, all but Shuler within the first 20 seconds.
Battaglia, from Pittsburgh and a member of the 1982 national championship team, said that in the entire Sandusky mess, he has only heard "one man admit that he wished he had done more.''
LaPorta, who played at Penn State from 1971 to 1973 and lives in Leesburg, Va., told the board, "Your decision wreaked havoc on Joe Paterno and the Paterno family. … Your moral failure is cataclysmic.'' He called for "nothing short of the majority of you stepping down.''
That isn't happening soon. But there were signs, at least, of cracks in the board's unanimity.
Trustee Ken Frazier, who headed a board task force on the Sandusky matter, defended the now-infamous Freeh report Friday for the second straight day.
"We can not put our heads in the sand and pretend that children were not hurt or that documents do not exist,'' he said.
"It is crystal clear that we as a board cannot and should not reinvestigate the Freeh investigation. Any attempt to try and rewrite history will be damaging to efforts to move the university past this horrible event.
"It will also speak volumes to this university's commitment to taking accountability for any harm that occurred to children on its campus."
But others on the board believe Freeh should be invited to campus, along with the a principal or principals behind the Paterno Report (Dick Thornburgh, perhaps), for a debate that could, but probably won't, work prime-time on ESPN or the Big Ten Network.
"The flaws of the Freeh report cannot be dismissed or overlooked," trustee Anthony Lubrano said. "They are significant and numerous and must be addressed.
"I want to move forward, make no bones about it. But I can't in good conscience move forward at this time. It's just not possible with me."
Then there was a softer voice of reason, agreeing with Lubrano but admitting that, "I come with preconceived notions. It's hard for me not to.''
That was rookie trustee Adam Taliaferro.
By the standards of Joe's guys, on this topic, Taliaferro is the epitome of reasoned circumspection.
Most of them don't care to regard the Paterno Report with anything approaching the same scrutity they give the Freeh Report. They don't care if the world rolls its eyes at the "Product of the Grand Experiment,'' stickers they wore on their chests Friday.
They care about Penn State football, of course, but only in the hope that it continues to be something to come back to.
Despite what they say, they don't really care about facts.
For one specific, straightforward example: Joe claimed, in grand jury testimony and in media interviews, to have no knowledge of the existence and investigation of a May 1998 incident in which Sandusky showered with a young boy.
Despite the Freeh Report's flaws, it amasses powerful evidence that Joe had to have known. The Paterno Report's attempt to refute that evidence is not just failed but feeble.
They certainly don't care about that, and here the argument takes on a dimension that is nearly religious: I don't care what you say. You didn't know Joe the way I knew him. He couldn't have known.
How would you feel, about the single person who influenced you most?
Email sports columnist Mike Gross at email@example.com.