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The "Toilet Bowl"
Douglas Robb hasn't written much since Joe Paterno passed away on January 22nd, 2012. He wrote a fitting tribute to Joe Paterno yesterday. He called it "The Joe I Know". Here is his story (which I feel honored that he allowed me to reprint here). Thanks Doug.
For me, growing up in State College, Pennsylvania was a great experience. Those who come to live and work in "Happy Valley" generally have a sense of loyalty about the place that endears itself to people who have lived there - even long after they move away. For those of us who are "Townies," this is especially true. Part and parcel of this is the atmosphere that revolves around Penn State.
After all, State College probably wouldn't be much of a town without Penn State. There is no major employer other than the University, save for the businesses that support State College and it's surrounding community. Many come to State College to attend Penn State, only to find employment there after they graduate. Some start businesses and stake their claim to their little piece of "Happy Valley".
That's how my family arrived at State College. After serving with the U.S. Navy, my dad - "Big Lou" - attended Penn State, as thousands of others had, through their G.I. Bill. Many veterans came from the cities, towns and rural communities around the state, to the school whose mission was "to educate the working class sons and daughters of the Commonwealth."
And so my Dad and my Mom came from their childhood home in Johnstown and began their life in "Happy Valley". Like so many before them, my Dad attended Penn State and my Mom raised our family. When my Dad graduated, he began working for Penn State and our family "took root" in State College.
From my earliest days as a boy, football was a natural part of life at Penn State. The cool, crisp days of autumn called us to return to the Nittany Lion Inn and Beaver Field nearby. There was the Lion Shrine and the rustle of fallen leaves as Syracuse, or Army, or West Virginia, or Pittsburgh and many other schools came to battle with our beloved boys in blue and white.
There was the thundering clatter of the drum line of the Blue Band and the magnificent sound of the chorus of horns belting out the Fight Song or the Alma Mater. The roar of the crowd, as Penn State scored a touchdown, or made a spectacular play. The Beaver Field crowd stood and let out a cacophonous roar that would shatter the fall air like a thunderclap. These were some of my earliest childhood memories.
To a young boy growing up in State College, Penn State football was the excitement. Springs were beautiful and summers sultry and idyllic, but the fall in "Happy Valley" signaled the beginning of the Nittany Lion’s season ... the purpose of their existence. Me and my brothers lived for football. Many Saturdays during the fall consisted of me, Big Lou and my brothers raking leaves in our backyard, while WMAJ belted out of a transistor radio and Mickey Bernstein called the action, as the blue and white fight took place at Beaver Stadium.
Suddenly, sleepy State College’s pace and pulse quickened as thousands of fans descended from across Pennsylvania to witness "the Beast of the East" in lofty grid-iron action. So for me and my brothers - and every boy who lived on every street in Park Forest Village - Penn State football reigned supreme. Our heroes were starting to gain national fame and recognition. Jack Ham and Franco Harris led legendary Penn State teams and went on to become Pittsburgh Steelers, as their dynasty years unfolded during the seventies, in Pittsburgh.
And Joe Paterno was becoming recognized as one of the elite coaches in American college ball. This was heady stuff. "Our Joe" on the cover of Sports Illustrated! "Our Joe" being compared to names like Schembechler, Hayes, Osborne, Bryant, Switzer, Johnson, Royal, Dooley, and other top coaches from top programs throughout the United States. Penn State - that little farm school in the middle of nowhere in Pennsylvania - was being compared to the greatest teams and coaches in America!
For us, Joe was "the man". He was "Our Coach", the man who had led us out of rural Eastern football obscurity and taken us to National prominence. Everything about Joe was classy. Substance over style. Discipline over flash. Teams over the individual. Success with Honor. Athletes who were talented on the field and in the classroom. Players were solid, reliable, decent, upstanding young men. Guys we looked up to and idolized. They got to "Fight! Fight! Fight!" ... for the ... "Blue and White", on national television.
On New Year’s Day for most years, Penn State was invited to play in major Bowl games like the Cotton Bowl, the Sugar Bowl, the Orange Bowl or the Fiesta Bowl ... and later, the Rose Bowl. Only Joe Paterno had coached football teams in all of the major bowls. We lived, breathed, ate and slept Penn State Football. In State College, just about every guy we knew played touch football. On fields all over Park Forest Village, we played football, every day, after school. We played football in the rain. We played football in the snow. We played football after dinner, until it grew dark. We played football on Saturday morning and Sunday afternoon. We played football at recess in school.
For guys living in State College, you had to be a REALLY GOOD football player to play high school football at the only high school in State College - my alma mater - State High. "The Little Lions". All of us dreamed of one day being a "Nittany Lion" and playing for Joe Paterno. To run out of that Penn State tunnel into the cool, fall air ... to be enveloped by the deafening roar of the Beaver Stadium crowd ... to burst free into the clear and score a touchdown for Penn State fans ... to stand victorious in the end zone, with our arms outstretched, soaking up the adulation of the students in a glaring "white out" in the stands.
These were our Penn State dreams of glory!
For those of us who couldn’t live those lofty dreams, we settled for "sand lot football", in venues like Sunset Park, located right behind Joe's house at the end of McKee Street. In that park, was a beautifully maintained, regulation football field. On the first Saturday in December of every year, right after the Pittsburgh game, traditionally held on Thanksgiving weekend, we played in "The Toilet Bowl" - as it became named - in Sunset Park. Most of the time, the first real snow of winter covered the field. We’d carry a keg of beer from the parking lot, and stick it in a snow bank off the field and go about the business of our yearly football ritual.
This was the game played by all the "also-ran" guys who couldn’t make the State High team, or the Penn State team. But our love of football preserved the tradition of "The Toilet Bowl". It was our grid-iron Valentine to Joe and the Penn State team we loved, but couldn’t really be a part of ourselves. We’d choose up sides and then the game would begin. But this game had a few twists from our regular touch football games. This was a tackle game. No touch, no flags. You got your butt knocked to the ground, usually by four or five guys from the other team.
There were no shoulder pads or helmets allowed, just knee pads and elbow pads (to keep you from getting "turf rash"). It was rough and it was tough. It was snot-slingin', knock-down, drag-out football ... the way we loved it! There were no "do-overs". In this game, you kicked butt - or got your butt kicked!
Most years, Joe would still be at his McKee Street home when the "Toilet Bowl" took place. (Because he wouldn’t have left yet for the bowl game Penn State was inevitably going to compete in, and so Joe was enjoying a little time with his family). Even though Sunset Park began where Joe's yard ended, they never built a fence between their yard and the park. Sometimes during a Toilet Bowl game, we could see Joe standing at his back door, watching us.
We’d wave to Joe when we would see him and he’d wave back at. (We were secretly hoping upon hope that he would come out that back door and make his way to our game and make our Saturday - and our dreams - come true. Not often, but a few times during the many years we played this game, Joe would open his door, cross his yard and come out to the field. He'd have on a blue winter coat he often wore at the stadium, khaki's rolled up, white socks and black shoes. JOE Paterno! Seeing that head of tousled hair and those thick black glasses approaching is what we all lived for - but hadn't dared mention - Coach is coming out!
We would all stop cold in our tracks, cheer and applaud Joe as he make his way toward us. "Hey, Coach!" we’d yell with obvious affection. This was our man, our leader, our coach ... the one and only - JoePa! "Hi ya, fellas!" Joe would exclaim, as he shook our hands. "I heard you from inside my house, making enough racket to wake the dead, and the whole bit!" he’d say in mock disgust. We'd all laugh and say, "How ya’ doin' coach?"
And then just like the coach he was, he’d say, "Well, are ya’ gonna stand around all day, or are you gonna play some football?" We’d line up for a kick-off, and away we’d go! Joe would take his place on one sideline and before each play, we’d run over to Joe, who would call the next play and give us our assignments. Then we'd run out to the line of scrimmage where the defense was waiting, and line up to snap the ball. Joe would coach one sideline until we'd get ahead by a couple of touchdowns,and then he'd run over to the other sideline and coach the other guys for a while.
All the while, he’d be yelling instructions to guys, chewing on guys butts if they failed to carry out an assignment, and sometimes stopping us to show us a point of technique, or how to get an advantage on a guy to make a play. He was a teacher. He was a mentor. He instructed us. He showed us. He explained to us. He lectured us. He laughed with us. He celebrated our touchdowns. He told us why we failed. He praised our good plays. He told us how we "fouled it up". He gave us his insight, his knowledge, his wisdom, his time and his love. We hung on every word.
We would run through a brick wall for that man. And then ask him where the next wall was so we could do it all again. To score a touchdown or make a big play and hear Joe's praise for what you’d done was like the best Christmas present ever! To have Joe chew your butt was like bringing home a bad report card to your Dad. We did our best for Joe. We gave it our all for Joe.
And then far too soon, a familiar voice would call from the distance, across the snow swept park. "Joe! Joe! Time for supper," Sue would call out from their back door, arms folded across her chest, trying to keep warm. Joe would look at us and say, "Looks like the boss is callin' me, fellas. I gotta go! You fellas take care, now!" Joe would shake a few of our hands and then turn and do that "Joe heading for the locker room" trot he always did at halftime. We’d seen it a thousand times. But this time it made us sad, because it meant our time with Joe was done. "See ya’ Coach! Good luck in the bowl game, Coach! We love ya’ Coach," we’d yell, as Joe ran toward his house, waving, but not looking back, as he covered the distance back home.
We’d watch him disappear inside, then we’d kind of look at each other like "it's over". With Joe gone, suddenly the Toilet Bowl lost its appeal. When Joe left, the excitement was over. The cold, dark days of winter lay waiting ...
Jan. 21st, 2012 was a horrible day for me. I was filled with dread. Word had come down that Joe was in serious condition. His health had taken a turn for the worse. The moment I had been dreading - for years - was coming to pass. I could not bear the reality of it, the finality of it. This wonderful man, who had always been "Our Coach" - for so long - who had given us so many beautiful memories and moments of triumph, achievement, and greatness ... was losing his battle against cancer.
Then the news of Joe's passing came and my heart sank, into the depths of the ocean. Tears streamed down my face, as I realized that my Coach was gone and that I would never see him again. Then - a joyous reprieve! A message from Jay Paterno announcing the report was false. I cursed the idiots who got it wrong, hanging onto hope that Joe would regain his strength, carry on the fight, gain another yard, to score yet again.
That night I barely slept. My mind drifted back to those wonderful football games with my buddies. Those halcyon days when Joe graced our sidelines, when WE WERE "Joe's team". I awoke early the next morning, dreading to look at my computer. I could not bear the news. It took several hours, but the inevitable came. Joe was really gone. The shock gave way to a dull sadness. I couldn’t wrap my mind around it. It was surreal.
That day, I communed with fellow Penn Staters via email and Facebook, trying to deal with the loss and console ourselves. The pain of Joe passing was made all the worse because of the ridiculous circumstances leading up to his death. The stupidity of the media's "rush to judgment". The vicious Court of Public Opinion that claimed Joe was at fault for Sandusky's alleged crimes. The inept fools that seized on Joe's lament that "with the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more" as if the remorse of an honest man, who wished he could have spared the victims the horror they faced, was somehow admitting he had done something wrong. Those who knew Joe, knew he was blameless.
And then the disgraceful humiliation Joe faced, when the Board of Trustees fired him over the phone, because they caved to media pressure and could not gather enough courage to even look Joe in the eye, let alone take responsibility for their own poor decisions. We all knew Joe had done the right thing, both under the law and morally too. He had given the bulk of his life to nurturing and supporting that University with every ounce of energy he had. And his wife, SuePa, who has more guts than any of the 32 members of the Penn State Board of Trustees, picked up the phone and chided the Trustees, "After 60 years! He deserves better than this!"
But in spite of the recent scandal, I will always remember Joe with love and affection. Because I know he remained steadfast and true to the principles and values he held so dearly in his heart and mind. Joe was our Coach, our mentor, our symbol and ... our friend. He always had time for everyone in the Penn State community and he cared about - and served - that community faithfully for over 60 years. His legacy is intact and will forever remain the standard by which those among us who strive for excellence and humanity will measure themselves.
But I will remember him best for those special, cold December days. When he took the time to commune with a group of rag-tag young men, united by their love of football, in that snow swept Park behind his house on McKee Street.
"What do you want me to do on this play, Coach?"