Friday, August 10, 2012

Looking for heroes after Penn State

A year ago Penn State football and Joe Paterno were evidence that morality and competitive revenue sports intersected and had done so for many more years than I had been alive in a place appropriately called Happy Valley. The Nittany Lions were a team worth cheering for even if you had no connection to the school because they reportedly did things right while the NCAA babysat other competitive programs.

This idea really settled in when the UNC football scandal broke my heart back in the summer of 2010 after a couple exciting seasons. I stuck with my Heels and still do. I thought things had to get better because they could not get worse. I was wrong, but most of the proof did not come out of Chapel Hill (although some of it certainly did).

My colleague John graduated from Penn State and, like most alumni, respected Joe Paterno before the Sandusky story broke. He smiled when he talked about Paterno’s old-school savvy and Coke-bottle glasses. He joked that he knew I was a good guy when I told him that I was jealous of his coach and the stability he offered Penn State.

John is one of the best high school teachers I have ever known from either side of the red pen. He is brilliant, patient and painfully modest. Teaching in the room next to his is the definition of humbling. I once watched him interact with his little daughter at an end-of-year faculty barbecue and commented to another colleague that he was such a good dad.

“John is good at everything,” she plainly said to me. She was right.

I could tell John struggled to discuss the Penn State news last fall during class changes. I tried not to push it. His dejection reminded me that he was once a kid who looked up to his elders like any other kid. Everybody knows that those feelings are lasting, but it didn’t matter for John.

“It turns out my hero wasn’t such a hero,” he wrote to me soon after Louis Freeh’s condemning report.

The Penn State tragedy reminded us to think for ourselves and question authority. Those of us who did not attend Penn State do not have to consider discarding our own personal heroes today, but maybe we should look for more of them.

Some are right next door.

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