Jerry, a successful bookie who played football for Penn State in the late 80s, explains why he owes his life to Joe Paterno. To him, the Coach, just fired for his role in the Jerry Sandusky child molestation sex scandal, is a truly great man--still.
To hear him talk about Paterno, you'd think he was talking about a god. "When I got to Penn State I was young and stupid, just drifting." recalls Jerry, who donates money to the school and usually wears Penn State T-shirts and sweatshirts. "I was nothing, nowhere, empty, a real zero, just a guy headed for some kind of drab life doing something I hated. I was looking for direction, for something interesting to do. One of the things I decided to try was football. I was a good athlete and I had been a good lineman in high school, so it was something I could do. That's how I met the Coach."
Jerry's career at Penn State was hardly what you'd call illustrious. He was only a fourth-stringer who played briefly in a handful of games. But that didn't seem to matter. What was important to him was having regular contact with Paterno. "I grew up without a father," explains Jerry, who's from a small Pennsylvania town.
"Coach was like a father to me. He was an inspiration. He taught me discipline, direction, how to be organized. I know I'm not a doctor or a lawyer, but I do make a lot of money and I love what I do and I have a comfortable life. He taught me how to get a grip on life. Without him, I probably would have gone down the drain."
What about the accusations that Paterno did little to stop the extensive sexual predator behavior of his defensive coordinator Sandusky?
Jerry replies: "He could have done more, but at least he did something. People act like he did nothing. Other people dropped the ball. People are treating him like he was the child molester. That's wrong.
"Don't get me wrong. I feel sorry for those victims. I have two boys myself. I feel for those kids and their families. But Coach isn't to blame, People are wrong to blame him. It's Sandusky."
Jerry remembers Sandusky well: "He was a brilliant coach. But I never liked him. He was mean to some of the players. He had a temper. When he got angry it was scary. There was something weird about him, like he had a dark side. That turned out to be true."
What about the argument that Paterno was part of a conspiracy of silence, part of a group that was more protective of the Penn State image and reputation than the welfare of those abused boys? "I'm siding with the people who don't buy into that," Jerry insists.
He adds: "How can I be mad at him? I owe him so much."
Some of his former players, interviewed in the last two days, have been moved to tears. "If you played for him you know what he's feeling, that he's in pain," he explains. "That tears at guys who know him. Imagining what he's feeling tears at my heart too.
Jerry is concerned about what happens to Paterno now. "Football is his life, what he lives for. It was clear when I was playing for him and it's even more true now. I'm afraid that without his coaching job and the shame of this scandal he's just going to die. Football was keeping him alive. I bet he won't be around next year this time."
Saturday's game, Penn State vs. Nebraska, the first without Paterno in charge in 46 years, is one Jerry is not looking forward to: "I can't bear to watch. I don't know when I can watch another Penn State game again."