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chapter 10 The Image of Joe Paterno’s Grand Experiment “I sing of arms and the man . . . to drive a man, noted for virtue, to endure such dangers, to face so many trials.” —Virgil, Aeneid (19 bce) “We will never sacrifice sound academic principles for athletic success.” —Joe Paterno (1972) Well before Penn State’s entry into the Big Ten and in the midst of World War II, a year before the last gasp Nazi Battle of the Bulge and the year the Allies invaded Italy below Rome, a Roman Catholic Jesuit priest and high school teacher at Brooklyn Preparatory High School asked a bright, seventeen-year-old Joe Paterno whether he would like to translate and study Virgil’s Aeneid. The Aeneid was the Latin-Christian education classic, and Rev. Thomas Bermingham, a young Latin teacher, persuaded the youthful scholar and athlete to study it with him. The heroic epic Aeneid is about the preordained destiny of Aeneas, defeated Trojan warrior who escaped from the victorious Greeks in the Trojan War. Aeneas traveled the Mediterranean to found the city of Rome for the Trojans. This piece of essential reading for a well-educated Roman Catholic caught Joe Paterno’s imagination, probably from the beginning lines that most young people would struggle to translate from the original Latin: I sing of arms and the man, he who, exiled by fate first came from the coast of Troy to Italy . . . hurled about endlessly by land and sea, by the will of gods, by cruel Juno’s remorseless anger, long suffering also in war, until he founded a city. . . . to drive a man, noted for virtue, to endure such dangers to face so many trials.1 Arma virumque cano, Troiae qui primus ab orisItaliam, fatoprofugus, Laviniaque venit litora, multum ille et terris iactatus et alto vi superum saevaememoremIunonisobiram ;multa quoque et bello passus, dum conderet urbem, inferretque deos Latio, genus unde Latinum, Albanique patres, atque altae moenia Romae.2 To young Joe Paterno, this was not only an idealistic and romantic call to arms but also a call to duty from forces larger than oneself—a kind of preordained destiny for Aeneas and possibly for himself. Unfortunately, Paterno may never Smith_text.indd 100 12/7/15 11:11 AM The Image of Joe Paterno’s Grand Experiment 101 have translated the entire book of Virgil, for if he had, he would have discovered an Aeneas who abandons without warning his lover, Dido, the queen of Carthage , to pursue his fate, duty bound, and seek out the land of Italy as home for his beloved Trojans. Would Paterno ever have abandoned someone to pursue a personal goal in response to the strong influence of Virgil’s Aeneas? Paterno later called the perseverance and suffering of Aeneas as the “us, we, team” of struggle rather than the “I, me” that people see in Homeric heroes, particularly Achilles of the Iliad, a warrior who refused to fight at one point for his team, the Greeks. The Roman hero, unlike the Greek hero, Paterno believed, was a “team player.”3 It was the team, the Penn State football team, that dominated Joe Paterno’s entire life from age twenty-three, only a half-decade after working on translating Virgil’s Aeneid. Late in life, Paterno told a writer for Forbes that he “always admired the way Aeneas stood tall in the face of adversity knowing he had a destiny. I have tried to let that help guide me.”4 Paterno looked at the pious, courageous, and dedicated acts of Aeneas and overlooked the questionable moral acts that Aeneas performed such as abandoning his lover and slaying the unarmed Turnus, a rival for Latium , as the story progresses. Aeneas runs down a robed priest and, according to John Lessingham, a true scholar of Virgil, “grandstands like a real epic hero,” not as Joe Paterno believed. The Aeneas Lessingham has depicted was in fact the grandstanding superstar.5 Yet the heroic and selfless vision of Aeneas in Paterno’s eyes, in his reading of an ancient Roman writer, is part of what morphed into Paterno’s “Grand Experiment.” Perceptions, it might be noted, throughout our lives are often more important than the revealed truth. Was Joe Paterno unique? How many coaches had ever read Virgil or majored in English literature at an Ivy League institution? How many continued to read literature as they began their coaching careers? How many discussed literature with a spouse or a literature professor...


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