Who Can Replace Our Icons?
We finally got the official word yesterday morning that Joe Paterno had passed away, after a few erroneous reports as early as Saturday night. When it was confirmed, it made me think about those that have been icons throughout my life, how quickly they are vanishing and who might be waiting to replace them. This doesn’t just apply to the IZOD IndyCar Series, motorsports or sports in general. It applies to all of the great individuals from the twentieth century that we are losing.
There are those that say that Joe Paterno was no icon. To them I say how sadly mistaken they are. This was a man who gave his entire life to making an impact on young men’s lives. After serving in World War II, he had been destined to become an attorney after graduating from Brown University. When he told his father, Angelo, the disappointing news that he was eschewing that profession to become a football coach instead, the father gave him one bit of advice: whatever you do, make an impact.
For the sixty-one years that he was on the coaching staff at Penn State, he did just that. When he became the head coach beginning in 1966 and for the next forty-six years that he was the head coach; Joe Paterno taught the young men that he coached so much more than blocking and tackling. He taught them lessons in life. He mentored them from age eighteen to twenty-two. In that time he expected them to grow, mature, get their degree and leave the institution as men. Men who would go out into their communities and lead productive lives.
Listen to any of the hundreds of men who played under Joe Paterno and you hear stories of love and respect. They loved the man. They don’t speak of how he made each one a better football player, rather how he made them better people. His emphasis was on character and education. He and his wife gave millions to the university – not to the athletic department, but to libraries and educational facilities.
That’s why I found it so despicable when I scoured the internet for reaction to his death. Although he had only been dead for a couple of hours, there were those who vilified him for the horrible crimes allegedly done by a former assistant coach. Others questioned why so much attention was given to a man involved in nothing more than a game. I have no answers for the latter camp. They obviously don’t understand sports. For the former group; legally, Coach Paterno did nothing wrong by passing the information he had along to his supervisors. Could he have done more? Certainly, and Coach Paterno acknowledged that himself. I have read the entire Grand Jury indictment. I feel certain that many of those so willing to sack Coach Paterno last November cannot make that statement.
After reading what I read, it’s easy to say what one should or would do. Looking back, he could’ve done much more. But faced with the same scenario without the luxury of hindsight, I can’t honestly say I would have done anything different than what Coach Paterno did. Does that make it right? No, but it makes it easier to understand why he acted as he did. He didn’t ignore what happened. He reported it to the proper channels and assumed they would act prudently. They didn’t.
The self-righteous who are obviously completely without sin or any mistakes in their lives, assumed a lynch-mob mentality. They didn’t just want to see Joe Paterno fired; they wanted him jailed, convicted and humiliated. They got some of what they wanted. Shortly after the Jerry Sandusky story broke, Joe Paterno was unceremoniously dumped before the season had finished. He had offered to retire at the end of the season, but Penn State said no.
The whole episode is sad on so many fronts. Who among us doesn’t have one or two deep regrets in their lives and would give anything to have a chance to right those wrongs if we could? The problem with this episode is it’s the last thing we have to remember Coach Paterno by.
Please don’t get me wrong. I am not trying to minimize the horrendous crimes allegedly committed by Jerry Sandusky. The children he violated have been scarred for life. Life in prison is not harsh enough for this man if he is convicted. But my problem in November was the same as it is today – Joe Paterno did not commit these crimes. Jerry Sandusky is the one who is alleged to have committed these heinous acts. Yet our knee-jerk society needed a more visible target to take down. They had to have someone to blame. Unless you were a hard-core football fan, you had probably never heard of Jerry Sandusky. Everyone had heard of Joe Paterno. Obviously he had to go, in their eyes.
After giving his all for sixty-one years, Joe Paterno was kicked to the curb by the administrators at Penn State against the wishes of most Penn State fans. More than six decades of leading and mentoring the young men of Penn State has been completely erased by many by what transpired over the past few weeks – but not in my eyes. I’ll still remember him for all of the good that he did. I’ll still have memories of how he took his dominant Penn State into Tennessee twice in the early seventies and went back to Happy Valley with a loss each time, yet paid us back in the nineties and 2000’s with bowl victories over the Vols – all games with class.
OK, so this is a nice rant – but what does this have to do with racing?
As I said earlier, the icons of my lifetime are quickly disappearing. Football coaches Bear Bryant, Joe Paterno and Tom Landry – they’re all gone. Nick Saban and Bill Belichick just don’t quite seem to be in their league. Perhaps we know too much about them. Who in basketball can approach the status of John Wooden? In racing, I followed the likes of AJ Foyt, Mario Andretti, Al & Bobby Unser, Johnny Rutherford and Gordon Johncock for thirty years. They were all icons that accounted for seventeen Indianapolis 500 victories between them. Who can replace them? Rick Mears is an icon, and he only drove half the time that those others did. Helio Castroneves may become the fourth four-time winner, but can he really be considered an icon?
Our society today doesn’t seem like they want to have any more icons. In conversations with my twenty-two year old son, he and his friends seem to have disdain for anyone that has achieved hero status. If someone has been labeled an icon by the media, the fist impulse seems to be to go to the internet and trash them. If no real dirt exists on a person – they’ll resort to just making it up. The internet doesn’t require sources or facts, just someone willing to make an outlandish statement in an effort to bring someone down from their supposed pedestal.
In the eyes of the Legions of the Miserable, it’s much easier to bring someone down than it is to admit someone actually deserves to be an icon. It’s hard for them to acknowledge that there are those out there that are much better people than they are.
There are those that are revered in history as iconic figures: Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King. If they had to deal with today’s media, social media and society; I wonder what their status in history would be. Today’s societal hatred of success indicates that they view anyone that has enjoyed success as a person who obviously screwed and cheated someone to get there and they need to be punished.
I have given ESPN a hard time over the years for their coverage of the IZOD IndyCar Series, or lack thereof – and rightfully so. But give them credit for the job they did yesterday in covering the life of Joe Paterno. They acknowledged the events of the last few weeks, but never let them cloud the issue of what a tremendous impact this man had on the lives of young men. They pre-empted programming and devoted the entire morning and afternoon to what this man meant to so many.
The Legions of the Miserable have done their best to erase a magnificent career of sixty-one years. No one seems sacred or off-limits anymore. Is that a good thing? Some will say it is, that it is our right to know. Quite honestly, I don’t want to know every minute detail of my heroes. I prefer to preserve my image of heroes like AJ Foyt, Dan Gurney and Wilbur Shaw, without knowing every sordid detail of their personal life, but that’s me.
But please tell me, who is the next iconic figure in the IZOD IndyCar Series? Who will challenge those I’ve already mentioned? If they’re smart, they’ll not quite shoot for the stars – or else, someone will be doing their best to bring them crashing down to earth.