NEW CASTLE —
Todd Atkins arrived in State College with a heavy heart earlier this week.
He left with a sense of peace.
“There was a feeling of sadness that Joe passed on with the knowledge that his reputation was in the balance,” the former Laurel High and Penn State football star said. But if these last few days proved one thing, it’s that his legacy is intact.
“I only wish he could have been here to see this.”
Atkins was one of 2,385 former players and coaches who joined tens of thousands of fans in helping make that happen by joining together to pay their respects at visitation for Nittany Lions coaching legend Joe Paterno, who died Sunday at age 85 of complications from lung cancer.
Paterno, the winningest coach in Division I college football history, was fired after 46 years as head coach following a child sex abuse scandal involving former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky, just days before his lung cancer diagnosis was revealed. Although Paterno reported an incident allegedly witnessed by a graduate assistant coach to his superiors, no action was taken and Paterno was one of those to bear the brunt of the fallout.
Atkins, a 1996 Penn State graduate who lettered four years on the defensive line, waited in line with other former players for two hours to file past Paterno’s closed casket in the Pasquerilla Spiritual Center, where they were greeted by members of Paterno’s family. Some fans waited as long as five hours to gain admission to the spiritual center.
“Only a man like Joe Paterno could get this many past players and coaches together,” he said. “It was a special tribute to a special man. I think the love and affection in that room spoke for itself.”
Atkins, who lives in New Castle and is a production supervisor at Praxair Service Technologies, joined more than 1,000 of his fellow lettermen at a luncheon Tuesday in Beaver Stadium. Much of the group then headed to a private party at a State College restaurant.
Atkins said they spent hours telling stories about Paterno and celebrating his contributions.
“Joe was more than just a coach,” he said. “The guy spent his life trying to do good things. Every life he touched was better for it and that includes mine.”
Atkins said he will help make certain that Paterno’s legacy remains intact.
“The guys who played for him will vouch for him until the day we die.”
‘I FEEL LIKE AN ORPHAN’
Bruce Clark, the winner of the 1978 Lombardi Award winner given to the nation’s top college lineman, is one of a group of players who lost their college coach and their high school coach — New Castle High’s Lindy Lauro — in just over a week.
“This has been one of the worst weeks of my life,” the State College resident said. “I got home from coach Lauro’s funeral and found out that Joe was in really bad shape. I said, ‘Are you kidding me? This cannot be happening.’
“These two guys were the only fathers I ever knew,” he added. “I visited with Joe a little over a week before he died. He seemed fine — he was battling the cancer and seemed upbeat. In no way could I tell that he was near the end. Every time I would ask him how he was, he would deflect the attention off himself and ask about my family. He kept saying, ‘Don’t worry about me, I’ll be OK, you just take care of your family.’
“I’ve been a mess all week,” Clark added. “I absolutely feel like an orphan right now. Just like that, my two dads are gone.”
Clark attended all of Tuesday’s events and said one conclusion was drawn by the large group of lettermen.
“We agreed universally that coach could have beaten cancer,” he said. “We all concurred that he died of a broken heart.
“He taught us love, loyalty, respect and honor and he exuded those things down to the last day of his life.”
Clark said there is no question in his mind that Paterno’s place in history is intact.
“I think Joe’s legacy is all of us, all of those 2,000-plus guys who stood outside for hours waiting to stand in front of his casket and honor him. We all spent our careers fighting for his love and once you earned it, you knew you had it for a lifetime. He treated us as one of his own because to Joe Paterno, that’s exactly what we were.”
‘AN EVERYDAY GUY’
Mark Latsko, a 1976 New Castle High graduate, was recruited along with Clark by Paterno, which meant that Lauro and Paterno both played major roles in his life as well. One week after attending Lauro’s funeral, he made the trip to State College to attend Paterno’s visitation.
“If someone would have told me in August that my high school and college football coaches would die within about a week of each other, I never would have believed it,” he said.
Latsko witnessed the closeness of Paterno and Lauro on many occasions. He and Clark were plucked by Paterno from Lauro’s 1975 WPIAL championship team, where both were standout linemen.
“Joe used to laugh that every time he came to New Castle, he felt like he was going to the zoo — they’d take him to the Eagles, the Elks and the Polish Falcons.
“He and Lindy became so close. Joe spoke at our WPIAL championship banquet in 1975. Joe and Lindy would stay at each other’s houses — Joe always said that when Lindy slept at his house, he’d keep all his kids up with his snoring.”
Latsko graduated in 1980, and in 1981, he served as a graduate assistant on Paterno’s staff.
“I was in charge of the scout team, and my job was to organize everything and prepare for the next opponent,” he said. “Joe was always very time-management oriented, everything was on a schedule and planned down to a T. He would list on his schedule, ‘15-20 minutes to review scout team with Latsko.’ Well, once I got used to what he wanted, I would have everything prepared and we’d be able to go over it all in 3 or 4 minutes. Instead of getting up and walking away and doing something else, he’d spend the next 15 minutes getting to know me and letting me get to know him. We’d talk about everything — he was big into the Republican party and he’d give me his views on that. Gerald Ford came and visited us when he was running for reelection. Joe was a smart guy — he knew a lot of people and he knew something about everything.
“But Joe lived his life like an everyday guy. He used to walk to work every day and exchange greetings with everyone he’d pass along the way. He was very reachable and touchable to all the folks there, I think that was one of the reasons he was loved so much.”
Latsko, who lives in Neshannock Township and works for the Anderson-DuBose Company, a distributor for McDonald’s restaurants, last saw Paterno at the Penn State letterman golf outing in August and said he never could have guessed it would be the last time he spoke with his mentor.
“Through all this, my heart most goes out to (Paterno’s wife) Sue,” he said. “You could always see the love between Joe and her. She was the perfect complement to him. Joe had his own personality, he was reserved and calculated. Sue was the exact opposite — she was gregarious and a bit boisterous. She had no problem telling you what she was thinking.”
Mark said, like many others, he has struggled with any role Paterno might have played in the Sandusky scandal.
“I haven’t had the chance to put together all my thoughts on the things that have happened over the years with this,” he said. “Joe was a football coach, but at the same time, he grew to be bigger than that with all his success and all the good that he did. The decisions he made were a football coach doing what a football coach thought was right. You just can’t wrap everything up into a tidy package, it might take years to make all of this fit together and unfortunately for Joe, that time ran out.”
Latsko said the toughest part about paying his respects Tuesday came when he found himself face-to-face with Paterno’s son, Jay, a former assistant coach with the team.
“I choked up a couple of times and for some reason, it was really tough to see Jay, who I know fairly well,” he said. “It was tough to hold it together. I told him I was indebted to his dad and thanked him for allowing the lettermen to be a part of it. It would have been easy for the family to say, ‘the guy was fired, we’re not going to allow anyone that has anything to do with Penn State to be a part of this,’ but they didn’t take that approach, they handled it with class and dignity, just as their father would have.”
Joe’s son, David, was there, too.
“I was with the team in 1977 when Joe missed one of the only games of his career,” Latsko said. “David fell off a trampoline and it appeared for a time that he might not survive. Joe taught us then, that it was family first.”
When Tuesday’s visitation for players ended, the lettermen were bused to Beaver Stadium.
“We got on the blue buses, just like we did for games, and as we were driving away, we could see the people lining up for a half-mile to pay their respects — a lot of them were standing in line crying and I think it hit me then just what this man meant to so many people,” Latsko said. “At the stadium, Joe’s picture was up on the two scoreboards. It was a nice tribute to him.”
The players were greeted by incoming coach Bill O’Brien, who took them to the Penn State locker room and spoke with them about his commitment to continue what Paterno started.
“He’s not in an easy place and I was impressed with how he conducted himself and what he said,” Latsko noted. “It took a lot of guts to face all those former players.”
Latsko said he will continue to follow Penn State football and bleed the blue and white.
“Making the trip to State College was closure for me, so I’m glad I went,” he said. “I think it was good for us all to take a step back and realize how lucky we were to be a part of all that.”
‘YOU KNEW WHAT HE EXPECTED’
Mike Latsko, Mark’s younger brother, was unable to attend Tuesday’s viewing because of family commitments, but he did plan on attending a reception for former players and coaches last night.
The 1987 Penn State graduate also is mourning the loss of Lauro and Paterno just days apart.
“They both stood for the same things,” he said. “They went about their business and conducted themselves in a very similar way. When I got to Penn State, it was just an extension of what I learned from my parents growing up, then from what I learned from Lindy.”
Mike said he, too, has agonized with any involvement Paterno might have had in the Sandusky scandal.
“I just find it hard to believe, knowing this man for the years that I did, that he would have known more and covered it up,” he said. “One thing about Joe Paterno, you always know what he stood for. You knew what he expected of himself and what he expected of you.”
Mike, a vice president of strategy at Westinghouse Electric in Cranberry Township, said he always respects former athletes, largely because of Paterno.
“People at work make fun of me because if I see on a kid’s resume that he played sports at the university level, he gets a couple of extra points in my book,” he said. “And if that person played for someone like Joe Paterno, you know you can expect nothing less than a lifetime of excellence from them.”
‘A TREMENDOUS HUMAN BEING’
John Wojtowicz, a 1977 Union High graduate, went on to play on Paterno’s offensive line. The resident of the Pittsburgh suburb Oakdale and an investment adviser for Harvest Financial, said Paterno’s death just contributed to his sorrow since his own mother died two weeks ago.
“This is just a really sad time for me,” he said. “Joe was a tremendous coach, but even more than that, he was a tremendous human being. Who knows what the actual truth is, maybe we’ll never know the whole story on the Sandusky thing, but as a friend of mine said to me recently, ‘If people were to audit their own lives against Joe Paterno’s, they wouldn’t even come close to measuring up.’
“I think history will judge Joe Paterno kindly,” he added. “The actions of one sick man, if he did do what he is accused of, may have brought down the prestige of this great university, but I don’t think there is any way he will damage the legacy of Joe Paterno.”
NEW CASTLE —
Todd Atkins arrived in State College with a heavy heart earlier this week.
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