My memories of him go back to the mid-'50s, and I'll remember his kindness to me, his players and Penn State.
I knew Joe Paterno, not only as a great football coach with more victories than any other in Division I history but a great man who donated tons of money to Penn State and was the big reason the school got in the Big Ten.
Knowing the man, I'm positive he didn't die only from lung cancer, but he died of a broken heart. The great image he built since joining the Nittany Lions in 1950 as an assistant coach and taking over as head coach in 1966 was shattered by the Jerry Sandusky sex abuse scandal.
Yes, I'll bet that from the day he was fired as football coach in November, he replayed it over and over in his mind how things would have been different had he gone to the police and reported Sandusky.
The man, a great competitor, had to be confident he would beat lung cancer and that he was going to coach next year until the Sandusky scandal broke and he was fired.
Over the years I had a chance to see him when the Gophers played Penn State and at other functions. He was always available if I called him.
I want to make it clear that this column is about a great man who gave so much to many, not about me. But I have to tell about how I met the man and how we hit it off.
I covered the East-West Shrine Game in January 1956, then got on an overnight train to Pasadena to cover the Rose Bowl.
Once on the train, I headed for the dining car and there were sitting three coaches who had coached the East team -- Ohio State coach Woody Hayes, then-Penn State head coach Rip Engle and Paterno, Engle's assistant at the time.
The next thing I knew, Hayes yelled at me and said, "Come sit with us but shut up."
Nobody slept for a minute and all the talk was football until we got to Pasadena the next morning.
I wrote Paterno a letter congratulating him when he was promoted to head coach, and the next thing I knew, I got a phone call.
We seemed to hit it off on that train trip and even though I couldn't do him any good at Penn State with me being in Minnesota, he was available when I needed him. I got to know what a class person he was all these years.
One of my fondest pieces of memorabilia is a picture taken at the Metrodome with former Gophers coach Glen Mason, Paterno and myself. He got a copy of the picture and sent it to me with this message: "The only guy working who is older than me" and some kind words about how long we had known each other.
Without a doubt, Paterno will go down as one of the greatest football coaches who ever lived. It's so sad that he died with the most recent memories of him tarnishing his image.Mason close to Paterno
Mason, whose relationship with Paterno stretches back nearly 40 years, recalled the last two times he saw Paterno.
"When I saw him in Chicago at the annual [Big Ten football] media day [in July 2011], he looked fantastic," Mason said.
"And I grabbed him and I said, 'Coach, you look like a million bucks.' And he said, 'I haven't felt this good in years.' He looked great, he worked the media, he was on top of his game. Then he went back to Happy Valley and you'll remember he got hurt in spring practice [when a player collided with Paterno on the sideline, causing a hairline fracture in his pelvis. He fractured the pelvis again in a fall at home in December].
"I did their opening game this year for the Big Ten Network. Needless to say, he didn't look as good as he did in July and he was struggling with that injury."
Mason has been very concerned about Paterno ever since the Sandusky scandal broke.
"Obviously what took place at Penn State and him being forced out because of the scandal that was in place and then being diagnosed with lung cancer and trying to watch that from a distance, I never talked to him in that time, but I dropped him a weekly note.
"Then getting the erroneous reports [Saturday] night and the fact that [the reports said] he had passed away and then being reported that they were false, I kept up hope.
"I got up early this morning and there were not reports of him passing and then when I got done with my daily run, I saw it was confirmed. I feel like I lost a very close friend."
I know Mason did lose a real friend and, in fact, there were unconfirmed rumors at one time that Mason might replace Paterno when he retired from Penn State.Kill shocked
Gophers football coach Jerry Kill was among the many who were shocked about Paterno's death on Sunday. "I got home last night from recruiting and my oldest daughter said she had just heard about Joe Paterno passing away," Kill said. "Fifteen minutes later, my youngest daughter called from Murray State. That was the two girls from a coaching family reacting to the death of a great coach.
"That sums up his impact. It hits home. He coached for 60 years with more than 100 players each year. Think about how many lives he touched, how many good things he has done."Played for Paterno
Walker Lee Ashley, a great linebacker at Penn State who played on the national championship team that beat Georgia in the 1983 Sugar Bowl, couldn't say enough good things about his coach.
Ashley -- who played for the Vikings from 1983 to 1988 and again in 1990 and still lives here -- talked about the love and respect the players had for Paterno, who was a great person as well as a great coach.
And like many others, Ashley talked about all of the things he did for Penn State and how sad it was to see his life end the way it did.
Sandusky was the Penn State defensive coordinator when Ashley played for Penn State. Ashley talked about how much respect the players had for Sandusky, and to learn that he was involved in a scandal had to be surprising to every member of that Nittany Lions team.
Like Ashley, tight end Mickey Shuler also was a Penn State player who was drafted by the Vikings, in the seventh round in 2010.
One of the first things I did when Shuler reported to Vikings minicamp was talk to him about Paterno. And like other players who played for Paterno, Shuler couldn't say enough good things about Paterno, saying what a great coaching job he did and how he was like a father to all the football players.
Sid Hartman can be heard weekdays on WCCO AM-830 at 6:40, 7:40 and 8:40 a.m. and on Sundays at 9:30 a.m. email@example.com
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