Brian Malasics was born in Altoona, Pa., grew up in the Hershey area and graduated from Penn State in 2004. He has been a Herald-Leader copy editor and page designer since he finished college.
My grandmother once wrote a letter to Joe Paterno.
She told him how much she and other Penn State football fans supported him and his team despite a poor turnout at the airport for their return from a tough loss.
Paterno wrote her back.
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He thanked her for the encouragement and told her how he had read her letter to the team. How he had used her words to inspire pride in his players, to let them know how many people loved and respected them.
My grandma will never forget that one of the most famous and powerful men in college athletics took the time to write her a thank-you note. She still has the letter, more than 20 years later.
Penn State has meant a lot to my family. I got my diploma there. So did my grandma's son, and his son is about to do the same. My mother works at the university's medical center in Hershey, Pa. I went to my first Penn State football game before I said my first word, and we have been cheering for Paterno's teams since the 1970s.
But I don't think I ever realized how much I've learned from the coach until he disappointed me this week.
News of Paterno's handling of a child-sex-abuse allegation against his longtime defensive coordinator and friend, Jerry Sandusky, made a dam burst in my head. Memories swirled of my mom, my grandparents, my aunts and my uncles, all using Paterno's example to teach me about being honest and about having the courage to do the right thing.
And now I have to remember those lessons when I read about a "very upset" graduate assistant telling Paterno he had seen Sandusky "fondling or doing something of a sexual nature to a young boy."
I have to have the courage to question an icon. I have to be honest with myself and hold my idol accountable. I haven't always realized it, but I've tried to emulate him for most of my life, and I can't stop now.
On Jan. 2, 1987, I was 8 years old, and Penn State played Miami for the national championship.
My grandparents went to the Fiesta Bowl, and I watched from their living room in Hershey with my mother, an aunt and an uncle. It was an exhilarating, excruciating three hours. My uncle and I were scolded repeatedly for pounding on the arms of my grandpa's old recliners and throwing pillows that came too close to my grandma's end-table knick-knacks.
But when Pete Giftopoulos intercepted Vinny Testaverde's pass on fourth-and-goal with 14 seconds to go, we all popped out of our seats. I hugged my mom so hard, it was more like a tackle, and she fell back into her rocking chair.
Now, every time I head off to bed during vacations at my grandma's house, I pass a framed poster of that game-saving play on the wall.
But there was something more important about that night than just the victory.
The whole thing was a morality play.
Joe Paterno was good. Miami Coach Jimmy Johnson was evil.
Miami's kids wore army fatigues to the pre-game dinner. JoePa's kids wore ties. The Hurricanes were obnoxious. They taunted their foes, kicked them when they were down, and everybody just knew they were a bunch of cheaters. The Nittany Lions were humble and tough. They bent but didn't break, and they graduated.
After the game was over, family members, coaches and teachers held up Paterno as high as his players did carrying him off the field.
It was a moral victory in the truest sense in Pennsylvania. It showed that hard work and strong character trumped arrogance and glitz.
A suffocating defense didn't hurt, either. Penn State had eight first downs to Miami's 22. John Shaffer threw for 53 yards. The Lions ran for 109 on 43 carries. They won 14-10, thanks to five interceptions and two fumble recoveries.
It hurts to say it now, but Jerry Sandusky's defense won that championship.
If the grand jury's stories about lonely locker-room showers and dark basement bedrooms are true, his alleged victims lost their innocence.
And now is not the time to cling to mine.
Paterno's firing has further polarized people back home over this issue. You're either with Joe or against him.
But what I am trying my best to be is like him, or at least my ideal of him. I am trying to have the courage and integrity to look at the facts dispassionately and judge the man, not the legend.
Based on the facts we know, he made an atrocious call in 2002 when he didn't report Mike McQueary's allegation immediately to the police or follow up on his meeting about it with Athletics Director Tim Curley.
What's unclear is what else he knew and when.
So there is still a best-case scenario for Paterno's involvement, and one that I hope against hope turns out to be the whole truth.
That he was naive.
He heard a terrible thing — a thing he did not want to believe — about a man he respected. He felt too close to the situation and didn't want to bring a third-party accusation to police and ruin that man's life. So he took it to his boss, and his boss came back to him and told him there was nothing to worry about. "It was all a big misunderstanding, Joe. We've taken care of it."
Needing this to be true, Paterno chose to accept it and move on.
That wouldn't excuse his inaction. It would just make him human and imperfect.
This is what I want to be true about him. But I can't make the same mistake and blindly defend someone I admire.
I have to be willing to ask tough questions and accept that Paterno could be the opposite of his ideal.
How could the most powerful man at that university not have known about the 1998 investigation by campus police in which Sandusky, his closest colleague, admitted to showering with boys?
Paterno says now that McQueary's account of the 2002 incident didn't get specific. How many details did he need to hear? Even in the vaguest of terms, a description of that night in the showers is sickening.
How could he not follow up on the report?
Did he actively participate in a cover-up to save his reputation?
The emotional tug-of-war for Penn State fans over this possibility is exhausting.
But these questions need to be answered, and we need to find out whether Paterno was cynical and self-serving or simply old and naive.
I will accept the former, but I am rooting for the latter. And while it might be hard to understand for those who didn't grow up with JoePa in their lives, I empathize with his most ardent defenders.
The trustees' decision to fire him over the phone made me angry. I understood it, but it was like a punch in the chest. They don't have the answers to those questions yet, either, and as they caution us all against rushing to judgment during their investigation, they did just that with Paterno.
Many watched the footage afterward of students chanting and cheering on his lawn and saw a disgusting, tone-deaf display. Many saw the crowds flooding State College's streets and cringed.
I got goose bumps.
I saw kids — aside from the morons tipping over news vans — who grew up believing in Paterno. Whose parents taught them the same things mine taught me. A lot of those students probably could tell you about letters their grandmothers wrote to Joe or about similar instances in which he touched their families' lives.
And, in some ways, I wish I were still there on campus with them.
When Joe yells "We are," in my heart, I scream back: "PENN STATE!" But in my head, there is a different response: "We are? ... Sad. Disappointed. Disillusioned."
What we need to be is Determined.
Determined to live up to the standard Paterno set for so long. And to not let loyalty compound a tragedy.
If we do — if we refuse to believe the worst could be true about our idols — then we abandon what we know to be the best about them.
And the alleged victims in this case don't need more people turning their backs.