Joe Paternal Legendary coach was a father figure for many who knew him, including three from this area
By: BRUCE MORGAN AND STEPHEN SEEBER Record Express Staff, Staff Writer
Deron Thompson won’t ever forget the first time he met iconic Penn State football coach Joe Paterno.
"Me, a walk-on freshman coming in, it’s pre-season camp, I didn’t really know what to expect and here’s the most famous figure ever in college (football) history calling my name over to his golf cart," said the former Warwick star, a redshirt freshman running back with the Lions in 2011. "I mean, just that, I was stunned and just impressed."
Sunday’s death of the Nittany Lions legend is a sad end, in the mind of Thompson and many others, to a storied career that has had an immeasurable impact on countless student-athletes during his 46 years as the head coach in Happy Valley.
The Record Express talked to three locals this week who knew JoePa better than most — a current player, a former player and a former team manager. They all remember him as a larger-than-life leader and role model.
"I’m kinda thinking that our football family lost our father, essentially, and he definitely was a father figure to us, as somebody you could go and talk to about anything," said Graham Zug, a 2006 Manheim Central grad who lettered as a wide receiver at Penn State from 2008-10.
For Zug, he grew up bleeding blue and white, so to speak. His parents David and Claudia Zug, grandparents, and older brother David all went to Penn State before him, and his younger sister Daneen followed him to State College.
As a preferred walk-on wide receiver, Zug went on a recruiting trip to Penn State with blue-chip quarterback recruits Pat Devlin, of Downingtown East, and Zach Frazer, of Mechanicsburg. It was there that Zug got the opportunity to meet his childhood hero.
"I grew up Penn State and (Paterno) was an idol to me," he said. "A lot of coaches would go straight to those top recruits and try to get them to commit to Penn State. But he came to all three of us and he really spent time with me and my family and knew everything about us. Some schools’ walk-ons aren’t always treated the same as a top recruit in the nation and I think for him to come out and know me and treat me the same as any other scholarship player says a lot."
When Zug last saw his idol, on Oct. 29, he also happened to witness a piece of history inside Beaver Stadium. With the Lions’ 10-7 win over Illinois, Paterno earned his 409th career win to pass Eddie Robinson for the most in Division-I history.
Little did Zug know at the time, but that would not only be the final home game that Paterno coached, but also the last-ever game in his storied career. He was fired by Penn State on Nov. 10 amid the alleged child sexual abuse scandal involving former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky.
Barely more than two months later, Zug, while on his way home last Saturday with his parents from a boat show in Baltimore, was saddened to hear news reports that his former coach was struggling for his life at Mount Nittany Medical Center.
Then on Sunday morning, while at his home in Palmyra getting ready for the week, Zug received a phone call from his former teammate, quarterback Darryl Clark, that Paterno had passed away due to complications from lung cancer.
"I was shocked because it happened to such a great guy, a great person, a great coach," Zug said. "Obviously, I was sad. And then right away, my thoughts and prayers went out to his family and the coaches and the team and the Penn State nation."
Thompson, meanwhile, was at Beaver Stadium hosting recruits Saturday evening when word began to spread about Paterno’s condition.
"There were text messages from the coaching staff that he wasn’t doing good," Thompson said. "Word was getting around that he was really struggling, so we prayed. It was pretty dramatic … It was probably about 6 o’clock and then we left and there were already people out at his statue."
Less than 24 hours later, after the Penn State players received a text that Paterno had died, the team met at 2 p.m. at the Lasch Football Building behind closed doors. They were scheduled to be on a bus at 9:40 a.m. Tuesday to attend a viewing for their former coach at the Pasquerilla Spiritual Center.
"It was pretty sad," Thompson said. "It took the campus hard. It really affected everybody because he definitely played a huge role in creating this campus. Without JoePa, Penn State would have never grown this big. All the morals he held were intact and right on. He’s just a great character."
Thompson, like Zug, has a long family history with Penn State. His parents, Craig and Lynne, in addition to two uncles, all graduated from PSU; and his brother David and sister Dana are also attending school in Happy Valley.
The fact that Thompson was able to play for Paterno for even a short period of time was something that he didn’t take lightly.
"It was definitely a very cool experience," Thompson said of meeting Paterno for the first time in early July. "I mean, here’s this guy, a living legend, he created one of the greatest universities in the nation, and to have the honor of shaking his hand, meeting him and talking to him, it was pretty cool. It was something that I was proud I got to do, that I was fortunate to meet a man of his stature."
Zug echoed those sentiments.
Reflecting on Paterno’s legacy, Zug said, "He’s somebody that, if you follow his lessons, his ways, you know you’re going to be a better person. It’s not just the people at Penn State, it’s not the students there, it’s not the athletes. It’s really anybody that has a desire to like or enjoy Penn State. I know my parents look at him as a father figure, my grandparents look at him as a father figure. He’s that impactful and that important to this world that he’s just an unbelievable individual; and that many people look up to him and that many people follow his ways and his traditions, I think that speaks for itself."
Tim Reedy, a Class of 1984 Warwick grad, was an equipment manager for the Penn State football team during the 1984-1987 seasons. He found out about Paterno’s death through a text message from his daughter while he was at church on Sunday.
"He touched so many lives through education, coaching and friendship," he said. "He was a father first, an educator second and a coach third.
"When I heard of his passing, I immediately thought of Joe standing by himself at the far end of the football practice field. He was still, quiet, humble, in charge and surrounded by his football family — exactly where he wanted to be. At the end, he was still, quiet, humble, in charge and surrounded by his immediate family — exactly where he wanted to be. No fanfare. No limelight. Just his family. Joe Paterno equals family man."
Reedy is also a family man, married to Tina and the father of four children. Today, he manages at ACS, a Xerox company; but 25 years ago he was managing a National Championship football team.
"The managers had a superstition about who polished Joe’s shoes before a game," Reedy recalled. "If a manager polished his shoes and PSU won that game, then the manager polished his shoes for the next game."
In 1985, Reedy polished JoePa’s shoes in game one.
"We went undefeated in 1985 and played Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl," he continued. "However, Joe wanted to wear new shoes for the game, so I didn’t polish them. We lost to Oklahoma."
The following year, since Reedy was technically still undefeated among shoe-polishing managers, he polished Paterno’s shoes to begin the 1986 season.
"Well, we went undefeated in 1986 and played Miami in the Fiesta Bowl for the National Championship," he said. "I told Joe before the game that he was not to wear new shoes for the game; he must wear the ones that he wore during the entire season. So, I polished them before the Miami game and the rest is history.
"I went out a champion, going 23-0 in polishing Joe’s shoes, as I decided not to polish his shoes to begin the 1987 season.
"By the way, along with the polished shoes, he received a new pair of white socks for each game."
While the legend may be gone, physically, the memories for champions in their own rights — like Reedy, Zug and Thompson — created by Coach Paterno will live on in the hearts and minds of all he influenced. More PATERNO, page A16