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Joe Paterno Died of "Broken Heart," Sapped of Optimism
According to Todd Blackledge, Joe Paterno died of a "broken heart" that left his immune system defenseless against the ravages of lung cancer and its treatment. Dr. Russ Buss agrees and elaborates of the important role of forgiveness in healing.
But, I agree with Blackledge. No one will ever know for sure, but I believe Joe Paterno’s spirit was sapped by the scandal and how he was fired. Joe was a healthy, vibrant 85 year old football coach until the news broke of the Sandusky child sex abuse scandal. Penn State University, in its infinite wisdom, fired Paterno in a brief evening phone call. No ceremony, no recognition of his contributions to the University since 1950. Just, “Your services are no longer needed.” Paterno gave 62 years of his working life to Penn State University, and he was thrown out as if he was a heap of garbage.
Joe continued to be an optimist on the outside; not blaming others, upholding his principles as coach and teacher, thankful for his blessings of children and grandchildren. But, I believe, Joe was hurting on the inside. He had to be appalled, sickened at the behavior of his former assistant Jerry Sandusky. Joe had to be asking himself, "How did I miss this? How could this kind of depravity gone on under my watch?"
If I try to put myself in Joe’s shoes, I can see how I would not want to believe something so abhorrent was going on right in “my own back yard” perpetrated by someone I had known and trusted for years. To turn and face the stench of that garbage pile might just be too much.
I don’t think Joe’s heart was broken by the circumstances of his firing, of not being able to go out like the hero he was, instead being dismissed like Woody Hayes or Bobby Bobby Knight. If there was one thing Joe taught it was toughness to stand up against the circumstances of life and football was a perfect venue for him to teach that lesson to thousands of young men.
No, Joe could have faced those circumstances. What he couldn’t face was the guilt and responsibility he felt on the inside for the scandal that had occurred on his watch. Although he never admitted to it, I’m sure he was blaming himself for every boy that was abused on his watch. Joe took life personally and did not shun responsibility. I believe Joe couldn’t find a way to forgive himself or if he sought it, could not accept God’s forgiveness.
Psalm 32; Versus 1-7 speaks to the healing power of forgiveness. Joe kept silent about his internal turmoil, and his “bones wasted away” just like the voice in verse 3. His strength “was sapped.”
Psalm 32, NIV
Blessed is the one
whose transgressions are forgiven,
whose sins are covered.
3 When I kept silent,
my bones wasted away
through my groaning all day long.
4 For day and night
your hand was heavy on me;
my strength was sapped
as in the heat of summer.
5 Then I acknowledged my sin to you
and did not cover up my iniquity.
I said, “I will confess
my transgressions to the LORD.”
And you forgave
the guilt of my sin.
Forgiveness is like a double edged sword. Its benefits come from two sources, seeking and receiving forgiveness and granting it to others. It is clear that Joe forgave the Penn State administration and anyone who was caught up in his treatment and firing. He never once said a negative word about them. Even though he didn’t or doesn’t deserve the blame for Sandusky, I think he took responsibility for missing or ignoring this horror that occurred on his watch.
Joe said in an interview that God must have had another plan for him than to finish out in celebration, adoration, and glory. Today, as Joe sits in the Kingdom of Heaven that plan may be clear to him. And, I am sure his spirit has been restored in heaven as only a direct encounter with the Lord himself would be enough to convince Joe he was forgiven.
We know such powerful forgiveness is possible because we saw it performed here on earth by Jesus in the raising of Lazarus and others from their death-beds and the elimination of terminal and chronic illnesses in his miracles. But this time, the rest of us will have to wait for the revelation of meaning to unfold here on earth.
Perhaps Joe’s ultimate legacy will be his sacrifice for the cause of eliminating child sexual abuse. If Joe Paterno’s disciples could turn the ultimate meaning of Joe’s life into a spearhead to eliminate this terrible crime against humanity, Joe will have made a greater contribution to humankind than he could ever have imagined.
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