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The Sad King

Joe Paterno.

The way I see it, the way it must have come down, is like this.

I snarfed down my Raisin Bran: milk beads rolling down my chin/hanging off my beard like hard-luck people clinging to dangling vines on some jungle cliff after their crappy bus turned over on some soggy sad goat trail in the Himalayas or the Amazon or wherever, spilling them down the steep ravine that just drops off the edge of the Earth.

And there was some bass fishing on the TV that I was kind of watching, but also I was looking at pictures of dead Jesse James (the outlaw/not the tattoo guy) on Ebay, so it’s hard to say what I was more focused on.

But it had to be one of those things I was busy with at the exact second that Joe Paterno drew his last breath yesterday morning.

I was probably on my butt, watching some sun-burnt Larry The Cable Guy throw a rubber worm at a hollow log, sipping some coffee and anticipating the strike of a fish from some far off place, from some day long gone, as another man was dying in real time down the road.

I went to Penn State for a year of my life, but that was a long time ago, in a galaxy far far away. That was in a galaxy called  Suburban Satellite Campus, where you lived at home in your Mom’s attic and commuted in your interstellar-battleship Chevy Impala to the campus each day and instead of going to class you mostly sat in the passenger seat of your space ship and blew Marlboro smoke out the cracked window and listened to Howard Stern and kept obsessively checking the rear-view for the Darth Vader-ish Rent-A-Cop you were sure was plucked from some distant planet to bust you in the middle of your expensive scam.

So, I knew of Coach Paterno, of course, but peripherally, at best. I didn’t watch college football; I watch bass fishing.

Yet now, like a lot of folks, I’m noticing the man because, as far as real-life Shakespearean tragedies go, the coach sure as hell found himself in the middle of one here in the last month or so of his life.

Some people are saying he died of a broken heart. I don’t know, maybe he did, maybe he didn’t.

But, one thing I do know is that as a seemingly-good father to his own children, and as a legendary father-figure to so many many more during his half-century at Penn State: he must have faced some powerful inner-questions in his recent final days. Like King Lear, stood out in the middle of a raging tempest, the winds of humanity bashing at his temples, Joe Paterno, the man who once seemed among the most unlikeliest to stand upon tragedy’s stage, found himself dying upon it.

And, deep down, in the basement of his guts, I can’t help but wonder: what did he really feel? What sort of sadness ran through the King Of Around Here as he faced his end?

Was he sad for the victims?

Was he sad for his legacy?

Was he sad for the bad luck, the horrible timing of it all?

Or was he simply sad that all he ever wanted to do was just be a football coach? And sad that, in the end, that wasn’t enough to keep ten tons of sadness from dancing on his grave?

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