Age, health concerns creeping up on beloved JoePa

Aug 3rd, 2010 | By sportsnews | Category: Sports

CHICAGO — What we learned again Monday is that it stinks to get old. It stinks worse when it happens in public. Joe Paterno spoke at the Big Ten media days looking slightly thinner and talking slightly slower.

Maybe that was an improvement considering two years ago his balky hip wouldn’t allow him to stand on the sidelines. Or that in 2006 he was run over by a Wisconsin player and injured his knee. We always knew Joe can’t live forever. Now there is physical evidence.

That’s not a rip. Think about departed members of your family. The memories you hold most dear are when they were at their most vibrant. JoePa quipped and kidding with the media at this annual event he probably equates to an annual trip to the dentist. But that cackling register of his voice was missing. He basically admitted to reported flu-like symptoms that kept him from several speaking engagements in the offseason, graphically telling one questioner, the gastro-intestinal affliction, “was a little bit below the intestines.”

Four years ago it was definitely below the intestines when Paterno sprinted off the field in the middle of the game at Ohio State because he had to go to the bathroom. It happens. It usually doesn’t happen in front of 100,000 people.

Now something more may be happening to Joe, and the frailty is out there for everyone to see more than halfway through his 84th year. It is overshadowing the fact that he will likely become the third college coach ever to win 400 games this season.

“When I’m down [in the ground] and looking up, are they going to put 399 on top of me or are they going to put 401?” Joe said. “Who the hell cares? I won’t know.”

Yes, Paterno (394 wins) was ready to brush off the milestone until being reminded that he is right behind Eddie Robinson, who has 408 career victories. John Gagliardi of Division III St. John’s has 471.

He said great African-American coaches like Robinson and Jake Gaither “never quite got the recognition … the financial rewards that so many of us have gotten out of it.”

Paterno, Gagliardi and Robinson, then, will retire that magic number. We will never see another coach, at least at this level, win 400 again. The money is too big and the stress is too great to hang around that long.

“We’re lucky — anybody that loves college football — for every day we have with him because there won’t be anybody like him after that,” said his old quarterback Todd Blackledge. “We need to just relish however many more days, months or years we have Joe.”

It’s a good thing, then, Jay Paterno decided to stop by the Penn State football offices after a recruiting trip earlier this year. It was a time when most of the coaches are out on the road. Except one.

His dad.

“Luckily, Jay went by on a Friday night,” remembered Guido D’Elia, Joe Paterno’s right-hand man and director of branding and football communications at Penn State.

Jay found his father in such a deteriorated condition that he immediately said, “You’ve got to get to the doctor.”

D’Elia recounted the rest of the conversation.

“Why?” Joe said.

“To get you medicine,” Jay said.

“I don’t want any medicine,” Joe shot back. “That’s the problem. I don’t want the doctor.”

Joe isn’t different from millions of other senior citizens. At their age, they’re afraid if they go to the hospital, they’ll never come out. It scares them to death.

Joe had to be persuaded to take antibiotics because of a dental infection. There was reportedly a reaction to the drugs. It took Paterno three months to get over it.

D’Elia said that Joe is so averse to medication that it has to be inserted into the unwary coach’s jell-O.

“I’m fine,” he reiterated on Monday. “I’m fine.

That makes what he has accomplished in the latter part of his career more amazing. Paterno has won at least nine games in each year since 2005. In that span he’s won 11 games three times and been to Rose Bowl once. This was after that downturn from 2000-04 when everyone said he’d lost it.

Maybe his greatest accomplishment in the last decade is keeping most of the staff together. They could be off making new careers, but what better a career builder then having “Paterno” on your resume.

The man may have slowed down but the program still runs on his energy. Paterno hasn’t made a home recruiting visit in more than two years. Can you imagine Nick Saban staying off the road for two years?

“I don’t know whether it’s hurt our recruiting to be frank with you,” Paterno said.

That energy has been building for 60 years. We forget that when Paterno started at Penn State in 1950, not only was television not a factor, it barely existed. There were coaches and NCAA officials who were worried that the talking picture box would hurt attendance.

He didn’t need the technology then, he doesn’t need it now.

“I’ll die without a computer,” Paterno told an interviewer recently.

That shouldn’t be interpreted to mean — like the rest of us — that he has to be wired 24/7. It means JoePa will pass from this earth with the only Macs he knows being the ones he coached. There are 23 of them according to the all-time lettermen’s roster whose names began with “Mc” in the Paterno head-coaching era.

On Monday, the media still asked questions that either Joe didn’t care about or didn’t know about. The man who has been stumping for expansion for years got his wish when Nebraska was added to make it 12 in the Big Ten. He’s still stumping, for another team in the East.

“I don’t know,” he said of conference realignment in that signature Brooklyn accent, “is 16 the right num-bah?”

When the time does come, Paterno hopes the school would come to him with a list of two or three names they had settled on as replacement candidates.

“I don’t expect to name [the successor] …,” Paterno said. “I would hope there would be some kind of dialogue.”

The problem is that it may never come to that. Bobby Bowden used to talk about him and his good buddy Joe dying on the sideline. They love it that much. Now Paterno has witnessed the tragic scene of Bowden being forced out. That has to strengthen his resolve to stay on.

But if this is the farewell tour, then college football and all of sports should get its money’s worth. Penn State will be the first team to face three teams that won BCS bowls in the previous season (Ohio State, Iowa and Alabama). There will be what seems to be one last sweep through the South on Sept. 11 in Tuscaloosa where Paterno first met Bear in 1975.

Maybe sensing that, there was this completely unscripted moment at the end of Monday’s media sessions. Paterno and Tom Osborne popped out of a side door and posed for a photo op with Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany. It was the Big Ten’s holy trinity. For those of you scoring at home, that’s 649 combined victories and the man who put them together (in 2011) thanks to expansion.

“I assume they wanted people who were really old in the same picture,” said Osborne who didn’t quite grasp the significance that Blackledge laid out earlier.

Relish the days, months or years …

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