By NOAM COHEN
The New York Times
April 30, 2012
“This won’t be another book about X’s and O’s, will it?” Joe Paterno’s daughter Mary Kay asked.
Joe Posnanski, then a senior writer for Sports Illustrated who had done a flattering profile of Paterno for the magazine in 2009, was trying to persuade the famous Penn State football coach and his family to agree to cooperate in a full-blown biography. In his pitch to the family, Posnanski quickly identified one of their initial misgivings.
“This seemed to be the early worry of the people closest to Joe, that this would be another in the series of surface Joe Paterno books,” Posnanski wrote in a book proposal delivered to publishers, “that it would not delve deeply enough into what Joe means, the impact he has made on countless people and a college town in Pennsylvania and the game of football.”
In the proposal, Posnanski then emphatically, even ardently, tried to reassure the Paternos.
“This book, I told them, will have a few O’s, and almost no X’s,” wrote Posnanski, a product of Cleveland, a onetime columnist at The Kansas City Star and a writer with a self-confessed soft spot for sports greats of the past. “This book will tell the remarkable story about a man who could have been anything but decided that the best way he could help change America was one college football player at a time.”
Indeed, Posnanski promised, his proposed biography would be nothing less than “the most amazing football story ever told.”
Posnanski’s pitch worked. Paterno agreed, and Simon & Schuster paid Posnanski a reported $750,000 advance to produce the biography.
Of course, Paterno’s story ended with a couple of spectacularly unexpected chapters: last fall, a former top assistant was charged as a serial pedophile, and Paterno was fired for having failed to do more after being told in 2002 that the former assistant had molested a young boy in the showers of the Penn State football building. The former assistant, Jerry Sandusky, went on to molest more boys, prosecutors have charged.
Paterno, saying little about the matter publicly, was dead months later. He owned the record for most victories by a major college football coach, but to many, it seemed as if, very late in the game of life, he might have snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.
Certainly, the jarring revelations, and Paterno’s exit as a consequence of what Penn State’s board of trustees deemed a failure of moral leadership, created warring camps among those left to debate Paterno’s legacy.
There was a chorus of furious critics who pilloried Paterno, saying he turned out to be just another big-time coach willing to place the interests of the football program over basic human decency. This camp had more to seize on when The Wall Street Journal reported in November that Paterno, again in contrast to his polished public image, had regularly over the years tried to intimidate university officials when his football players wound up in trouble or were arrested.
On the other side, there was an aggrieved, angry population of Paterno loyalists who charged that he had been made a scapegoat, that a lifetime of accomplishment and distinction had been cast aside by a lynch mob of self-serving university officials and a knee-jerk press corps.
Then, too, there was Posnanski, the Paterno believer and biographer faced with one of the more remarkable late-project twists to reckon with. Would he halt his project, or recalibrate its timetable to allow him to trace the fuller meaning, if there was fuller meaning, to the revelations and accusations concerning Paterno? Could there be more secrets? Or would the imperative be to publish sooner rather than later, to maximize the storm of notoriety? There are, after all, 550,000 living Penn State alumni, many of them, judging by their protests and letters to the editor, hungry to have the Paterno they thought they knew delivered back to them.
Posnanski, a near compulsive blogger and poster on Twitter, offered a kind of glimpse of his predicament soon after the initial revelations last fall. In a blog post for Sports Illustrated titled “Darkness,” he acknowledged that he was still trying to process the news.
“I came to State College to write about a real man,” he wrote. “I won’t tell you anything surprising: This terrible, evil story has made it harder. But I do buy into Tom Hanks’s line about baseball. It’s supposed to be hard.”
Posnanski, 45, has since moved on from Sports Illustrated and fallen largely silent on his biography. He would not be interviewed for this article.
One salient and sensitive question appears to have been settled by his publisher. Jonathan Karp, the publisher of Simon & Schuster, decided to move up the book’s publication date to late summer, in time for the start of football season, from Father’s Day 2013. “One of the reasons we accelerated is that there is so much more public interest,” Karp said. “Joe believes he can tell this story now — the pages I’ve read so far are superb.”
A book proposal, Karp stressed, “is a starting point,” noting that Posnanski has total editorial independence.
“I am confident this book will be the defining word,” Karp said. “He was far along in his work when all this happened.”
A Love of Sports and Metaphors
Posnanski’s challenge has been faced by scores of biographers before him, and several said in interviews that they could sympathize with his situation; it is part and parcel, they said, of doing meaningful research that you find out unpleasant and unknown episodes about your subject. Vince Lombardi had great difficulties with his family, for example.
Still, it is pretty unusual for a biographer to be forced to consider such a potentially significant and arresting discovery in the middle of the task at hand.
David Maraniss of The Washington Post, who has written acclaimed biographies of Bill Clinton and Lombardi, said that Posnanski had reached out to him as he started the Paterno biography. When the Penn State news broke, Maraniss said, “All I was doing was thinking: how is he going to deal with this?”
The question, Maraniss said, is how to integrate the final days into the story of a life. “Am I writing a biography or am I writing a book about a tragic ending?” he asked. “It is an incredible ending and frame for the book, but it is not the whole book. The worst thing you can do with a book of history or biography is put it in a temporal frame that will be overtaken, that captures a zeitgeist that will not last.”
Posnanski, whose first and deepest sports love has been baseball, is a model for a certain kind of modern sportswriter. He is as comfortable writing a stylized profile as he is dashing off a Twitter post to his more than 50,000 followers about the scene in a Las Vegas casino; he is also apt to cite arcane statistics to make a case for an underappreciated infielder.
But the history and majesty of sport assume a prime place in his writing — his first book was a sentimental attempt to follow a baseball season through the eyes of a different Kansas City star, the Negro leagues player Buck O’Neil.
In other words, Posnanski revels in sports for their own sake, but also eagerly plumbs them for metaphors for life. And certainly it was his fluency with the tools of metaphor-rich, sepia-toned sportswriting that helped him conceive and then land the Paterno biography.
First, there was his profile of Paterno, shortly after he arrived at Sports Illustrated in 2009, complete with the writerly conceit that the article was addressed to Paterno’s father, Angelo. In Posnanski’s hands, the elderly coach with the huge number of victories was depicted as a son trying to live up to the standards of his father. Paterno’s success, even in Angelo’s demanding terms, was evident in the profile, and was announced by the headline that appeared above it: “Joe Paterno Top of the World, Pa!”
Soon enough, there was the book proposal, a copy of which The New York Times obtained. It spoke of “the grand experiment” that Paterno carried out at Penn State by stressing academics and athletic success. But the pitch also spoke about sons and fathers. The biography would be about much more than sports for their own sake.
Elaborating on his conversations with Paterno, Posnanski wrote in the proposal: “He was told again and again that the story is not about a season or a game or a stolen moment behind the scenes. It is about a remarkable life and the many people who have been touched by it.”
When Paterno agreed, Posnanski shared the news with his readers. In a March 22, 2011, post titled simply “Announcement,” he wrote: “I cannot begin to describe how excited I am about this project. I am, as you could probably tell from my previous stories on the man, a huge fan and admirer of Joe’s. But even more than that I am endlessly fascinated by him and his lifelong quest to do something large, to impact America, through football. So writing about Joe, his triumphs, his struggles, his journey, well, it really is everything I’ve ever wanted to do as a writer.”
With the new demands of a book, would he be able to keep up the blogging and tweeting?
“I don’t think I’m the kind who can just disappear into a cave and emerge with a book” is how he answered his own question. And his blog was peppered with updates from the field — stories Paterno told, say, about recruiting against the N.F.L. legend Al Davis when Davis was the coach at the Citadel. Posnanski, only recently relocated to Charlotte, N.C., from the Kansas City area, described his daughters’ visit to State College, Pa., a k a Happy Valley, where he would be ensconced with Paterno and the family during the 2011 football season.
Then, on Nov. 5, a comment popped up on Posnanski’s blog — 30 deep, among heated arguments about the intentional walk. The commenter, Grulg, asked: “So Joe, while you are covering all things Penn State/Joe Paterno, have you any light to shed on the child molestation story about Mr. Curley there? pretty nasty stuff. Just curious.”
That day, Tim Curley, the Penn State athletic director, and Gary Schultz, the university’s senior vice president for finance and business, were charged with perjury and failure to report to the authorities what they knew of the allegations against Sandusky, the former defensive coordinator for Paterno. Sandusky had been arrested that weekend.
Conflicted but Committed
As has become well known, Sandusky is accused of exploiting his charity in State College to befriend boys whom the authorities say he sexually assaulted. The most staggering allegation came from the Penn State quarterbacks coach, Mike McQueary, who told a grand jury that when he was a graduate assistant, he saw Sandusky rape a boy in the football building’s showers in 2002. Sandusky has denied the charges, and a trial is scheduled for June.
It was McQueary’s account that brought Paterno directly into the story. McQueary has testified that he told Paterno, complete with graphic detail, of the attack. He said he told Paterno in the coach’s home, at his breakfast table, the morning after the suspected rape.
Paterno, by his own testimony, never told the police. He never sought to inquire after the welfare of the boy. He never confronted Sandusky, a man he had known for more than three decades and who, while retired, had free run of the Penn State football facilities.
Instead, Paterno notified Curley, the athletic director, even waiting 24 hours to do that. Several days after Sandusky’s arrest, Paterno was fired. Paterno issued a statement at the time, saying he regretted not having done more and encouraging people to pray for Sandusky’s suspected victims.
In his nearly stream-of-conscious writings, Posnanski began to reveal the stress the developments had caused. “This story, for me at least, needs time,” he wrote in November. “This thing is so vile, so grotesque, that it is human nature to want everyone to pay. Innocent children were hurt, scarred, and as a parent, this is something so horrible that I cannot even think of a penalty harsh enough. There is no way to see this thing clearly now, not for me, anyway.”
His comments were immediately scrutinized for tone, and for what they didn’t say.
He wrote how he felt pressured to speak out against Paterno. “I know there are people who believe that I have a responsibility to write more, to have an opinion, to come out strong, I know this because many, many people have written to tell me that in no uncertain terms,” he wrote on his Sports Illustrated blog. “I respect their opinion. But I disagree with it. The way I see it: I have a responsibility to write the best, most insightful and most honest book I can possibly write about Joe Paterno. That’s what I signed up for. I’m not backing down from that because of this awful, evil situation. I’m also not walking away from a life and a man.”
A Biographer’s Obligation
Maraniss, and others, can appreciate the tension of the moment, and the obligation.
“In this case, the characteristics that turned people away from Paterno, from his seemingly glowing career, might have been characteristics that were there all along — not in a venal way,” Maraniss said. “That’s Joe’s challenge.”
In the case of Bill Clinton, Maraniss had already published his biography, “First in His Class,” before the Monica Lewinsky scandal nearly derailed Clinton’s second term. But he said that when the news broke, it conformed to his narrative of Clinton. “For me, it was an opportunity to explain what Clinton does — his endless cycle of loss and recovery,” Maraniss said. “The characteristics can be explained beyond sex.”
As for the opportunity to judge his subject, Maraniss, whose latest biography subject is President Obama, said: “I was asked all the time, did I like Clinton or not like him? And I would say, he is my character.”
Mark Kriegel, a sports columnist who has written biographies of Joe Namath and Pete Maravich, was more expansive. “I believe to do a biography, you need to love your subject, but you have to balance that passion,” he said. “On some level, you have to love your subject, you have to have the devotion to your subject’s flaws and virtues. You have to care enough to become obsessed with your subject’s flaws.”
Creating distance is important, too. “In some ways, that was easier for me with Namath, who didn’t cooperate,” Kriegel said.
While the episode was hardly as serious as the events surrounding the Penn State program, Kriegel recalled how he learned about Namath’s drunken encounter with an ESPN sideline reporter, Suzy Kolber.
“I had just handed in the manuscript, went out to dinner with my then-wife and saw my message light on my answering machine — we had answering machines then — blinking furiously,” he recalled. “ ‘Did you see what happened?’
“My first instinct was, I have to rewrite everything,” he said. “I wound up adding three-quarters, half a page. It had to go this way.”
Kriegel added that the episode “made it much more difficult, I suspect, for Namath to complain about all these scenes of alcohol and alcohol abuse.”
History or Myth?
Posnanski’s initial thoughts on Paterno and the scandal provoked an array of complaints. When Posnanski’s comments to a Penn State communications class about Paterno (yes, since 2008, there has been a class on Paterno at Penn State) defending the former coach leaked out via Twitter, he was held up to even more criticism.
It was that week that Posnanski appeared at his lowest moment, and he wrote that he was going “underground.”
“I have done something in the last week that I haven’t done in years,” he wrote Nov. 17. “I’ve unplugged. I have dropped off Twitter. I’m not on Facebook. I’m not scanning the Internet. And, as you may have noticed, I’m not posting on the blog.”
He lasted four days, but the point had been made. Posnanski again wrote about Paterno in January, shortly after Paterno died at 85. In that column, he presented Paterno’s final summing up: “It doesn’t matter what people think of me,” he told Posnanski. “I’ve lived my life. I just hope the truth comes out. And I hope the victims find peace.”
Also in that column, Posnanski contrasted Paterno’s “full life” with “a single, hazy event involving an alleged child molester.” That description of a “hazy” event again drew criticism. Since then, Posnanski has truly turned silent about Paterno.
In an interview last week with Dave Kindred of the National Sports Journalism Center, Posnanski said he hoped to finish the book by the end of April. He said the biography had become a “very, very different book,” in light of the startling final chapters of Paterno’s life.
“But in many ways, it’s still the same,” Posnanski said. “It’s still about his life — a life that changed dramatically at the end.”
David Garrow, a longtime history professor whose biography of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “Bearing the Cross,” touched on King’s personal failings, said it was important to challenge your subject, even one as celebrated as King. “We are not in the business of being uplifting — that could be myth, but it ain’t history,” he said. “The lives of saints is not history, it’s myth. I think it is a far more powerfully inspiring story for readers to appreciate the inescapability of human imperfection than to spin myths.”
He recalled the final pages of “Bearing the Cross”: “One of the real fears I’ve always had is that people will think that King is different in kind than they are. If there is a moral purpose to history, it is conveying to people that humanity does not include perfection.”
Garrow said that from his casual following of the Penn State situation, he was much more intrigued by The Wall Street Journal article on Paterno’s intervention in academic discipline than by his reaction to the Sandusky case. The Journal article is “the foundational piece on my perspective (as an academic) on Paterno,” Garrow wrote in an e-mail.
But it is no surprise that Garrow would create his foundation in the administrative hallways, rather than, say, the football field.
Sports biographies are necessarily different from the work Garrow has produced. Although athletes and coaches often have rounded lives — whether as a humanitarian like Roberto Clemente, a trailblazer like Jackie Robinson, a strategic innovator like Lombardi — their celebrity is invariably linked to the performance on the field.
“All of us do that — confuse victory and virtue; after a winning streak we think, ‘He must be great, we must have been wrong about him,’ ” Kriegel said. “The Paterno character was less well regarded,” he said, when Penn State had a string of bad seasons, but “when they became contenders, that success becomes proof of his lasting moral standing.”
He added, “But that is something endemic to sportswriting.”
The Sports Illustrated profile that Posnanski wrote about Paterno — which laid the groundwork for the biography — appeared in 2009, when the Nittany Lions were coming off one 11-2 season and midway through another.
Posnanski is unabashed in looking to sports for qualities that can be in short supply in the rest of the world. In his final column for Sports Illustrated this month — he is leaving to write for a joint venture between Major League Baseball and USA Today — he wrote about the miraculous shot by Bubba Watson at the end of the Masters.
“He hit that crazy shot,” Posnanski wrote. “It did everything he had hoped — off the pine straw, around the corner, on the green, toward the hole, all as light faded at Augusta and the gallery at No. 10 went out of their minds. There was one guy there just jumping up and down over and over and over again. He looked like he would never stop. Bubba two-putted and put on the green jacket. As I said, this is personal. This is why every day I remind myself how lucky I am, how lucky I have been, how wonderful it has been to write for Sports Illustrated. This is what sports can do.”