DALLAS (CBSDFW.COM)– You’re not going to like this.
But you know what? Doesn’t matter. In life – and in death – shit happens.
Even if Joe Paterno wouldn’t have been fired by Penn State on Nov. 9, he would be dead today. Even if Jerry Sandusky had never laid a hand on a child, we’d be preparing today to mourn JoePa’s funeral in Pennsylvania. A chain of horrible events took away Paterno’s livelihood and stained his legacy, but it was disease that snatched away his life.
Stop it. You, Matt Millen. And you, Todd Blackledge. And yes, you, the mainstream masses who believe in superstition, who knock on wood and believe in karma and fear jinxes and have an irrational, impulsive yearning to make sense of life’s disconnected coincidences by ascribing fault to unhappy endings in a way that is willfully self-deceptive.
Joe Paterno is one of the greatest coaches in the history of football. Joe Paterno is one of the greatest men in American culture. Joe Paterno did not die of a broken heart.
It’s hyperbole, inspired by grief. It’s ridiculous. It’s insulting. It’s just … wrong.
“He died of cancer,” Kent Sepkowitz, a doctor of infectious disease at New York’s Memorial Kettering-Sloan Hospital, told The Daily Beast this week. “The urge to romanticize that and tidy up the story is there, but I’m strongly against that instinct. If you can die of a broken heart, then the extension of that is that it’s your fault – that you have control over when you die. By extension, if you can just be happy all the time, you can live forever. It ascribes to events over which we have no control a tremendous amount of control.”
When Paterno was fired in November, the critics blasted him for not doing enough with the information provided him on an alleged sexual assault of a minor in Penn State’s showers in 2002. A week later when his family announced he had lung cancer, those same critics disparaged the news as a public-relations stunt, an attempt to prompt sympathy and distract from Paterno’s moral shortcomings. And now? Those same critics are buying into the fact that Paterno died of a broken heart?
Shame on you.
Your remorse is tardy, and unacceptable. The knee-jerk reactions to indict and lynch Paterno before the facts came out will not be cleansed in somehow maintaining that “everything happens for a reason” and the Penn State icon somehow willfully gave up and relented to death.
Was Paterno depressed in the wake of his defining existence being yanked away? Perhaps. Can stress exacerbate sickness? Absolutely.
But, according to his sons, Scott and Jay, Paterno was anything but a spiritually broken man in the weeks and days before last Sunday morning’s passing. While once upon a time he went on a three-day post-wedding trip to Virginia Beach, stopping along the way to talk to a Penn State recruit, on his death bed he was planning a six-week belated honeymoon with wife, Sue.
“There was never a situation where he sat around and felt bad for himself,” Scott said on NBC’s Today show.
Added Jay, “He was upbeat and confident until the end.”
Nonetheless, Millen and Blackledge went on ESPN this week and trumpeted the illogical diagnosis.
“I just can’t help but think he died of a broken heart,” said Millen. “I just don’t know how else to explain it.”
Fortunately, the Mount Nittany Medical Center does. It stated that Paterno died Sunday morning of “metastatic small cell carcinoma of the lung.” Meaning lung cancer, that had aggressively spread to multiple parts of his 85-year-old body.
I know “medical lore” is saturated with tales of spouses dying within days or weeks or each other, but there is zero medical proof or explanation. In medical textbooks it’s listed as “Takotsubo cardiomyopathy” or “broken heart syndrome.”
If you believe it, you’re probably with the flock of narrow-minded sheep who cry for Jerry Jones the owner to fire Jerry Jones the general manager, who claimed Dirk Nowitzki was too soft to ever lead the Dallas Mavericks to a championship and who thought it unreasonable and unfathomable for a black man to ever take residence in the White House.
Me? I’m the ornery, inquisitive type who dismisses old wives’ tales, who investigates urban legends, who second-guesses conventional wisdom and who pro-actively searches for concrete evidence instead of passively settling for the crutch of “everything happens for a reason.” To some, that’s comfort. To others, peace doesn’t arrive without identifying said “reason.”
I admire Joe Paterno. I didn’t think Penn State should have fired him. I also realize his life meant so much to so many that people are desperate for something greater than another referendum on the bastard known as cancer. But I wear a Livestrong bracelet to help raise money and to fight the deadly disease. If I thought a positive spirit would do the trick I’d quickly change my tune. And my stance.
But it doesn’t.
Lance Armstrong has said several times it was medicine – not miracles, or mind-set – that helped him survivor cancerous tumors all over his body. And in 1971 my grandmother lost her beloved husband in a car accident. Emotionally devastated, she surrounded herself in family and lived happy and healthy until her death of heart failure … in 2000.
Believing Joe Paterno died of a broken heart is to believe he gave up. What about his family? What about his wife? What about the vacation? Humans that surrender don’t make plans for tomorrow.
An extension of the broken heart syndrome would be that – conversely – the happier we are and the bigger and brighter our spirit, the longer we’ll live. How’s that working out for you, Brian Piccolo? If you get injected with terminal cancer today, you and your chipper demeanor will be dead when the cancer decides. Mood be damned.
We can’t neatly explain life’s pain and agony any more than we can justify how Paterno acted – or failed to act – with the news that his long-time assistant did “something” to a boy in his shower. It’s just life. And, in life, shit happens. Shit that’s just by coincidence, and has no cosmic or religious reason attached to it.
Sorry, but some are saying finding out Joe Paterno was a human being with faults and mortality is like finding out there’s no Santa Claus.
You’re not going to like this, but … about those flying reindeer.