STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Joe Paterno sat in a wheelchair at the family kitchen table where he has eaten, prayed and argued for more than a half-century. All around him family members were shouting at each other, yet he was whispering.
Lung cancer has robbed him of the breath to say all that he wants to about the scandal he still struggles to comprehend, and which ended his career as head football coach at Penn State University. The words come like gusts. "I wanted to build up, not break down," he said.
Crowded around the table were his three voluble sons, Scott, Jay and David; daughter Mary Kay; and his wife of 50 years, Sue, all chattering at once. Mr. Paterno, 85, sipped Pepsi over crushed ice from a cup. His hand showed a tremor, and a wig replaced his once-fine head of black hair.
Mr. Paterno's hope is that time will be his ally when it comes to judging what he built, versus what broke down. "I'm not 31 years old trying to prove something to anybody," he said. "I know where I am."
This is where he is: wracked by radiation and chemotherapy, in a wheelchair with a broken pelvis, and "shocked and saddened" as he struggles to explain a breakdown of devastating proportions. Jerry Sandusky, his former assistant coach at Penn State from 1969 to 1999, is charged with more than 50 counts of sexually abusing young boys over a 15-year period. If Mr. Sandusky is guilty, "I'm sick about it," Mr. Paterno said.
How Mr. Sandusky, 67, allegedly evaded detection by state child services, university administrators, teachers, parents, donors and Mr. Paterno himself, remains an open question. "I wish I knew," Mr. Paterno said. "I don't know the answer to that. It's hard."
Almost as difficult for Mr. Paterno to answer is the question of why, after receiving a report in 2002 that Mr. Sandusky had abused a boy in the shower of Penn State's Lasch Football Building, and forwarding it to his superiors, he didn't follow up more aggressively.
"I didn't know exactly how to handle it and I was afraid to do something that might jeopardize what the university procedure was," he said. "So I backed away and turned it over to some other people, people I thought would have a little more expertise than I did. It didn't work out that way."
Mr. Sandusky maintains his innocence. Former athletic director Tim Curley and school vice president Gary Schultz face charges of perjury and failing to report suspected child abuse, based on their inaction. They have pleaded innocent. Though he is not charged with a crime, Penn State president Graham Spanier was fired on Nov. 9, along with Mr. Paterno.
Mr. Paterno is accused of no wrongdoing, and in fact authorities have said he fulfilled his legal obligations by reporting to his superiors. Nevertheless, the university board of trustees dismissed him with a late-night phone call four days after Mr. Sandusky's arrest. At about 10 p.m., Mr. and Mrs. Paterno were getting ready for bed when the doorbell rang. An assistant athletic director was at the door and wordlessly handed Mrs. Paterno a slip of paper.
There was nothing on it but the name of the vice chairman of trustees, John Surma, with a phone number. They stood frozen by the bedside in their nightclothes. He dialed the number.
Mr. Surma told the coach: "In the best interests of the university, you are terminated."
"After 61 years he deserved better," his wife snapped. "He deserved better."
Mr. Paterno cleared out his office in the space of one day. It was an end he was unprepared for. Yet it came with the realization that as the face of the university, people assign him greater responsibility than other officials.
"Whether it's fair I don't know, but they do it," he said. "You would think I ran the show here."
Over two separate conversations on Thursday and Friday, Mr. Paterno discussed his career and his actions relating to Mr. Sandusky.
Mr. Paterno was initially reluctant to speak because "I wanted everybody to settle down," he said. But he is so eager to defend his record that he insisted on continuing the interview from his bedside Friday morning, though ill. He was hospitalized for observation later in the day due to complications from chemotherapy but, according to the family, had improved by Saturday morning.
This is Mr. Paterno's own account:
On a Saturday morning in 2002, an upset young assistant coach, Mike McQueary, knocked on Mr. Paterno's door to tell him he had witnessed a shocking scene in the football building showers. Until that moment, Mr. Paterno said, he had "no inkling" that Mr. Sandusky might be a sexual deviant.
Although Mr. Sandusky had been his close coaching associate and helped fashion Penn State defenses for three decades, their relationship was "professional, not social," Mr. Paterno said. Mr. Sandusky had been out of the program for three years, and in fact, Mr. Paterno said he cannot recall the last time he had seen or spoken to him.
Mr. Paterno's understanding was that Mr. Sandusky took early retirement in 1999 after Mr. Paterno told him frankly that he would not become his successor. The state was offering 30-year employees a handsome buyout, and Mr. Paterno believed Mr. Sandusky should take it. Mr. Paterno was frustrated that Mr. Sandusky spent so much time working on his youth foundation, the Second Mile, that he was not available to help in recruiting and other coaching duties. Authorities now say Mr. Sandusky used Second Mile to meet and groom his alleged victims.
"I said, 'You know, Jerry, you want to be head coach, you can't do as much as you're doing with the other operation.' I said 'this job takes so much detail, and for you to think you can go off and get involved in fundraising and a lot of things like that.' ... I said you can't do both, that's basically what I told him."
Mr. Paterno insists he was completely unaware of a 1998 police investigation into a report from a Second Mile mother that Mr. Sandusky had inappropriately touched her son in a shower. The inquiry ended when the local prosecutor declined to bring charges.
"You know, it wasn't like it was something everybody in the building knew about," Mr. Paterno said. "Nobody knew about it."
Mr. Paterno contends that ignorance was the context with which he heard Mr. McQueary's disturbing story in 2002. "He was very upset and I said why, and he was very reluctant to get into it," Mr. Paterno said. "He told me what he saw, and I said, what? He said it, well, looked like inappropriate, or fondling, I'm not quite sure exactly how he put it. I said you did what you had to do. It's my job now to figure out what we want to do. So I sat around. It was a Saturday. Waited till Sunday because I wanted to make sure I knew what I was doing. And then I called my superiors and I said, 'Hey, we got a problem, I think. Would you guys look into it?' Cause I didn't know, you know. We never had, until that point, 58 years I think, I had never had to deal with something like that. And I didn't feel adequate."
At that point, Mr. Paterno set up a meeting for Mr. McQueary and Mr. Curley, the athletic director, and Mr. Schultz, who oversaw university police. Mr. McQueary has testified that he gave both men a far more graphic description of what he witnessed, which he believed to be Mr. Sandusky sodomizing a boy of about 10, who had his hands against the shower wall.
At the preliminary hearing for Mr. Curley and Mr. Schultz on Dec. 16, Mr. McQueary said he had been reluctant to go into similar "great detail about sexual acts" with Mr. Paterno, out of respect for the coach, who was 78 at the time.
Mr. Schultz and Mr. Curley have maintained that Mr. McQueary failed to impart the seriousness of what he saw to them as well. They never told police about the allegation, instead informing Mr. Sandusky he could no longer bring children to university facilities. Prosecutors say Mr. Sandusky continued to abuse boys for six more years.
Mr. Paterno's portrait of himself is of an old-world man profoundly confused by what Mr. McQueary told him, and who was hesitant to make follow-up calls because he did not want to be seen as trying to exert any influence for or against Mr. Sandusky. "I didn't know which way to go," he said. "And rather than get in there and make a mistake ... "
He reiterated that Mr. McQueary was unclear with him about the nature of what he saw -- and added that even if Mr. McQueary had been more graphic, he's not sure he would have comprehended it.
"You know, he didn't want to get specific," Mr. Paterno said. "And to be frank with you I don't know that it would have done any good, because I never heard of, of, rape and a man. So I just did what I thought was best. I talked to people that I thought would be, if there was a problem, that would be following up on it."
His son Scott says Mr. Paterno has been "shunned" by many in the university, though he did hear from current Penn State President Rodney Erickson last week when he made a $100,000 donation to the school.
But Joe Paterno is not the victim here, he reminds you.
"You know, I'm not as concerned about me," he said. "What's happened to me has been great. I got five great kids. Seventeen great-grandchildren. I've had a wonderful experience here at Penn State. I don't want to walk away from this thing bitter. I want to be helpful."
The Paternos say they think about the real potential victims every time they look at their own children. "I got three boys and two girls," Mr. Paterno said. "It's sickening."
If nothing else, the Paternos say, perhaps the Sandusky case will raise consciousness in other communities the way it has been raised in theirs. "We are going to become a more aware society," Sue Paterno said. "Maybe we will look for clues." She wonders what signs she missed all those years, when they felt so successful and sure of themselves.
"I had no clue," she said. "I thought doctors looked for child abuse in a hospital, in a bruise or something."
Mr. Paterno is tying up the loose ends of the abrupt end to his career. There are mounds of mail to deal with, 12,000 letters (his grandchildren counted them). There are still details to work out with the school because he remains a tenured professor. On Jan. 2 the university sent him a retirement letter.
"Right now I'm trying to figure out what I'm gonna do," he said, "cause I don't want to sit around on my backside all day."