COLUMBUS, Ohio -- In a perverse way, this 28-6 loss to Ohio State had to hurt Joe Paterno worse than the loss to Alabama in the Sugar Bowl after the 1978 season when the Nittany Lions couldn't punch the ball in from the 1. It had to be more painful than the home loss to Minnesota in '99 when his squad was 9-0 and No. 2 in America and was beaten on a fluke tipped pass. It even had to be more hurtful than the only defeat last season when those cheaters at Michigan -- that's how they'll always be known in Happy Valley -- put that extra time on the clock.
Even the only two games Paterno has missed out of 631 in his 57 years at Penn State weren't this bad. He had legitimate reasons, after all. He had to bury his father, Angelo, in 1955 when the Nittany Lions played Army. He had to be with his family in '77 after his son, David, was seriously injured in a trampoline accident the day before a game at Syracuse. Any son, any father, would have missed those games.
Yesterday was different.
"Sixty years in football, that's the first time I've ever had to leave the field," Paterno said.
No one knew what was going on when Paterno jogged down the sideline and across the end zone to the Penn State locker room midway through the second quarter. Was he sick? Had he received distressing news about a family member? Did he just want to get out of the steady rain, which was enough to make the day miserable for everyone let alone a 79-year-old man?
"I don't want to say it was funny, but I didn't know where he was going," Penn State running back Tony Hunt said. "I thought he was going to yell at the referee, but he kept going. Then, I figured he had to go to the bathroom."
"The old G.I. disease," Paterno called it.
The old coach made it out of the locker room for the second half, but he looked out of sorts. For one thing, he had to walk instead of jog across the field to the Penn State bench. The most amazing aspect of his amazing longevity always has been that jog. Then, Paterno missed an interception by Penn State linebacker Dan Connor on the second play of the third quarter because he was bent over, trying to fight that stomach agony. Immediately afterward, he walked back to the locker room.
"I had some kind of bug during the week," Paterno said. "I'm not a guy who likes to take pills or see a doctor. I thought I'd be fine. I wasn't."
It says something about what Paterno has become -- a figurehead -- that Hunt was one of the few players to notice he was gone. Linebacker Sean Lee and cornerbacks Justin King and Tony Davis were among those who said they had no clue Paterno wasn't on the sideline. Things didn't change for Penn State. Defensive coordinator Tom Bradley ran the defense from the field. Assistants Galen Hall and Jay Paterno ran the offense from the press box.
"It had no impact on the game," defensive tackle Ed Johnson said.
It had a big impact on Paterno, though.
Do you realize how sick he had to be to leave his team? Especially when it was playing the No. 1 team in its horseshoe in front of 105,266 red-clad zealots?
Paterno is a man who, over the years, has fought through family issues and a variety of colds, viruses and other ailments to miss only a practice or two. Do you know how much it had to hurt him not to be there for his guys during a big game?
Put it this way:
Those stomach cramps were nothing by comparison.
"It wasn't easy," Paterno said, quietly, when asked how hard it was to walk off the field. Then, proving he hasn't lost his sense of humor in his old age: "It was easier than if I had stayed out there."
Paterno took care of his business in the locker room and watched the rest of the third quarter on television before coming back for the fourth quarter. You could see right away he felt better. He clapped his hands. He yelled at offensive assistant Mike McQueary, the way he always does when Penn State's plays don't work. And, yes, he hollered at the officials.
Penn State's surprisingly stout performance probably helped settle Paterno's stomach. Did I mention Ohio State is ranked No. 1? That Penn State was playing in a very hostile setting?
The final score isn't reflective of how close the game was. Penn State trailed, 14-6, and had the ball at its 44 with three minutes left before two late interceptions by quarterback Anthony Morelli were returned for touchdowns.
"Like I told the squad, 'Keep your heads up and go to work. We're going to be a good football team before it's all over,' " Paterno said.
"I'd be shocked if they don't. I'd be shocked if they don't come back Monday ready to go to work."
The real shock would be if Paterno isn't right there with his players, rolling up his sleeves and getting ready for the next game Saturday against Northwestern at Beaver Stadium.
Missing parts of two quarters is enough.
It's enough to last a coaching lifetime, which, in Paterno's case, probably is 20 more years.
Ron Cook can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1525.