Memories sweeten movie on Joe Paterno
Gregg Garrity is among the former Penn State football players in the film "The Joe We Know."
Franco Harris being interviewed in January 2012 for the Joe Paterno movie, "The Joe We Know." About 70 former Penn State football players had their memories of Paterno taped for the film. At right is Grace Leri, who helped in the production.
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When Joe Paterno died three days after former football players finished filming a valentine to the coach -- intended for a belated birthday party -- they heard his words echo in their ears.
"Keep your feet moving and go to the ball."
In this case, that meant editing and assembling the 57-minute film, "The Joe We Know." Paterno never saw or heard the sentiments from the 70 lettermen interviewed, but his widow, Sue, and family did, and growing groups of alumni and others around the country have, too.
On Saturday, three free showings of "The Joe We Know" will be held at the Oaks Theater in Oakmont, courtesy of the movie's producers, volunteers and sponsors.
The evening screening is virtually sold out, but tickets (a must for admission) for the noon and 3:30 p.m. shows can be obtained through tjwkmovie.wordpress.com. Patrons who donate $10 at the door, to be given to the Sue and Joe Paterno Libraries Support Endowment, will receive a commemorative ticket and lanyard.
"It's not a counterpunch to anything going on around the [Jerry] Sandusky scandal," Dan Leri, a Spruce Creek resident and former defensive back who directs the Innovation Park Office at Penn State and helped to launch the project, said Tuesday.
"The project was a simple act on the part of former players to let Coach Paterno know what impact the 'grand experiment' had on our lives and the lives of our family members," he said, referring to the notion that players could excel on the field and in the classroom.
He likens it to the sort of tribute you'd do for a grandfather upon his retirement or a landmark birthday. Except in this case, it took 37 harried, sometimes sleepless days and roughly $57,000 out of the backers' pockets.
"It was never intended to be shown publicly. We put it together just for him for a belated birthday party in February of 2012. We fell a little short."
Paterno, 85, died Jan. 22, 2012.
The movie, prompted by the firing of Paterno in November 2011 and co-written by Mr. Leri and director Eric Porterfield, interviewed 70 players or roughly 15 each in State College, Philadelphia, Baltimore, New York and Pittsburgh.
Franco Harris, one of Paterno's most passionate and public defenders, was among them. He and 30 others are expected on Saturday, mainly at the third of the three shows.
Although the athletes knew Paterno was battling lung cancer, they didn't realize he would die so suddenly. Their comments were not intended for a memorial tribute, which is why it's "The Joe We Know" in the present tense.
"It's guys talking directly to him," Mr. Leri said. "It's six decades of guys, from Lenny Moore who is [almost] 80 to the youngest, Zack Mills ... and it's more about life than it is about football. It's us sharing with him what we had learned."
Interviews would start at 8 a.m. but the early birds typically stuck around for the balance of the day as more players from all eras filtered into whatever venue (the Duquesne Club in Pittsburgh) or hotel the crew did the filming.
"Lenny Moore says some things that are really instructional for life," Mr. Leri said. "There's one point in the film toward the end, under the 'we are the legacy,' he extends his arms ... and you almost want to hug him because of what he says."
Men recall conversations with Paterno not long before he died in which he asked about their mothers, fathers or children by name, decades after their days on the field or sidelines. One marvels that when he calls the gridiron version of the Batphone, Paterno answers it himself and talked family, not football.
Some of the sessions left everyone -- interviewee and photographer -- in tears, prompting the suggestion that these rare talks be archived in full, although no one knows what will become of the roughly 70 hours of raw footage.
Sue Paterno and one of her daughters first watched the movie in an eight-seat theater in State College on Valentine's Day 2012 and days later, it premiered at the State Theatre in State College.
Since then, it has aired on a central Pennsylvania PBS station and in scattered theaters, always for free and with introductions and question and answer sessions by one or two of the original men behind the project.
At the Oaks, former Freeport resident Mr. Leri and Tom Donchez will handle the Q&A sessions, which often run 50 to 70 minutes. They are part of the core group along with Bob Capretto, Ray Tesner, Brad Scovill and Brian Hand (see www.grandexperiment.org/ for full credits and more background) behind "The Joe We Know."
Given the origins of the project as a private keepsake, no one is quite sure what will happen down the road although requests for showings, often from alumni branches, continue to arrive.
John and Patricia Stunda of Sewickley spearheaded efforts to bring the movie to Pittsburgh for three shows. Roughly 60 people or organizations contributed money and anything beyond the costs of staging the screenings will be donated to the library, too.
Mr. Stunda, a graduate of Clarion University of Pennsylvania whose wife and son, Eryk, are Penn State grads, says of the production, "I was awed by the impact he had on his players," and how these men continue to carry with them life-changing lessons.
"It just gave me an understanding of who Joe Paterno really was and the values that he lived by. This has nothing to do with the Sandusky scandal and is not intended to address it in any way."
Disappointed that "The Joe We Know" hadn't been scheduled for Pittsburgh, he decided to take the initiative. "Given the effort and time, I thought it would be great if we could share it with 1,290 other people and we're hoping that happens, as well as raise several thousand dollars for the Penn State libraries."
First Published March 13, 2013 12:00 am