Joe Paterno's football family pays tribute

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- They came from across the country and across the decades. They were white-haired and dreadlocked, stiff-kneed linemen from years ago and hard-bodied starters from last fall, pushing strollers and using canes. Joe Paterno’s football family came to a private viewing of the late former Penn State coach’s casket at the Pasquerilla Spiritual Center on campus Tuesday morning.

“These guys in suits and ties, that’s the identity that Joe started with his teams,” said John Heinze of Boiling Springs, Pa., a manager from 1954-56. “Looking good, lot of class, discipline. These guys with each other are like family. These are so many of the little things that he used to preach, that he demanded, what you see now. You see a lot of young and not-so-young guys who are close, who look good. It’s kind of moving.”

A few feet in line behind Heinze stood DeOn'tae Pannell, a senior guard on the 2011 Nittany Lions. He described the men around him as “the tip of the iceberg of how many lives Joe has touched.” Former players, Pannell said, “would tell us how much of an impact he had on them when they were playing, after they were playing. They kept up a relationship with Joe after they left. He was really an important part of a lot of people’s lives.”

Christian Marrone was one of those players in the mid-1990s. When multiple knee operations could not heal his injured left knee, Paterno called him into his office.

“Joe sat me down,” Marrone said. “And said, ‘You’re done. I don’t want you to play anymore. I want you to have a quality of life. I want you to focus on school now. Not that you weren’t before. I want you to go to law school.'

“When I got hurt, I kind of lost my purpose. I could have gone to school anywhere and done well. I came here to play football. I wanted to be a part of this. He refused to let me do anything but be a part of the team. He made me a part of the staff. I attended coaching meetings. Whether I liked it or not, that’s the way it was going to be.

"His sayings: ‘Do the little things right. Don’t cut corners.’ Every time I wanted to not read, not brief a case, I would always think of him,” Marrone said. “When I was thinking about law school, I didn’t do it right away, he got all over me.”

Marrone went to Temple University Law School at night. He earned a master’s in government administration by going to Penn on Saturdays. Marrone eventually went to work for former Secretary of Defense Williams Gates in the George W. Bush Administration. He was one of four who remained with Gates in the Obama Administration. Last fall, after Gates’ resignation, Marrone went to work for 3M in Washington.

“One of the things Secretary Gates said to me before I left,” Marrone said, “he grabbed me and said, ‘You know, I’ve seen you and your work ethic. It just reinforces all the great things I’ve heard about Joe Paterno. What a wonderful program.’ That kind of encapsulates not just my story. That’s everybody’s story.”

At the public memorial service Thursday at Bryce Jordan Arena, one player from each of five decades in which Paterno coached at Penn State will speak. John Cappelletti, the 1973 Heisman Trophy winner, will represent the 1970s. Seattle Seahawk running back Michael Robinson, the quarterback of Paterno’s Big Ten champion in 2005, is flying from the Pro Bowl in Honolulu to speak.

Marrone, who barely got to wear a uniform, will represent the 1990s.