Paying tribute to Joe Paterno

Candles circle the statue of Joe Paterno outside of Beaver Stadium. Patrick Smith/Getty Images

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Beaver Stadium stood lit up Sunday night, awaiting 107,000 fans who weren’t scheduled to come. The local police blocked off both ends of Porter Road, which runs along the east side of the stadium. Just outside of Gate F stood the statue of Joe Paterno, the former Penn State football coach who died earlier in the day.

The plaza in which the statue stood had been turned into a makeshift memorial. A blue-and-white-striped scarf draped Paterno’s neck. An American flag hung over his raised right arm. At his feet grew an ever widening circle of tributes: bouquets and hats, hand-drawn signs and candles. As those closest to the statue burned out, the newer candles transferred the light to the outer edge of the circle, which grew 20 feet wide.

The crowd ebbed and flowed, sometimes 50 people, sometimes half that. Adults brought their children. Adults brought their parents. They could have been in their warm homes, watching the NFC Championship Game. But they came.

“Joe Paterno meant so much to this town. It’s hard not to be here,” said April Detar, an alumna.

First-year law student Justin Fiorelli, a third-generation Penn Stater, said, “I wanted to pay my respects to Joe, for my grandfather and for my father. I never had the opportunity to speak to him or come within 10 feet of him. But he touched so many lives, including my own.”

Charles Gable and Claire Smith arrived. Gable, who has two degrees from Penn State and works on campus, said, “The alumni are honoring him in a way that the board [of trustees] wouldn’t even know how to.”

He had a story to tell about Paterno.

“In 2005, the year he turned the team around after the losing seasons,” Gable said, “I ran for State College borough council. I knocked on his door and asked for his vote. He offered me five minutes to hear my pitch. He always took the time -- one, two, five minutes -- to talk to people. I’ll never forget that. He asked me what I wanted to do for the borough.”

Smith, in a quiet voice, said, “It’s a sad day for Happy Valley.”

In front of Old Main, the administration building at the center of campus, thousands of people, mostly students, turned out for a candlelight vigil that lasted some 30 minutes. Beaver Stadium is on the edge of the Penn State campus. It is a 40-minute walk from Old Main to the statue of Paterno. And yet many at the vigil streamed across campus to pay tribute to their coach.

What the students lacked in solemnity, they made up for with feeling. The crowd that had fit so neatly on the sidewalk in front of the statue spilled out across all four lanes of Porter Road. They climbed the mounds of snow piled on the grass behind the plaza. They took pictures. The crowd grew so large that you couldn’t see the statue or the memorials any longer.

Some students took their candles down the street to Gate A, in front of Paternoville, where they sleep in tents during the week of home games waiting for the gates to open.

“I remember freshman year,” said Garrett Herr, a junior from Mannheim, Pa., “we talked about Joe Paterno not being the coach here. We were just talking about how that would never happen. You couldn’t imagine the university without Joe Paterno. It’s still surreal to think he’s not our coach.”

Being students, they did what Penn State students do, the call and response that is an integral part of the Beaver Stadium experience.

“We Are!”

“Penn State!”

“We Are!”

“Penn State!”

“We Are!”

“Penn State!”

“Thank You!”

“You’re Welcome!”