For 46 years Joe Paterno was the roar behind Penn State’s Nittany Lions. He was the winningest coach in the history of college football, with a legendary commitment to his players and their academics. College football has been plagued by scandal in recent years, players getting expensive gifts from boosters, professors turning a blind eye to school work, but that wasn’t how Paterno treated the sport. He insisted on success with honor. His players got good grades and were – and still are – pillars of the community.
But then, in early November, news broke that former Penn State assistant football coach, Jerry Sandusky, was arrested and accused of sexually assaulting at least 10 young boys, and, as it turns out, the great JoePa was aware of at least one incident. Within days Paterno was fired from his decade’s long role as coach of the Lions. Just days after that, he was diagnosed with lung cancer, and yesterday morning Joe Paterno died at the age of 85.
People close to Paterno have said that while the cancer may have killed him, it was the heartbreak he felt over the loss of his job and his tarnished legacy sent him over the edge. According to the Philadelphia Enquirer, whenever the subject of retirement came up, Paterno would say, “I don’t want to die. Football keeps me alive.”
It’s impossible to know to what extent the stress in Paterno’s life may have contributed to his death. But one hears stories all the time about people at the end of their lives, losing the will to live.
Could it be that the loss of football and so much of what he lived for, hastened Paterno’s demise? How much does our outlook play into our health, and ultimately our death? Have you experienced a family member simply giving up on life?
Mark Lachs, M.D., Director of Geriatrics for the New York Presbyterian Health Care System; physician, scientist, and gerontologist at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City; author, Treat Me, Not My Age: A Doctor’s Guide to Getting the Best Care as You or a Loved One Gets Older (Viking Press)
Michael Shermer, Founding Publisher of Skeptic magazine; Executive Director of the Skeptics Society; and Adjunct Professor of Economics at Claremont Graduate University