STATE COLLEGE, PA—As thousands of mourners gathered at Penn State's campus spiritual center Wednesday afternoon to say their farewells to Joe Paterno, former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky took the opportunity to express his "deep, everlasting gratitude" for everything his late mentor had done for him.
"When I think of how much of my life I owe to Joe Paterno, I don't even know where to begin," said Sandusky, who confessed to feeling "overcome" while attending the former football coach's funeral. "I think it's safe to say I wouldn't have been able to lead the life I've led, wouldn't have grown into the man I've become, if it hadn't been for his leadership. I can't even begin to imagine what would have become of me if not for Joe Paterno."
"Truly, he gave me a place where I could reach my full potential—not just as a coach, but as a man," continued Sandusky, his voice cracking. "So many of my accomplishments would not have been possible without him and the unique atmosphere he created at Penn State."
Paterno and Sandusky enjoyed a relationship stretching back almost 50 years, with each helping the other to pursue his passion. Sandusky said that while it was true the two men harbored different dreams, aspirations, and desires, Paterno was careful never to stand in his way. In fact, he affirmed, Paterno's wholehearted attention to the overall success and reputation of Penn State football allowed Sandusky to focus on building his own legacy at Happy Valley, where he was always able to go after what he wanted most.
"How many people honestly get to fulfill their very deepest desires in life?" Sandusky said. "Let alone fulfill those desires over and over again, year in and year out, day after day, for decades? That's the kind of life Joe allowed me to live."
Sandusky added, "I owe it all to the tradition he established at Penn State University."
Although Sandusky said he "cherished the freedom he was allowed" under Paterno, he admitted there was never any question as to who was ultimately in charge of and responsible for the football program.
"Make no mistake—Joe would give you free rein, but he always knew exactly what was going on in State College," said Sandusky, grinning slightly at the memory of his friend and colleague. "He had ways of letting us know that as long as we weren't interfering with Nittany Lion football, we could do our own thing and let him worry about the big picture."
"I could not have asked for a more perfect boss," Sandusky added tearfully.
Under the legendary head coach, 67-year-old Sandusky established a charitable organization called the Second Mile, which allowed him to bring thousands of underprivileged and at-risk youths to campus, introducing them to all aspects of the Penn State tradition. Paterno served Second Mile for years as one of the program's biggest fundraisers, thereby single-handedly helping Sandusky's involvement in the lives of as many children as possible.
"Life is about more than just football—it's also about being active in the community," Sandusky said before speaking at length about the particular vulnerabilities of children, and going into great detail about how badly young boys need strong, confident figures in their lives. "I remember how much Joe cared about the image of Penn State football, and how determined he was to protect that image within this community."
"I'll tell you this from the depths of my soul: Joe Paterno could do no wrong in my book," he added. "And I believe he wanted people to think the same of me."
After stepping away from the program in 1999, Sandusky was given an emeritus position with the Nittany Lions that included an office and unrestricted access to recreation rooms, showers, and other athletic facilities, a privilege Sandusky admitted he "wouldn't have known what to do without."
"This was a man who looked out for his program, but at the end of the day, he was very much aware that a program is its people," Sandusky said of Paterno. "He knew that taking care of the program meant taking care of me. Sure, we had our tough times, but some things are bigger than football—like friendship, and the legacy you hope to leave behind."
With Paterno's passing now closing the final chapter in their relationship, Sandusky said he can't help but smile when he reflects back on their tenure together at Penn State.
"I had years of great times at Penn State," Sandusky said. "Years and years of great times. And I owe every minute to Joe Paterno."