STATE COLLEGE, PA—Hospitalized after a receiver crashed into him on the field last Sunday, Joe Paterno’s return to practice Wednesday came as a vast relief to Penn State players, all of whom live in constant fear of being the one who inevitably kills the 84-year-old head coach.
“Every day we go to the field worried about which one of us will accidentally bump into Coach, cause his entire body to fall apart, and kill him,” senior defensive end Jack Crawford said. “There’s no doubt we are going to be the ones responsible for his death. That’s inevitable. It’s just a question of who and when."
“At this point, it’s part of the Happy Valley tradition," Crawford added. "No names on the jerseys, ringing the victory bell, and being very, very careful not to be the reason Coach Paterno dies."
Paterno, who suffered minor fractures during Sunday’s accident, also had his leg broken during a 2006 game against Wisconsin and injured himself in a 2008 practice while demonstrating an onside kick. In fact, Nittany Lions players and coaches confirmed, Paterno has been close to death an average of once a week for the past 30 years.
"His heart and lungs actually first stopped functioning for a few minutes when Alabama upset Penn State in the 1979 Sugar Bowl," Penn State athletic director Timothy Curley said. "And I estimate about 13 times since then. For God's sake, don't tell him, but after that kid ran into him Sunday, Coach Paterno was clinically dead for five minutes."
Paterno has been a constant presence at practices during his entire 46-season tenure as head coach, and in recent years, players have developed special procedures to minimize the risk of inadvertently killing him. According to team sources, the Nittany Lions offense runs plays away from the fragile, ancient coach, and any ballcarrier who finds himself within 10 yards of Paterno is expected to stumble harmlessly to the turf.
In addition, Penn State has reportedly managed not to practice punts or kickoffs in Paterno's presence since 1996, when the then 70-year-old Paterno was lightly grazed by a member of the return team and had to be rushed to a hospital, where a cardiothoracic surgeon massaged his heart for 30 minutes.
"Every game, every quarter, every down, I’m terrified I might be the one who kills Joe Paterno," said junior wideout Curtis Drake, who now refuses to run sideline routes. "It’s not just playing football, either. The tough part is all the little things, like staying 3 feet from him when he's talking so you don't use up all the oxygen in the air, and making sure he's not standing in your shadow, where he could get cold.”
“There are just so many ways we could potentially kill this man,” Drake added.
Team sources said that while it may not be obvious to the casual observer, the entire Penn State sideline has for decades been more committed to preserving Paterno's tenuous hold on life than to winning football games.
"Of course, we hate to lose, because Coach could take it too hard and die,” sophomore quarterback Paul Jones said. “But we can't win by too much, either, because then he could get too excited and die. We also can’t not hustle or play hard, because then he might get angry and die. So basically our game plan is to establish an eight-point cushion and keep it there, easy does it, no drama."
"And if we do win, absolutely no dumping Gatorade over Coach Paterno," Jones added. "I mean, are you fucking kidding me? He'd fall apart like a stewed chicken."
While Penn State sources admitted the team's focus on preserving the delicate health of their octogenarian coach has somewhat limited their football program, all agreed that at this point Paterno's presence on the sidelines means more to the school than winning games.
"Joe Paterno is a national treasure, and as far as I’m concerned, he can coach as long as he wants,” Penn State president Graham Spanier told reporters. “I mean, without Penn State, the man would drop dead in a second, and I’m certainly not going to be the one to kill him.”