As unconfirmed reports of Joe Paterno's death circulated worldwide Saturday night, a recent Penn State graduate reminded us of a time when the Paterno name meant three things: football, winning, and mentorship.
Nick Sukay, a free safety from Western Pennsylvania, honored his school and his former coach in the East-West Shrine Game in St. Petersburg, Fla. with a performance that earned him defensive MVP.
Sukay's end zone interception impressed more than a few NFL scouts on hand, but after the game, his thoughts quickly shifted to the ailing icon back in his native Pennsylvania.
"It was a great honor [to play for him]," said Sukay, moments after learning of Paterno's condition Saturday evening. "He taught you so many things as a person. He taught you how to really become a man."
Paterno passed away Sunday morning. He was 85.
Sukay, out of Greensburg Central Catholic High, acknowledged the fallout from recent sexual abuse allegations, combined with speculation about Paterno's rapidly declining health, has been difficult on everyone associated with the program.
"[Coach Paterno] was a great leader for all of us," Sukay said. "It's just really sad and unfortunate what’s going on up there, but he has all of our support and always will."
While many followers of the program around the country heard rumors of Paterno's imminent passing as the Shrine Game went on and tried to figure out what he meant to the football community -- both good and bad -- Sukay didn't need time for that.
"Words can't describe what it is to play for a coach like that, what he’s been through, his knowledge for the game, and the passion he has for the game," Sukay said. "It’s just something you can't describe."
Sukay also said Paterno emphasized the importance of education, always putting "student" before "athlete."
He even credited Paterno with the interception that may make him a lot of money in the months ahead.
"He would expect you to make that play or someone else in the secondary to make that play," said Sukay. "He would try to push us and try to get the most out of us."
Although many believe Paterno's inaction caused young people to suffer deeply, Sukay still holds onto to the best lessons Paterno taught.
"He always said not to play tentative. Just to go out and play fast and play from your heart. And always be there for your teammates. That we were a family."
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