"Show me a hero and I will write you a tragedy."
- F. Scott Fitzgerald, Notebooks
As a country, we like nothing more than building up our winners into heroes who stand tall above the crowd.
When we declare a man or woman to be a hero, we expect the best out of them, professionally and morally. Sadly, our winners most often prove themselves to be flawed mortals just like the rest of us, and when their failings are displayed in public, we feel betrayed and disgusted.
The more we build them up our heroes, the greater their fall.
Few men in sports were viewed as reverently as Joe Paterno, a man who coached at Penn State University for 62 years (44 as head coach) and became the winningest coach in the history of college football's highest division. He wasn't only a winner, he was viewed as a good, loyal man who did things the right way while the rest of the college football programs were mired in the mud of scandals.
Then that great man fell. Broken by the plummet, Paterno would never rise again. His fall was so great that the force of it dragged down other top university leaders and reverberated through generations of proud Penn State graduates who watched the black mark of a scandal completely cover the iconic white of Penn State's logo.
For years, the affectionately-titled "Joe Pa" had recruited top players, won games and proved that age was no barrier to success. No matter what team one supported, when coaches were discussed, Paterno's name was always mentioned in the conversation of true leaders of men.
Now he's seen as the epitome of betrayal. How could a man charged with caring for youth, turn a blind eye to a potential monster in their midst?
Paterno fell not because he ceased to be a winner and not because he stayed on too long, but he had acted without character in apparently covering up the actions of a convicted child molester.
Because of his desire to win and maintain his own and the school's untarnished image, he ultimately ruined everything, by, according to reports, refusing to expose and fire a man who was a longtime friend and top assistant coach.
We demand character from our true heroes. Paterno had character, but not when he may have needed it most. We all fail, but only the heroes truly fall.
In spite of all of his past glories, Paterno failed because of a character flaw, and that, as Scott Fitzgerald so aptly put, is a true tragedy.