November 18, 2011
Last week, Joe Paterno lost the fight for his job at Penn State, the university he made his life for more than 60 years. Now, Paterno begins a battle for the rest of his life, according to his son, Scott, who said in a statement today that his 84-year-old father has been diagnosed with a treatable form of lung cancer:
"Last weekend my father was diagnosed with a treatable form of lung cancer during a follow-up visit for a bronchial illness," Scott Paterno said in the statement. "He is currently undergoing treatment and his doctors are optimistic that he will make a full recovery. As everyone can appreciate, this is a deeply personal matter for my parents, and we simply ask that his privacy be respected as he proceeds with treatment."
Scott Paterno did not release further details. According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, lung cancer is the deadliest cancer for both men and women, killing more people each year than breast, colon, and prostate cancers combined. Prognosis varies, however, depending on the type of cancer and the stage of progression.
Paterno has never been known as a smoker. According to the Associated Press, he had been seen Wednesday visiting the Mount Nittany Medical Center, was treated for an undisclosed ailment and released.
The timing of the diagnosis only adds to the heartbreak. Within a span of a few days, arguably the most respected man in sports has been disgraced for his role in a breathtaking scandal, unceremoniously cast out of his job and informed of a major threat to his health. His once-celebrated, exemplary life has been shaken to the core.
Paterno's health has been an ongoing concern for much of the last decade, beginning with a broken leg he suffered on the sideline in 2006. He also had hip replacement surgery in late 2008, after spending much of the '08 season relegated to the press box. Before his dismissal, he spent most of the current season sequestered in the box, as well, after being hospitalized following a collision with a player in preseason practice.
But so far as anyone outside of his inner circle is aware, those concerns have never included a condition or disease. Paterno's old friend, Bobby Bowden, recently admitted that he successfully hid a battle with prostate cancer near the end of his tenure at Florida State.
Paterno's own tenure has been permanently marred by a litany of charges against longtime defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky for alleged sexual abuse against at least eight underage males. According to the grand jury's report, there were at least two occasions — once in 1998, when former Sandusky was the subject of an investigation involving university police, and again in 2002, when Paterno was informed directly by a graduate assistant who said he saw Sandusky abusing a 10-year-old boy in a locker room shower — on which Paterno and other Penn State administrators had reason to at least suspect Sandusky was engaging in violent criminal behavior in the football facilities. Still, Paterno only passed the 2002 charge up the chain to the then-athletic director Tim Curley, and apparently did not follow up with his boss or former colleague.
Sandusky was neither disciplined nor reported to authorities, and (thanks to his "emeritus" status following his retirement in 1999) continued to maintain an office in the football building and enjoy access to the locker room and other campus facilities as recently as last month. Paterno, Curley and university president Graham Spanier have all lost their jobs; Curley and another former official also face indictments for perjury and failure to report Sandusky to authorities. Paterno has hired an attorney in anticipation of civil suits.
Sandusky is facing 25 felony counts of deviate sexual intercourse, aggravated indecent assault, unlawful contact with a minor, endangering the welfare of a child and indecent assault against at least eight victims over more than a decade. The board of trustees has appointed a special committee to investigate the university's response, as has the U.S. Department of Education. The NCAA may soon follow.
On top of the devastating denouement to his career, a potentially life-threatening illness is nothing short of cruel. Under any circumstances, it's still appropriate to say: Godspeed, JoePa, and make this win your biggest.