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Cemetery gates protect Joe Paterno from dealing with the consequences of his inaction

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Joe Paterno is buried at the Spring Creek Presbyterian Cemetery. (AP)

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – As the sun began to set on the worst day in the history of Penn State football, fans lined up behind a fence draped in blue tarp to take photos of a familiar face that was no longer there. They peered through the chain links at the place where Joe Paterno's statue stood until a day before, pointing their phones and craning for a better look.

But only a couple of miles away at that hour, the permanent monument to Joe Paterno had no visitors.

In a shaded area of Spring Creek Presbyterian Cemetery, high up on a hill overlooking the town he made famous, Joseph V. Paterno is laid to rest. "PATERNO" is engraved in all caps on his tombstone, with the former Penn State coach's name below and to the right, and his wife Sue's name to the left. At the bottom of the marker, there is a quote: "Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's a heaven for?"

Here's the dilemma so many face when looking back on Paterno's life. His reach did exceed his grasp, and that's why hundreds of football players came to this town and turned into graduates and winners. His reach did exceed his grasp, and that's why some of the most heinous crimes imaginable went on for years unabated. Paterno's prized defensive coordinator, Jerry Sandusky, committed sexual assault on helpless children on Penn State property, and there's no hard evidence Paterno did anything to stop it.

So who is buried here? The leader of men? Or the neglector of children? It's both, of course, but that's not a satisfactory answer on the day the NCAA crippled the football program Paterno built. Nuance doesn't work when lives have been destroyed. We had all the information we needed about Joe Paterno for many years, and then, when we really need it, we don't have nearly enough.

[Related: Dan Wetzel: NCAA sanctions will cripple Penn State for years]

There are clues to Paterno's legacy at his grave: caps left as gifts, a postcard from Iowa, a sign saying "We Love You Joe," footballs and flowers. This man was deeply admired. The graves around his, by comparison, are hardly adorned with anything. And this is no ornate mausoleum; Paterno's final resting place is like the house where he lived: humble and unassuming. Neither gives a sense of a man in love with his own image. Remember, this is the guy who pranced around the sidelines with his pant legs rolled up. He didn't care how he looked. Or so we thought.

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Onlookers take photos of the site where a statue of Joe Paterno used to stand. (AP)

There are more clues elsewhere in this cemetery: Penn State logos and flags dotting other graves. One man even has the Nittany Lion logo engraved on his tombstone. These people surely thought nothing but good things about Paterno until the day they died. Most of the recently deceased people here would likely say Joe Paterno was one of the best things about their entire lives. They passed away with none of the ambivalence shrouding this campus now. JoePa did right by them. Or so they thought.

Paterno knew he was worshiped. He knew how many young people looked up to him and how many older people trusted him. And for 14 years, if the Freeh Commission is right, he carried on with this knowledge and the knowledge that one of his closest associates had abused children. He let this duplicity go on and on, misleading the very people who depended on him and ignoring kids he could have saved. Joe Paterno lived up to his fullest potential as a man, but indirectly kept others from being able to do the same. That's not what a leader does.

But the old gates of this cemetery protect him from the consequences. He will never have to face angry reporters or disappointed players. He'll never be brought to trial. Most importantly, he'll never have to look at the faces of Sandusky's victims. In the Freeh Commission report, there's neither sympathy for the victims nor even a sense of outrage that this could have happened on Paterno's campus. The coach, always so talkative, is unbearably silent.

Now there is chaos in Happy Valley. There is confusion about what to do. There's even uncertainty about what Penn State is. New coach Bill O'Brien should be spending the coming years living up to Paterno's legacy, not trying to live it down. Paterno should have provided the answers everyone seeks now. He should have done it for the town, for the team, for the nation, and for the school. He didn't. Now his incomplete identity is Penn State's identity crisis.

Where does this place go for closure? The stadium? An empty memorial? In life, Joe Paterno was always so easy to find. Now, in death, he's unsearchable.

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