Penn State's scapegoat in Sandusky saga finally gets some redemption against university

Dan WetzelColumnist
Yahoo Sports US
Mike McQueary was awarded more than $12 million in damages in two lawsuits against Penn State. (Getty Images)
Mike McQueary was awarded more than $12 million in damages in two lawsuits against Penn State. (Getty Images)

It was in August, 15 years after Mike McQueary walked in on Jerry Sandusky and a boy in a Penn State shower; an incident he failed to immediately end, but reported to his boss the next day.

It was five years after the scandal broke nationally, costing McQueary his once-promising football coaching career, Joe Paterno his job and iconic reputation and Sandusky, the former Nittany Lions defensive coordinator, his freedom.

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McQueary was 42 years old in August, but back living in his parent’s house in State College, Pa. He was no longer the hero athlete who starred at the local high school, or the former starting quarterback at Penn State, or one of Paterno’s trusted assistants. Before the Sandusky storm, he and his wife bought a house in the same simple neighborhood of Paterno, an easy walk to campus. If he never left, he’d have been happy. Maybe, he dreamed, he might one day be the head coach.

Now he was half a decade out of work. His entire savings and retirement accounts drained. He and his wife (and young child) separated. Living with his parents was his only option.

Coaching jobs either never materialized or were pulled at the last second by cautious administrators. He wasn’t aiming high either, these were low-level jobs, part-time positions at small schools – a four-month deal at Savannah State, a shot with Elizabeth City of Division II.

He didn’t care. He’d take anything. It was the same for anything he tried: sales gigs, a job with a human resources company, an attempt at being a golf instructor. He even failed to land a sales clerk position at a local golf store. He tried everything. He got nothing. His name was toxic. The little money he’d made was doing yard work and odd jobs.

A “Help Wanted” sign hung in the local Rite-Aid, right down the street from where he grew up. Run the cash register. Maybe move up to shift manager. He applied. He was a college graduate who for over a decade thrived in the highly competitive field of college coaching, working long hours, juggling myriad responsibilities, making $140,000 per year.

“Did you get the job,” McQueary was asked on the stand during his recent whistleblower lawsuit against Penn State.

“No,” he said simply.

That was Mike McQueary’s reality. He was little more than a name to recoil at.

“I can’t get a job at Rite Aid, working a cash register?” McQueary testified. “… I mean, that’s humiliating. That’s humbling.”

*****

Mike McQueary has spent the years wishing he could do that night over.

He was a low-level graduate assistant, just trying to get his foot in the door of coaching. He was home on a Friday night, watching the movie “Rudy.” It inspired him to go back to work and study scouting tape for walk-ons. He stopped by the coach’s locker room to drop off some sneakers. He expected the place to be empty. He was startled to hear sounds coming from the showers, sounds he associated with sex. That’s where he found Sandusky alone with a boy.

He slammed his locker shut. He looked into the shower and made eye contact as the two separated. He didn’t do anything else though. In shock, he retreated to his office and called his father.

“Did I pull the boy out of there?” McQueary would testify years later. “Did I physically go and assault somebody? Did I remove him?”

He didn’t need to answer. Everyone knows he didn’t. A million times he’d wondered why. Across sleepless nights and sad, empty days, he cursed that his fight-or-flight reflex failed him – a powerful 6-foot-4 former Division I football player no less.

Had he done more, he likely ends Sandusky’s reign of terror that night. Pound Sandusky senseless. Grab the boy. Call the cops. Had he done any of that he could have spared who knows how many from molestation.

Had he done more, on a personal level – a lesser level he’ll remind – he’d likely still have a career, still have faith in authority and institutions, still have his good name. He could, if nothing else, be trusted to work the register at Rite-Aid.

****

Mike McQueary served as an assistant coach under Joe Paterno at Penn State. (AP)
Mike McQueary served as an assistant coach under Joe Paterno at Penn State. (AP)

He understands. He’s always understood. He isn’t sympathetic, especially to everyone who heard about Sandusky, heard about the grad assistant who walked in and walked out. No one has cursed Mike McQueary for not doing more that night than Mike McQueary.

“I have said this before, I will point a finger at myself before I point it at anyone else,” McQueary testified. “I’m a man, and I can take responsibility.”

McQueary should’ve done more, which is different than saying he didn’t do anything. He actually did what possibly no one in State College would: He spoke up and reported what he saw.

At Sandusky’s 2012 criminal trial, the story of a janitor witnessing Sandusky and a boy was told. The eyewitness and his co-workers whom he told of the scene remained quiet for years because they feared blowing the whistle on a man of power like Sandusky would mean losing their jobs. There is no telling how many others around the program, or Sandusky’s Second Mile charity, saw something, yet said nothing.

McQueary made up for his initial failure. Early that next morning after seeing Sandusky in the shower with the boy, McQueary was on the doorstep of his boss, Paterno, the most powerful man on campus, to report what he saw even if he wasn’t sure whether the coach would believe him.

He told enough that Paterno testified, before his death, that it was something “sexual in nature.” It was enough for Paterno to promptly research what he needed to do. On Sunday morning he conveyed what McQueary had told him to his athletic director, Tim Curley, and vice president, Gary Schultz, who oversaw the campus police. Those two, by Sunday afternoon, were consulting an attorney for a case involving possible “abuse,” according to lawyer notes.

Just three years before, Sandusky had been accused of the same thing in the same way, he and a boy in the shower. A concerned mom called the police. Sandusky narrowly escaped prosecution because the district attorney saw the case as a challenge to win. Sandusky cried to authorities about his lapse of judgment.

Now he was doing it again?

It should’ve ended there, in 2001. Penn State administrators should have turned the case over to police investigators and local prosecutors. If they had, Mike McQueary would have been known as the guy who did enough – maybe not immediately, but by the following morning.

He’d likely still be coaching. He’d still have his reputation. He’d have back so many nights where regret overwhelmed sleep.

*****

On Wednesday, Pennsylvania Judge Thomas G. Gavin awarded McQueary about $5 million, plus legal fees, in a whistleblower lawsuit against Penn State. It comes on the heels of a $7.3 million jury award in a defamation suit against the school last month.

Two verdicts. Two victories. Both the people and the bench saw McQueary as a victim, not a villain.

The money is considerable, though the decision echoing McQueary’s side of the story may be even more valuable.

From the start the institutions and authorities around this case failed. And one of the people it failed was McQueary.

When word of Sandusky in the shower got to Curley and Schultz they didn’t immediately open a police investigation or search for the boy or drag Sandusky in for questioning. It took 10 days before they got around to even ask McQueary what he had seen. Ten days. Soon enough, emails show, they were in contact with school president Graham Spanier, and the investigation into Sandusky sputtered out. They decided the “humane” approach would be just to tell him to not bring kids onto campus.

McQueary was never told why it went that way. He wasn’t told that the cops weren’t brought in, let alone why. No one provided him with an explanation. Through the years he’d bristle at Sandusky still roaming the Penn State football building, walking out of a room if the old coach walked in. Peers noticed and asked why. He’d convey his disgust without upsetting everything – that’s how he’d been raised, to keep your head down and keep grinding. So he did.

*****

Former Penn State vice president Gary Schultz, left, and former athletic director Tim Curley. (AP)
Former Penn State vice president Gary Schultz, left, and former athletic director Tim Curley. (AP)

When Sandusky was finally indicted, in 2011, the grand jury presentment featured McQueary’s eyewitness account prominently. The details were so horrific that it became the most recalled image of the case, seared into America’s collective memory.

“He saw a naked boy, Victim 2, whose age he estimated to be 10 years old, with his hands up against the wall, being subjected to anal intercourse by a naked Sandusky,” the presentment read.

And McQueary walked out on that?

Except, that wasn’t precisely what happened. That wasn’t what McQueary told the grand jury or any investigator or Joe Paterno or anyone, ever.

To this day many believe it happened. What he saw was ugly, but he never saw penetration or an in-process rape like that. Maybe this is a distinction without a difference, but that such a considerable overstatement got into the grand jury presentment should have been a clue to McQueary that the system isn’t always about the truth and the authorities aren’t always concerned with who gets rolled up.

McQueary wanted the record corrected. Instead, the Office of the Attorney General advised him to make no public statements, letting the mistruth sit there to be digested. Meanwhile, McQueary wanted Penn State to come out and provide some perspective, maybe explain the details better or at least make a point of acknowledging, if not praising, him for reporting Sandusky at the time.

Spanier, the school president, instead released a tone-deaf statement that never mentioned the child victims or McQueary. It instead offered “unconditional support” for Curley and Schultz who “operate at the highest levels of honesty, integrity and compassion.” It predicted they’d be cleared of the “groundless” accusation against them.

McQueary understood what that meant, especially inside the school.

“If they did nothing wrong or if the charges brought against them were going to be proven groundless … that calls me a liar,” McQueary testified.

His employer was now against him. Then there were backers of Paterno who, needing a scapegoat to explain Paterno’s minimal response, surmised McQueary must not have been clear enough with the aging coach. Now McQueary was blamed for Paterno’s downfall, even though Paterno testified under oath and took actions that show he understood the severity of the situation. Either way, McQueary was getting it from all sides.

Within days he was told he wouldn’t be allowed to coach in Penn State’s upcoming game against Nebraska. The school cited security concerns. Then he was placed on administrative leave, told to hand over his computer, cell phone and keys to a courtesy car on the spot. He was allowed to clear out his office only under the watchful eye of Penn State personnel. He was banned from the football facility.

In contrast, Curley, the athletic director who McQueary reported to and didn’t push for a full investigation, was given the option of agreeing to go on paid administrative leave. He was treated with more respect. McQueary was given no such choice, a sign internally of more egregious culpability that simply wasn’t true.

When McQueary first reported what he saw in 2001, he was not suspended or fired or sanctioned in any way. He continued to work and gain promotions. It was only when what he reported became public that he was suddenly persona non grata at Penn State.

*****

Mike McQueary attends the public viewing following the death of Joe Paterno. (Getty Images)
Mike McQueary attends the public viewing following the death of Joe Paterno. (Getty Images)

The wall-to-wall media coverage of that first week was impossible to recover from. There is a reason McQueary’s name is more famous, or infamous, than Spanier or Curley or Schultz, who are often lumped into news accounts as “administrators.”

His story was told in the worst possible light, with exaggerated claims that made the horrible sound even more horrible. He was treated in the same manner as Paterno and the disgraced administrators, despite never having any authority. He lacked a public relations firm or army of devoted fans to defend him. He became a scapegoat for everyone, decried by those who found Sandusky’s crimes and Paterno’s actions inexcusable and those who sought to exonerate the same men. He was surrounded.

About the only person who appeared to have McQueary’s back was Paterno himself. The week after the Sandusky indictment they talked at practice. JoePa offered perspective and advice.

“[Paterno] said, ‘The university is going to come down hard on you,’ ” McQueary testified in 2013. “[He said], ‘Don’t worry about me. They are going to try to scapegoat you. … Don’t trust Old Main [the administration building]. … Old Main screwed it up.’ ”

Paterno was correct, but by then, it was too late. Within hours, Paterno would be fired. Within days, so too, essentially, would McQueary.

So you could hardly blame the public for believing he was somehow the worst of the worst at Penn State. If McQueary hadn’t done something wrong, they could reason, then why was he de facto fired? Why was he barred from a facility he played and coached in for years? Why was he unsupported by his own bosses? Why was the AG not clearing the record on exactly what he had testified?

*****

One afternoon at his whistleblower and defamation trial in October, McQueary sat on the stand and took a moment to speak directly to the jury, to unload some of the frustration a half-decade in the making.

“Right now, as we sit here today, there’s a kid in some locker room, or some church, having the same thing happen to him,” McQueary said. “And no one may know about it. And that person is scared to speak up. To treat someone that way who does speak up … who tries to stop something – maybe not perfectly, but who tries to do the right thing – it’s awful.

“I did a damn good thing,” he pleaded. “And I can’t a job at darn Rite Aid? I’m a doggone good football coach. I learned from the best football coach to ever step on this planet. He’s [the] best football coach ever. For me to not be able to go to work, as a coach or work a cash register?”

Perhaps now that changes. Perhaps now he gets a fresh look. Perhaps now someone will hire him.

He thought helping prosecutors convict Sandusky would have done that, especially when they raved about his importance. “Mike McQueary was one of the best, if not the best, … non law enforcement witnesses I ever had,” Jonelle Harter Eshbach, of the attorney general’s office testified.

That didn’t do it, though. So maybe this does. A jury heard it all and ruled overwhelmingly for him. A judge heard it all and doubled down. If Spanier, et al ever stand trial, McQueary will again be the star witness. Maybe the message boards still crush him, but in a real-world court of law it’s different.

“Penn State had no grounds to terminate him,” Judge Gavin wrote in no uncertain terms. “… Penn State engaged in retaliatory conduct. … Penn State treated Mr. McQueary disparately …”

There’s more. There’s plenty more. And all these years later, for a still regretful Mike McQueary, there’s also vindication. Or there should be.

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