I had no idea how to react.

There I was, a 20-year-old college student sharing an elevator with an icon. Fortunately, I wasn’t given the chance to stand frozen with awkward indecision. No sooner had the elevator doors closed, Penn State head football coach Joe Paterno pulled out his wallet and began showing me pictures of his grandchildren.
I don’t remember names, ages, whether he was showing me pictures of boys or girls. I was too shocked at the fact that not only was I in an elevator with Joe Paterno, but he was proudly trumpeting the existence of his grandkids to a complete stranger.

OK, so it wasn’t a complete happenstance occurrence. It was Big Ten football media day in downtown Chicago, and we were in the elevator of the host hotel – where presumably we were both staying. I was wearing my media credential, as I was tasked to cover the event for my college paper, The Minnesota Daily. Perhaps he even saw my last name and figured a fellow Italian would obviously be interested in familial tales.

Regardless, the one thing I do remember from the brief interaction was the smile on the old man’s face. Paterno was beaming, a proud grandfather happy to be sharing stories and photographs with anyone willing to listen.

Never could I, or anyone else, have suspected the horrors of which he’d heard just six months prior.

How could a man so outgoing, so enamored with his progeny, be so cavalier in his handling of what’s turned into the preeminent college football scandal in history? As has been reported by several news outlets, Paterno was told by then graduate assistant and current wide receivers coach Mike McQueary of sexual activity he witnessed between then defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky and a young boy in the shower of an otherwise empty Penn State locker room. Paterno is not being held legally responsible, at least currently, in the fallout of Sandusky’s recent arrest on several charges of sexual misdeeds with children. However, Paterno’s ethics and morals have come into question as a result of his relative inaction – to the point the New York Times is reporting that Paterno will be forced to step down despite being the winningest coach in Division 1 football history.

Paterno shouldn’t need to be forced. He should walk away willingly, apologetically, tearfully. Paterno didn’t commit heinous acts against young boys as Sandusky’s been accused of, but by not following through as the alpha employee on Penn State’s campus, he fell miles short of his obligation as not only a leader, but as a human being.

Paterno’s regularly scheduled Tuesday press conference was canceled as national media flooded Happy Valley looking for answers. Deservedly so, as Paterno apparently never followed up after informing athletic director Tim Curley of what he’d been told by McQueary. Legally, Paterno did the minimum. But I can’t believe that a man so revered for both his accomplishments on the field and kind nature off it didn’t know it was wrong to not follow through regardless of his professional relationship with Sandusky.

This is a man former Minnesota Gophers football coach Glen Mason speaks of with ultimate reverence. Mason held Paterno in the utmost regard when I covered that 2002 Gophers team, and he’s recently told a litany of Paterno stories in his regular visits with KFAN radio’s Dan Barreiro, calling the coach “a cut above” just two short weeks ago.

The point is, Paterno knows what’s right and what is wrong. Not going to the police when Sandusky reportedly later showed up with other boys on Penn State’s campus is indefensible. By continuing to avoid public comment, Paterno is only further damaging his reputation and that of his university.

This is the last way anyone could’ve imagined Paterno’s legacy coming to an end. At 84 years old and with more than 400 career victories, the face of Penn State – if not all of college football – earned the right to go out on his own terms.

But by harboring a sexual predator in his ranks, Paterno forfeited those rights. It’s a shame, but it was done of his own volition. Paterno should face the tough questions, apologize to the victims who suffered as a direct result of his inaction, and voluntarily walk away from job he’s held since 1966.

Then comes the hard part – looking into the eyes of those grandchildren he holds so dear, and explaining why he failed to help children just like them.