“The Meaning of 409”
June 18, 2014
The Normandy Inn—Blue Bell, PA
I want to thank everyone for coming out here tonight to be a part of a special evening like this. It really does a soul good to feel the love for Penn State that is in this room. I want to thank the artist Daniel Duffy for a couple of things. First for creating a unique and meaningful work of art and second for presenting it to my mother and our family. The way you’ve woven all the wins into a broader image of a great man is really a wonderful concept.
Before we go any further—before anyone accuses us of trying to live in the past or hang on to something let me say this clearly:
“You can root like hell every Saturday for the current team, yet still fight for the truth in our past---THEY ARE NOT MUTUALLY EXCLUSIVE GOALS.” Don’t let anyone tell you that they are—in fact one helps the other.
Tonight through his art we celebrate the number 409.
In July 2012 when the NCAA announced the sanctions against Penn State and the stripping of all the wins from 1998 through 2011 I wasn’t really concerned with the wins. I was angry at the things that were said about our program and our university’s culture of big football; our flawed culture of big football.
It was another punch in the face after having to watch Louis Freeh falsely allege all kinds of horrible things about our program and Joe Paterno just eleven days earlier. It was hard to watch those shots fired at our university and then to see people in the administration who knew better simply choose not to defend what they knew to be true—a truth that ran completely counter to that report.
So when the sanctions were announced I felt isolation, I felt helplessness for the young men in our program who were being punished, for a university that was being punished for the actions of a former employee.
Shortly thereafter I saw the 409 car magnets, t-shirts, signs, hats that started to sprout up.
I have to confess that it was hard to see, it was hard to be in State College and see the constant reminders of it, reminders that I had lost my Dad and what had been taken from us. I just wanted it and the fight to just go away. My father didn’t care about wins and records and I was convinced that he would’ve said to just let it all go.
That was just selfish on my part----and I was wrong.
I started to hear from former players, from alumni, from current students from people I’d never met. They called, e-mailed, wrote letters, stopped me on the street—all with the same message.
“Please don’t stop fighting. This isn’t right.”
One former player said to me “Jay those are all of our wins they took. I got hurt in some of those games and now they want to tell me they never happened?”
Once again I realized the bigger lesson of what my father had always preached—we are part of a team and being part of a team requires us to put aside individual preferences for the good of the group.
Life would be easier if I could just go away and never talk about this ever again.
But then the truth would lose…..not just for Joe Paterno.
I realized 409 meant something much bigger.
It took the words of other people to teach me the meaning of 409, and to remind me of what my father had once said to me.
In December of 2011 a childhood friend home for Christmas came with me to see my father. My friend had known my father as just a man who lived in the neighborhood and raised one of his best friends. That day we sat in my father’s room and talked of family, of years gone by, and inevitably the events at Penn State.
A USA Today article had quoted a Penn State official stating that he “hoped Penn State would become known as a world-class research university rather than a football factory.”
That came up and the pain became apparent in my father’s face and voice.
He said to us “We ARE known as a great research university and we’ve never been a football factory. That is an insult to every student-athlete, coach, administrator, team doctor, academic advisor, professor and alum in every sport and every department who have done the right things the right way…the harder way…for decades.”
That was months before the NCAA sanctions, but that was the lesson of 409.
409 means more than wins. As you look at the picture Daniel Duffy has created what I hope you take out of it is this…the wins are moments, they represent hard work, sacrifice and triumph but as you back away they are threads, points in time that when woven together create a rich tapestry of unmatched and unsurpassed “Success With Honor.”
The NCAA may or may not reduce the sanctions further with the hopes of trying to paint the fight as nothing more than a fight for wins and a place in the record books. Nothing could be further from the truth.
They’ve alleged that we are trying to re-write history. THEY’VE tried to re-write history---We are trying to re-claim the truth. Reclaim the truth from people who mangled it, twisting it for agendas or reasons that only they can confess to having.
Despite trying to portray it as a Paterno Family lawsuit, they forget that the lawsuit they face isn’t just from our family—on that suit are Trustees, Former Players, Former Coaches and Faculty members—all willing to stand up and show the courage to re-claim the truth.
409 has a deeper meaning.
In a time when the NCAA is rife with stories of players taking money, of players demanding to unionize, of a basketball player being on the dean’s list admitting that he did so without ever having attended a single class….409 should be the NCAA’s shining city on the hill.
As coaching salaries spiral ever higher, and athletic departments race to spend more and more money on facilities and perks for staff and administrators---409 should be an example of a program living within its means.
Surely 409 represents an imperfect program---any human endeavor will be scarred by imperfection—that is the nature of our humanity. But while it was imperfect Penn State football and indeed all of Penn State athletics led by Tim Curley pursued high ideals, pursued perfection.
We graduated our student-athletes, we maintained higher eligibility standards than those set by the NCAA and the Big Ten. While we did that we won more National Titles since joining the Big Ten than any other Big Ten program and in fact since 2007 no Athletic Department in the nation has won more national titles than Penn State. On the football field over the last 7 calendar years of his career Joe Paterno led his teams to the 6th-best record on the country and stood as the ONLY program in the country to win over 77% of our games and graduate over 80% our student-athletes.
All this was done without academic fraud, all of this was done without any major NCAA infractions---and regardless of what was handed down in July of 2012—that remains the TRUTH.
Was that a flawed culture of football? Hell No.
But 409 is more than that—much like the artwork tonight--it is the threads woven—individual stories that occurred across decades.
It is Adam Taliaferro here tonight who Joe Paterno promised would walk again—and he did creating one of the great moments in our University’s history when he walked onto the field in 2001. Adam is on the lawsuit fighting the NCAA and I am proud to have him on our team.
It is Richard Gardner who was determined to prove he could play big-time college football. He walked on from a small private high-school in Chicago and his family paid his way. Ultimately he persevered got a scholarship, a starting position graduated from Penn State and went on to the NFL. In fact he was one of several walk-ons from 1999 through 2011 who came to Penn State graduated and went on to the NFL. He is also on our lawsuit team.
It is Anthony Adams from inner-city Detroit—his father was sent away to prison when Anthony was 4 years old. His mother Connie raised him so well, to value education. He went on to play a long time in the NFL but he came back a year after he finished playing at Penn State to finish his degree and he took that diploma to have his picture taken next to a statue that used to be outside Beaver Stadium. When we recruited Anthony, Connie told us that she was always very careful to evaluate the kind of men, the examples in Anthony’s life and that she wanted him around Joe Paterno, around Larry Johnson and me.
409 was a coach, a staff, a team a university and a fan base who stood by Rashard Casey in 2000 when he was unjustly and falsely accused of a crime that he never committed. Amid the tempest winds of a media storm demanding punishment without due process the leadership stood firm by Rashard’s side because we knew the content of his character.
We were right.
In the years taken away by the NCAA they stripped away the young men who competed in the classroom and on the field. From 1998-2011 Penn State had two dozen players named Academic All-Americans—the highest number in the country over that span.
From 1998 through 2011 Penn State won Big Ten Titles in Football, had 2 players named Big Ten MVP and two Heisman Trophy Finalists…..
Their stories of perseverance are the threads in the story of 409.
409 was about an Athletic Department that was a self-sustaining operation that became a boost to the reputation of our University because it was run by people who understood that athletics was there to serve the Academic mission of Penn State and not the other way around.
I don’t care how much money they’ve paid former Senator George Mitchell to write every three months that Penn State is “moving towards compliance”
It begs the question; how does a school that was already in compliance move towards compliance?
I guess some people will write anything if the check is big enough and it clears.
That is why 409 is important—it is a symbol of our history, the truth that we all witnessed. You can’t make us un-see what we know to be true—but some day those who witnessed will all be gone and our history must be recorded accurately.
College football is rooted in tradition. Those who try to separate us from those roots leave a fan base that is anchorless.
That’s why 409 is so much bigger than wins, awards, records, trophies and championships.
There is a truer meaning to the number 409 and what it stands for.
409 was teaching young men about life, it was not about using football to fill stadiums or make money or build a brand or get rich or for entertainment on a Saturday afternoon. Those were all outgrowths of what the true mission of football was at Penn State, the true story of 409.
409 was understanding that Penn State was not for everyone. It was for the student-athlete who had three goals—goals that were ranked by importance in this precise order:
1. Get a meaningful education and graduate
2. Be part of great football TEAMS
3. Move on to the NFL—if the talent and desire were there
In that order –Education, TEAM and then individual goals.
409 was about players getting a chance to play regardless of their high school resume, and getting a chance—a legitimate chance beyond one or two years—to prove their abilities and grow as people as students and as athletes.
Look around folks, and I would urge that the people who run big-time college athletics need to take a good hard look at the state of big-time college sports right now. Almost every headline we’re reading right now is about MONEY. It is coaching contracts, television contracts, National Championship Playoff revenue, it is $10.8 billion over 14 years for the TV rights to March Madness.
Mark Emmert and the conference commissioners and the people who make decisions should take another look at what 409 was all about. If they’d open their minds to the truth they’d see that even as recently as 2011 it was possible to run a program that placed the welfare of the student-athlete as the central focus of a big-time football program—certainly well ahead of winning at all costs.
But I suspect I am Don Quixote tilting at windmills. I suspect that 409 represents an ideal, a truth that most of them could never see, and never wanted to believe in—including some people who made decisions at our own university.
When the times got tough it was easier to throw aside all that 409 represented rather than fight to defend it.
However, what they could never understand was what 409 meant to so many people—many who never played at Penn State or ever even met Joe Paterno. The people in this room.
Thomas Paine once wrote “Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness that gives everything its value”
What they didn’t get was how hard we worked to achieve every victory on and—more importantly—off the field.
What they could never understand, because it was never theirs to begin with, was that in giving away the honor that was won the hard way for the school—they gave away something that was obtained through difficult conflict, the road less taken of Success With Honor.
What they could not understand was that 409 did not belong to one man—Joe Paterno. They could not understand what Joe Paterno said to my good friend just weeks before he died—this was not about him.
They could not understand that 409 belonged to every student-athlete at Penn State, every coach, every administrator, every professor and every alum who understood that we are different. It belonged to so many people—people in this room included.
A friend said to me recently about Penn State that “maybe now we’re like everyone else.”
I looked at him and said “You say that like it’s a good thing.” He looked at me with a puzzled look on his face.
I said “That was exactly the point—we never aspired to be like everyone else. That’s settling---We wanted to be the best and that’s what makes Penn State different.”
It is not bragging or boastful. This spring I visited Dan Rooney in the Steelers offices—and their building is not flashy, not in your face—much like the Lasch Building when Joe Paterno was there. I mentioned that to him and he told me a story.
When they got back from their first Super Bowl Championship Dan walked into the office and heard the receptionist answer the phone “Good Morning Pittsburgh Steelers—The World Champions”. He stopped until she’d put the call through and told her calmly to never say that again.
“If they don’t already know it doesn’t matter. We don’t boast.”
That story hit home.
Perhaps 409 is best summed up by a quote that hung in Joe Paterno’s office for years, the faded framed quotation hangs in my den now and that same quote is carved into the gravestone of Joe Paterno.
409 is what Robert Browning said “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp or what’s a heaven for?”
409 was reaching for the ideal, stretching further than we thought we could and going further together as a team, as a university, than we ever could as individuals.
That is why we fight—not to get some wins back but rather because those threads are bound together into a masterpiece of truth and Success With Honor. It was the Mona Lisa, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and when this fight is over it will be restored not for Joe Paterno but for every man and woman who helped weave a thread into this story—all of you.
When that day comes I will put a car magnet on my car and it will say “410”