The Tao of Joe Paterno: Coach influences life and literature

Novelist Paul Levine, a Penn State Distinguished Alumnus, explores the little-known link between his protagonist Jake Lassiter and Coach Joe Paterno.  More information about the author and his just released thriller “Lassiter” at http://www.paul-levine.com.

By Paul Levine

"I earned a 15-yard penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct and a seat so far down Joe Paterno’s bench my feet were in Wilkes Barre." -- Jake Lassiter
 
What’s that? You don’t remember Jake Lassiter, playing linebacker alongside Jack Ham on the undefeated 1969 Penn State football team? But wait. In my new book, Lassiter says he’s only 42 years old.
 
That's the curious thing about the linebacker-turned-lawyer. He's as ageless as Coach Paterno. But Lassiter doesn't exist outside the pages of my crime thrillers. In his fictional world, Jake graduated from Penn State -- barely -- then after a short stint on Miami Dolphins' special teams, he struggled through night law school.  He passed the Florida Bar on his third try and now defends an assortment of miscreants – and a few innocents – in Miami courtrooms. He's been doing it since 1990 in "To Speak for the Dead" and in the just-released "Lassiter."
 
After all these years, somehow he's still in his early forties. I could have aged Jake, but I'd rather my fictional hero resemble George Clooney than Abe Vigoda.
 
Back in his undergraduate days -- whenever they were -- Lassiter walked onto the football team and fell under the spell of Coach Paterno who taught his players the difference between "success" and "excellence."
 
"Success is perishable and out of your control, Jake," Joe tells him in the book "Flesh & Bones."  "It's how other people judge you based on material things, not true accomplishment. Excellence is lasting and dependable. Do your best at every job. Achieve excellence, and success may well come along for the ride."
 
Jake got the Full Joe about the rewards reaped from hustling on every play... or every daily task. Joe even told Jake: "In unlikely event you ever score, act as if you've seen the end zone before and hand the ball to the official."

Who knew that Joe could predict the future? The next Saturday, in a game against Pitt, Jake blocked a punt in the end zone, not with his hands, but with his helmet.  The ball stuck in his face mask and left him with a concussion. Jake insisted he'd scored a touchdown, but the officials ruled it a safety because he never had possession of the ball... his helmet did, as it bounced out of the end zone.
 
Jake, the occasional rock head, became a believer in the Tao of Joe. He practices law the same way he played football, and the words that follow him into the courtroom are from Joe’s 1973 Penn State commencement speech:
          
"When Saturday comes and we walk on the grass in this stadium, we stand as a team. We tighten our belts. We look across at our opponents. We say, 'Come on, let's go. Let's see how good you are.' We aren't afraid to lose."
 
Jake isn't afraid, either. In Lassiter, when a prosecutor offers a plea deal in a slam-dunk prosecution case, our hero turns him down cold. "If my client wanted to plead guilty, he wouldn't need me."
 
Jake also listened when his coach told the team: "Success without honor is an unseasoned dish. It will satisfy your hunger, but it won't taste good."
 
Lassiter applies that philosophy to his own life. "I won’t lie to a judge, cheat a client, or a bribe a cop," he says.
 
As a student, however, Jake wasn't a mirror image of his old coach. Joe had his Grand Experiment of creating great football teams with true student athletes. Jake's Grand Experiment called for mixing rum, tequila, gin, vodka, cognac and Coke, and calling it Happy Valley Iced Tea. While in school, Jake rebelled at Joe's rules and discipline, but a funny thing happened. The older Jake got, the smarter Joe seemed.
 
Jake is more cynical than his optimistic mentor. "They don’t call us sharks for our ability to swim," he says now of his brethren of the Bar. Then there's the sign above the bench in all Miami courtrooms, "We who labor here seek only the truth."  Jake would add a footnote. "Subject to the truth being concealed by lying witnesses, distorted by sleazy lawyers, and excluded by inept judges."
 
Jake gets the darker part of his philosophy from me, not his legendary coach. Of course, Joe Paterno has been a profound influence in my life, too. I learned my journalism skills as sports editor of The Daily Collegian, sparring with Joe in interviews. I always lost. When I was selected to the law review at the University of Miami Law School -- without any tuition help from Ponzi schemers -- Coach Paterno sent me a letter of congratulations with this line: “Keep your goals set high.”

Last Updated September 16, 2011