Sports

How key figures from Jerry Sandusky’s crimes view Joe Paterno’s legacy, 10 years after his downfall

A little over 10 years ago, the public learned of the horrific sexual-abuse crimes committed by former Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky. The fallout was swift and sweeping.

In addition to Sandusky’s conviction and imprisonment, three high-ranking Penn State administrators received jail time, and the winningest coach in major college football history, Joe Paterno, was abruptly fired.

Paterno died of lung cancer in January 2012, 74 days after Penn State fired him for his role in Sandusky’s crimes. He was 85. A decade later, the stunning and sudden end to Paterno’s 61-year coaching career continues to divide the Penn State community and beyond, and many of those involved, including Sandusky’s victims, are still reckoning with what he did and what school officials did after that.

ESPN recently interviewed key surviving figures from the most wrenching period in Penn State’s history to see how they want to reconsider Paterno’s legacy a decade later.

Aaron Fisher

Initially identified in court documents as “Victim 1,” Aaron Fisher was the first survivor of Sandusky’s sexual abuse to come forward, first to his psychologist, then to Pennsylvania State Police.

Fisher’s decision as a 15-year-old to speak with detectives about Sandusky’s serial sexual abuse launched a police investigation that spanned more than three years and led to criminal charges that would land Sandusky in prison for 30 to 60 years — effectively a life sentence.

Looking back, Fisher says his main concern in coming forward was that he “wouldn’t be believed.”

In October 2012, Fisher, along with his psychologist, Michael Gillum, released a book, “Silent No More,” which chronicles Fisher’s experiences meeting Sandusky at a summer camp for The Second Mile when Fisher was in fourth grade. Sandusky used The Second Mile, the charity he founded in 1977 to help at-risk youth, to meet and groom his victims.

Sandusky took Fisher to Penn State games, to a Philadelphia Eagles game and eventually invited Fisher over to his home for sleepovers on dozens of occasions, where Sandusky then molested him in a basement bedroom.

“We’d play a couple of games. He had a pool table, dartboards. But we’d get around for bed … and he would lay in bed with me, and then it just progressively got worse,” Fisher told ESPN.

When Fisher first reported Sandusky’s sexual abuse, Sandusky was serving as a volunteer assistant football coach at Fisher’s high school in Mill Hall, Pennsylvania, about 30 miles northeast of State College. When Sandusky was dismissed as an assistant, word filtered through the small community that it was because of Fisher’s report.

The backlash was immediate. Fisher said he received threatening notes and that he and his mother’s cars were “keyed.” He says his concern for his safety only grew on the November 2011 evening that Joe Paterno was fired by Penn State’s board of trustees. “First words out of my mouth were, ‘Why did he get fired? They’re going to kill me.'”

Fisher says his lowest point came when he attempted suicide when he was 15. “If the closet bar was high enough, I wouldn’t be here. My feet touched the ground. That’s how close I got,” Fisher said, describing an attempt to hang himself in his closet.

Now 28, Fisher is a father of two children and lives in central Pennsylvania. He’s unemployed but spends time pursuing his hobbies of repairing and customizing cars and off-roading in his Jeep. Penn State has paid more than $100 million to at least three dozen people who say they were abused by Sandusky. Fisher said he wants to keep Sandusky in the past.

“There’s always the thought that me being sexually abused by Sandusky did in fact happen, but this is me trying to move forward. I don’t think of [Sandusky] anymore,” he said. “There’s people out there who are trying to move on with their lives and not be put back in that downstairs basement again. I know that’s not a single place I want to go, not ever again.”

Graham Spanier

Former Penn State president Graham Spanier pulled up his pant leg during an October 2021 interview with ESPN to reveal a monitoring device strapped to his left ankle. At the time he remained under home confinement.

“It’s a little degrading,” Spanier said. “When I went to have this put on at the probation and parole office, I said, ‘Is this really necessary?'”

The Penn State board of trustees forced Spanier to resign on Nov. 9, 2011, the same day the board fired Paterno. Like Paterno, Sapnier’s role in Sandusky’s crimes involved his handling of an incident witnessed by former Penn State quarterback and graduate assistant coach Mike McQueary.

McQueary first told state investigators in 2010 he went to the locker room inside the Lasch Football Building on Penn State’s campus after hours in 2001, heard what sounded like sexual sounds coming from the shower, looked in and saw a naked boy, around 10 years old, being raped by Jerry Sandusky. He also told investigators that he brought the shower incident to Paterno’s attention the next day. Paterno notified then-athletic director Tim Curley but did not call police.

McQueary would later email state prosecutors in an effort to clarify what he had witnessed. “I cannot say 1000 percent sure that it was sodomy,” McQueary wrote. But he described the incident as “sexual and/or way over the line,” details he didn’t waver from over the course of his testimony in several different criminal and civil court proceedings.

Emails made public during the school’s internal investigation show that Spanier, former vice president of finance and business Gary Schultz and Curley discussed reporting the shower incident witnessed by McQueary to the proper authorities but ultimately decided not to report it at all.

In the emails, Curley wrote to Schultz and Spanier: “After giving it more thought and talking it over with Joe … we want to assist the individual [Sandusky] … to get [him] professional help.”

Spanier replied: “The only downside for us is if the message isn’t heard and acted upon … then we become vulnerable for not having reported it.”

That incident, which was initially made public in a November 2011 grand jury presentment, became the focal point of the public’s anger and led to outcry over the way it was handled by Penn State’s leaders.

Spanier was initially indicted in November 2012 on multiple charges, including failure to report suspected child abuse. He was convicted in 2017 of one misdemeanor count of child endangerment and sentenced to serve two months in jail.

Through a series of appeals, Spanier, who had heart surgery in 2019 and has fought prostate cancer, avoided serving his jail sentence until June 2021. He spent 58 days in the Center County Correctional Facility, a roughly 10-minute drive from the university where he served as president from 1995 to 2011. Spanier, 73, completed serving his period of home confinement in early October. Spanier maintains his innocence, saying he was never told Sandusky was seen doing anything of a sexual nature with a minor boy in the shower.

Penn State has removed most imagery of Spanier and Paterno from its campus: In July 2012, the school took down Paterno’s statue from outside Beaver Stadium. Spanier’s portrait in Old Main, the administrative office of Penn State, was removed as well.

“That is rewriting history. You can’t write us out of Penn State history,” Spanier said. “They even went through the trouble of re-landscaping the area where [the statue] was so that nobody can tell where it was or that it was ever there. That’s just wrong.”

In reflecting on Paterno’s legacy, Spanier calls the former coach “a humanitarian,” adding, “He was so much more than a football coach. Frankly, the only reason Joe continued to coach until he was 85 was because of what he could do for the university,” including donating to the College of Liberal Arts and to the libraries.

Spanier, who continues to live in State College, is retired from his work at the university, though he has maintained his president emeritus status and all academic credentials with Penn State.

“It’s a tremendous relief to have that behind me,” he said in April. “I will continue to do whatever I can to advance the university. I still love Penn State.”

Gary Schultz

A self-described Penn State “lifer,” Gary Schultz moved to State College in 1967 as a student and never left. After a 38-year career in the school’s administrative ranks, he became vice president of finance and business.

“I was proud to be affiliated with Penn State,” Schultz, 72, told ESPN in an August 2021 interview.

In March 2017, Schultz and Curley pleaded guilty to misdemeanor child endangerment related to their handling of the shower incident reported by McQueary in 2001, so prosecutors agreed to drop three felony charges of child endangerment and conspiracy.

Schultz and Curley surrendered to authorities at the Center County Correctional Facility in July 2017. Curley, who did not respond to multiple interview requests from ESPN, was sentenced to three months. Schultz served a two-month jail sentence in a cell he shared with Curley.

Like Spanier, Schultz also maintains his innocence, saying Penn State officials “had no report of anything that sounded illegal.” Still, Schultz described himself as “a belt and suspender kind of guy” and, looking back, told ESPN, “my biggest regret is that we didn’t turn it in for Department of Welfare to investigate it. That’s what we should have done.”

He says the board of trustees “pretty much threw Joe Paterno and the rest of us under the bus at the time.”

“There are some trustees that I think are very supportive of Joe and doing what they can to correct a narrative that people had bought into at that time. But they’re the minority and they’re generally not in leadership positions. So, I think the majority of the board, and particularly the leadership, is not ready to reverse course.”

Schultz now splits time between a home in Boalsburg, Pennsylvania, just outside of State College, and a home in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. To this day, he said, relationships he once took for granted have been impacted by the lingering fallout.

“There were actually some people who I worked with that were ordered not to have any contact with me,” he said. “It was awkward. If I just happened to bump into some of those people on the street, you know, they would kind of be knowing that they had to avoid me. They’d say ‘hi’ and just scurry away. Obviously it hurts.”

Jay Paterno

Of Paterno’s five children, Jay Paterno, a former Penn State assistant coach, has become the most recognizable public face of the family and perhaps the most frequent defender of his father’s legacy.

While never charged with a crime and with prosecutors saying they did not find evidence that he took part in any effort to conceal Sandusky’s child sexual abuse, Joe Paterno did not escape the reckoning that came in the months and years that followed his dismissal. In July 2012, former FBI director Louis Freeh, who was hired by Penn State to conduct an independent investigation into Sandusky, released his findings in a 267-page report.

“Our most saddening and sobering finding is the total disregard for the safety and welfare of Sandusky’s child victims by the most senior leaders at Penn State,” Freeh said at a news conference on the day his report was released. “Mr. Spanier, Schultz, Paterno and Curley repeatedly concealed critical facts relating to Sandusky’s child abuse from the authorities, the board of trustees, Penn State community and the public at large.”

Jay Paterno points to the fact that prosecutors “said there was no attempt to conceal, no conspiracy,” he told ESPN in an August 2021 interview.

“It’s easy to speak against the dead. It’s very difficult to speak for the dead,” Paterno said. “To believe that [my father] would throw 61 years of professional integrity away for something like this, it defies all belief.”

Despite Joe Paterno’s firing and the public condemnation that followed, the Paterno family has remained an integral part of the Penn State community. Jay Paterno has been a member of the Penn State board of trustees for nearly five years. His older sister, Mary Kay Hort, is an administrator in the school’s College of Liberal Arts, and Sue Paterno, 82, is an active fundraiser for the Penn State student food bank and numerous other causes.

Jay Paterno also highlights the generations of players who were impacted by his father’s teachings.

“His legacy will be the bedrock of the values that were true, the integrity with which he lived his life … certainly starts with his family. Then the players he coached. … At the end of the day, he took a clear conscience with him.”

Regarding Joe Paterno’s statue, in a statement to ESPN, a Penn State spokesperson said the school has “no plans for additional honors or a reinstallation of the statue.” The 7-foot, 900-pound bronze likeness of the coach remains stored in an undisclosed location.

Jerry Sandusky

Jerry Sandusky, 78, is an inmate at the State Correctional Institute at Laurel Highlands in Somerset County, Pennsylvania, a low-security geriatric facility for male inmates roughly 100 miles northeast of State College. In an interview with ESPN, he maintained his innocence.

Eight men testified at Sandusky’s June 2012 trial that he sexually molested them as minors, and prosecutors ultimately presented evidence relating to 10 victims, leading to Sandusky’s conviction on 45 of 48 counts of child sexual abuse.

On four separate occasions, the most recently in January, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has denied Sandusky’s appeal for a new trial. In November 2019, Sandusky’s 30- to 60-year prison sentence was upheld.

In early April, Sandusky filed his latest appeal, this time in federal court, arguing that he received ineffective counsel. He won’t be eligible for parole until he is 98.

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