By Joe Scalzo
Since Isaac Smolko graduated from Penn State in 2006, he can’t remember a time when he wasn’t at least 15 minutes early to an appointment.
“Those are the kinds of things Joe Paterno instilled in us,” the Springfield High graduate said Sunday afternoon, a few hours after Paterno’s death. “He cared so much more about the little things.
“He taught us to be more than football players. He taught us to be men.”
Paterno may have been the winningest coach in Division I college football history but when you ask his former players what they remember about him, they don’t bring up football.
“Joe’s impact was on our lives, moreso than football,” said Mooney High graduate Brandon Beachum, who was a junior running back for the Nittany Lions last season. “My roommate just said that none of us would be here if it wasn’t for him and that really resonated with me.
“The thing that I was upset most about [losing him] was, how many Penn State players would not have had the same life had he not recruited them.”
Beachum, who will graduate with a double major in advertising and psychology, broke his fibula in the regular season finale against Wisconsin and will forgo his final year of eligibility. He said his class had a stronger connection with Paterno than the younger players, since Paterno wasn’t as involved with the team in recent years.
“It seems a little bit surreal right now,” Beachum said of Paterno’s passing. “I think he should be remembered as a kind guy who above all else wanted to make sure the people around him were taken care of before himself.”
Chaney High graduate Mike Zordich, an All-America safety under Paterno in 1985, remembered a time when Paterno visited his house when one of his father’s good friends was sick.
“So Joe went with my father to the gentleman’s house,” said Zordich, whose son, Michael, was a junior fullback for the Nittany Lions last season. “That says a lot about him.
“We certainly did a lot of great things on the football field together but he taught me how to live life and how to treat other people.”
Zordich, who played 12 years in the NFL for the Jets, Cardinals and Eagles, now coaches safeties for the Eagles. While he had no shortage of good coaches in high school — “There were some great coaches that walked through those halls,” he said — Zordich said he treasures the impact Paterno made on his life.
“He touched a lot of folks’ lives and he certainly touched mine,” he said. “When he was recruiting [his son] Michael, it felt the same as the day I left Penn State. It didn’t really change because he didn’t change.”
Paterno’s legacy took a hit last fall when he was fired in the fallout of the Jerry Sandusky sex scandal. But Smolko believes Paterno should be remembered for all the good he did, and not for one mistake.
“That man, for 99.9 percent of his life, did all the right things,” said Smolko, who works in orthopedic sales in Jacksonville. “For that to ruin his legacy would be a shame. I don’t think it should and I don’t think it will. That should fall on the person [Sandusky] who is responsible.
“That whole scandal, it’s not going to change who he was to us and what he was to football in general.”