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Hrabovsky proud to have played for Paterno

Posted: January 24, 2012 5:29 p.m.
Updated: January 25, 2012 5:00 a.m.
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Paul Hrabovsky (right) introduced friends and fellow Camden residents Henry DuRant (left) and Bill Ferguson (second from left) to his former Penn State football coach, Joe Paterno, as the three men and their families took a vacation which led them through Happy Valley, Pa., in the summer of 2008.

In all the stories written about the late Joe Paterno since news of the child sex abuse scandal broke last November to those which have appeared in regard to the passing of the former Penn State University football on Sunday morning, it has been the “but” in those columns and/or stories which bothers Paul Hrabovsky most.

Paterno, the iconic Penn State football coach whose 409 wins in his 46-year coaching career are an NCAA record for a Division I program, passed away Sunday after a short battle with lung cancer. The affliction was detected in a routine physical in the days following his dismissal as the Nittany Lions’ football coach last November.

Hrabovsky, a seven-year resident of Camden and owner of the Camden House Bed and Breakfast on Broad Street, played at Penn State in the infancy of the Paterno era. He was a member of the unbeaten 1968 and 1969 teams, both of which finished the season with 11-0 records.

Among Hrabovsky’s teammates on the Nittany Lions were players such as Jack Ham, Franco Harris, Lydell Mitchell, Mike Reid and the school’s current interim athletic director, Dave Joyner. As a player, Hrabovsky was a back-up to honorable mention All-American Warren Koegel while also being a long snapper. The Springdale, Penn., native’s collegiate career was cut short by injuries sustained in his junior and senior campaigns.

Virtually every story in any newspaper or any television report tells of Paterno’s career, his coaching wins and his two national championships as head coach at PSU. Along with all the numbers, however, comes the part about his being removed as the head coach of the Nittany Lions on the evening of Nov. 9, 2011, by the school’s board of trustees following the unraveling of the news regarding former PSU defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky’s alleged rape of a young boy which took place in the shower of the school’s football building after Sandusky had retired from the coaching staff.

It is references to the Sandusky incident in the story of Paterno’s career which stings Hrabovsky the most when people talk and/or write about the life of his late former coach. Inevitably, the story starts with Paterno’s accomplishments before going directly to the part which refers to his unceremonious dismissal as Penn State’s head football coach. 

“The ‘but’ is very difficult,” Hrabovsky said Monday afternoon, a little more than 24 hours after Paterno’s passing. “I can’t deny people that think it, that they’re wrong or that they’re completely off base. But the ‘but’ is hard to hear. I can discuss it and tell people about what built Joe’s character and what he’s done for all his athletes, but the ‘but’ is tough.”

Hrabovsky was among Paterno’s first group of high school recruits after being elevated to the head coaching position on the Nittany Lions’ sidelines in 1966. At the time, Hrabovsky was a senior in high school who was trying to decide where to attend college and play football. Among the schools wooing him were Penn State, Delaware and several members of the Ivy League.

One thing PSU had going for it which the other programs did not was Paterno. And for a Pennsylvania native, it was hard to turn down the opportunity to play for the Nittany Lions, especially when the head coach comes to your house for a recruiting visit.

“I was recruited personally by Joe and another gentleman, (the late) Steve Phillips, who was an assistant coach,” said Hrabovsky, adding that he was not a blue chip high school recruit and was “semi- highly recruited. “My mother still tells the story of Joe’s two visits to the home and his incredible charm.

“Joe was very cognizant of recruiting the parent. He let the other coaches recruit the athlete because he felt when nobody was there, the parents were still there and that’s who he wanted on his side. He did a great job, in my case.”

Saying Paterno “sealed the deal” for his chance to play big-time college football, Hrabovsky signed with Penn State. But, he said, Paterno, whose first PSU team went 5-5 in 1966, played a large role in his decision as to where to attend college.

“It was him and the program. It was the total package,” Hrabovsky said. “I discussed, with my parents, the pros and cons of everything. Always on their table was the quality of the head coach at Penn State University. Ultimately, on a visit there and at that time, the 56,000-seat Beaver Stadium, it was impressive. I was a 17-year-old kid and I thought that I would give it a shot.”

The kind and fun-loving Paterno whom many people saw when he was off the football field, was not the same person his players, especially those in his early years such as Hrabovsky, played and worked under during their playing days in Happy Valley.

In short, Hrabovsky said, playing for Paterno was no picnic.

 “In one word, it was tough,” he said of the Paterno way. “There was no compromise on anything you did from when you first arrived at the university. That included classes, scholastics, going to study halls, what you wore on campus to when you hit the white line on the practice field, it was 100 percent effort.

“It was study, go to sleep, go to practice and pretend that you’re in boot camp because it was a difficult experience.”

As a backup center, Hrabovsky went up against All-American players every day in practice. And, he said, the Mike Reids and Jack Hams of the world didn’t take it easy on their teammates.

Other than those who played for Paterno, few people saw the man and the way he went about his business on the practice field each day. And in spite of fielding a team of future Hall of Fame members, Hrabovsky said Paterno showed no favoritism to any player.

What Paterno did foster among his players was a sense of loyalty. From the time players arrived on campus to when they would see Paterno in a social setting, they referred to him as Joe or Coach, Hrabovsky said. It all goes back to being part of a family.

“It was always Joe, almost to an insistence. It was Coach or Joe,” he said. “I saw the other athletes talking yesterday on television about it and how it did create a family atmosphere and concept. Whether you were happy, sad or disgusted, it was still a family.”

Hrabovsky said he was unsure when asked if the public’s perception of Paterno differed from that of the men who played for him.

“I don’t know,” he said in answer to that question. “How do you take an icon that has the status that Joe does and then, every day, put him on the football field getting after the lowest, fourth-team player that didn’t hustle from drill-to-drill and getting after the (Jack) Hams, the Lydell Mitchells and the Franco Harrises? And then, getting after the Joe Blow who walked on because he didn’t do it the Penn State way?

“Does that jive with the iconic, wise and worldly Joe that was on TV? I’m not sure, but that’s what he was.”

Hrabovsky sat back in his leather chair and smiled when asked if, at the time he was playing, he thought his coach was the wise and worldly man he would later be thought of by the public. “No. No,” he said in response to the question, “but I did after. From my first day I was there in a meeting in street clothes as a 17-year-old kid, his vision was there and it was uncompromising, compassionate and he cared about the players … but it was his way.”

But there was also the other side of Paterno, the father figure to his players who practiced what he preached to his players about being good citizens. Over his career, Paterno donated millions of dollars to the school’s library, benefitting thousands of former, current and future PSU students.

Hrabovsky said the life lessons he and his teammates learned under Paterno lasted long after they hung up their cleats for the final time.

“I think people think that Joe was obsessed with wins and losses,” he said. “I can honestly say this, from day one when I went in there it was about how you went about it and how you did it and everything else taking care of itself. They truly did that to this day. That’s what? Six decades of that philosophy? And it worked.”

Hrabovsky admitted it took his being away from Penn State and Paterno to fully appreciate all Paterno was trying to instill in his players and the building of the football program. To this day, when he tells people he played football at Penn State, there is a sense of reverence in people’s voices.

“The thing about what Paterno built and what Penn State gives you is an incredible reputation to anybody you meet, and that includes other athletes,” he said. “It’s like, ‘Whoa. You played for Joe Paterno?’ That’s something they can never take away from anybody who ever played for him.”

In stories written or told about Paterno’s years at Penn State, there are countless tales of his devotion to his players and vice-versa.

Three summers ago, during a summer vacation trip to Saratoga, N.Y., with Camden friends Henry DuRant and Bill Ferguson, the group spent a night in Happy Valley, which was not a coincidence. While charting out the trip, Hrabovsky planned the stop at his alma mater and contacted his friend and former PSU teammate, Fran Ganter.

Ganter was an offensive coordinator under Paterno before being moved into the football operations office. Hrabovsky asked his friend to see if he and Paterno could clear a few minutes from their schedule to meet with the travelers. The morning they were in State College, Ganter called Hrabovsky to meet him at the football building on campus. It would be the last time Hrabovsky had some personal time with Paterno.

“I don’t think they (DuRant and Ferguson) believed me,” Hrabovsky said with a laugh while recalling that day. “But I had called Fran Ganter ahead of time and said that we would be coming through. We stayed the night before at a local hotel and he called me and said, ‘Get over here now. I’m holding (Paterno) for you because he’s trying to get out of here.’

“We got over there and Fran and Joe were at the top of the steps in the football building. I thought that Henry and Bill would have a heart attack. We talked and Joe spent about 20 to 25 minutes with us rehashing different things from back in the days that I played. He also spent a lot of time talking about the South Carolina football program for my guests. He was absolutely delightful.”

On that laughter-filled morning with his friend and his former coach, Hrabovksy could have never imagined how things would end for Paterno at Penn State as the events of the scandal played themselves out before the world.

When Paterno was relieved of his job as head coach, Hrabovsky said he could not help thinking about Bear Bryant, who shortly after his retirement as head coach at Alabama following the 1982 season, passed away at age 69 on Jan. 26, 1983.

“My first thought was when this came down and he was abruptly terminated, I told Sharon, my wife, that Joe’s not going to last long,” he said. “It’s not that I had a premonition that he would be diagnosed with lung cancer or anything like that. It was kind of the Bear Bryant situation; what are they going to do without football?

“With Joe there obviously were physical ailments, but I think when the mind lets it occur … he kind of put it off when he had other things. I firmly believe that the pain and suffering over this issue sped it up.”

Hrabovsky believes the Penn State football program can rebuild in the wake of Paterno’s passing and will get through its current tumultuous state of affairs. On Monday, however, with his computer and telephone having been abuzz with messages of sympathy from friends, both PSU- and non-PSU-related, Paul Hrabovsky said the past 24 hours reminded him of the calls he took when the news of the Sandusky allegations hit the press.

“Friends that I hadn’t heard from in a long time … equally as to when it first came down about 60 days ago,” he said in comparing the scene at his home upon the news of the two events. “Almost as many people have called (about Paterno’s death) yesterday as when the Sandusky incident came up. There were a lot of emails with sympathy and wishes … and a lot of them said the true tragedy was the ‘but.’”

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