A few days ago, Sports Illustrated’s Jack McCallum expressed regret for writing a puff piece about Penn State’s Jerry Sandusky way back in 1999. McCallum’s story, which was pegged to Sandusky’s retirement as the Nittany Lions’ defensive coordinator, praised the coach for his work with at-risk kids. He also quoted Sandusky’s adopted son E.J. as saying that Sandusky, who loved to organize kickball games in the family’s backyard, was “a frustrated playground director”—a guy who loved being around kids more than he cared about his job as a football coach.
McCallum, who now says that he’s haunted about having praised a child molester, is not at fault here. To unknowing eyes, Sandusky’s interest in children would look benevolent rather than terrifying. Still, anyone who ever wrote anything nice about Sandusky is likely feeling some regret this week. That includes Kip Richeal, co-author of Sandusky’s biography, Touched. And we can probably add the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Bill Lyon to the list as well.
While searching Lexis-Nexis for some old Sandusky stories, I came across a 1999 Lyon column headlined “Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky is the Pied Piper of his time.” (You can read the first few paragraphs here.) Considering that the Pied Piper of Hamelin lured children away from their parents, this is an unfortunate analogy.
I don’t intend to criticize Bill Lyon, who wrote a column for the Inquirer this week attacking “the Penn State hypocrites.” Again, how could he have known? But I’m sorry to report that his 1999 piece gets worse from there.
“Who will take in the strays?” the essay begins. It continues:
Who’ll tend to the forgotten? Who will open their door to the throwaways, the runaways, the ones squarely in harm’s way?
Those are the questions we’d rather not hear, aren’t they? The ones that make us avert our eyes, squirm in our seats, wish desperately we were somewhere else.
For almost 20 years now, whenever a hand has been raised to volunteer in answer to those unsettling questions, it has belonged to Jerry Sandusky and his wife, Dottie.
Later in the piece, Lyon notes that Sandusky’s charity work with The Second Mile made him “a prisoner of his own selflessness,” forcing him to turn down head-coaching jobs because of his devotion to at-risk youth. “The ennobling measure of the man,” Lyon wrote, “is that he has chosen the work that is done without public notice.”
Reading this story today, it’s remarkable to think how wildly our impression of a man can change. What was once a laudatory profile now reads as a chilling primer on how a molester operates by preying on vulnerable children. At the piece’s conclusion, Lyon unintentionally asks the question we’ve all been wondering about this week: “The children of Jerry and Dottie Sandusky, and the children of The Second Mile, say that it has occurred to them to wonder to themselves: What would have happened to us if it hadn’t been for them?”