There was an occasion at Penn State University when Lydell Mitchell wanted to return to the dean's list and decided the best way to achieve it would be to ask for special consideration and intercession. Coach Joe Paterno wouldn't hear of it and neither would the professor, who had been a former football player. Result: "C" in the subject and personal disappointment.
But as Mitchell looks back on the experience, via the perspective of time and maturity, he thanks Paterno for this and other large favors. "All Paterno ever promised me," says Mitchell, "was a quality education and he saw to it that it happened."
Mitchell is a distinguished alumnus of Penn State, far more than a man who could run, knew how to make the cuts, made All-America and went on to a productive career with the Baltimore Colts and San Diego Chargers of the National Football League. His character and demeanor set him apart and earn the highest of respect of those he meets in the Great Game of Life.
He personifies the gentility and consideration of a gentleman. It's no accident he has achieved a high level of business performance, as an associate with former teammate Franco Harris in an organization that furnishes foods for school systems around the country. Mitchell, to be succinct, exemplifies the finest qualities of citizenship and humanity.
In recalling his recruitment and playing under Paterno for three stupendous years, Mitchell offers an insight that is perceptive and complimentary. "Honesty and directness are his commendable characteristics," assesses his former halfback. "You only have to look at the program to see how good he is at convincing players to enroll at Penn State. His long suit as a coach is as a defensive strategist. As a man, he's straightforward and trustworthy."
Mitchell applauds the way the Penn State leader has been able to adjust with the times and the mores of changing generations. "It used to be that Joe didn't believe in giving anyone a second chance, depending of course on the severity of the incident. He does now. The man is intelligent enough to stay in touch with the present. I remember a kid on the team when I was there who was caught stealing a 30-cent can of shaving cream at a downtown store.
"We had a team meeting and voted whether he should go to the Orange Bowl. We decided overwhelmingly he ought to make the trip. But Joe overruled us. The player didn't go. As for motivation, he'd do an assortment of things. His teams might take a physical beating once in awhile but they don't beat themselves with mental mistakes or a lot of penalties."
Mitchell says when Paterno is worried that beads of perspiration appear on his upper lip. The first time he observed the con
dition was when Paterno arrived in Salem, N.J., to talk with him and his high school coach, Sam Venuto, about his selection of a college. Lydell told him he was going to enter Ohio State, after choosing it over Penn State and Maryland.
Paterno reacted quickly. The coach countered by offering a challenge, saying the reason Lydell was rejecting Penn State was because Charley Pittman was setting records and he didn't want to compete against him. That got Mitchell's attention. He answered by insisting if he decided to go there he'd improve on Pittman's performance, which is precisely what happened.
Mitchell is still Penn State's all-time scoring leader, for one year and a career, with 29 touchdowns in 1971 and 41 overall. But he remembers how Paterno could bring a youngster back to reality. Was it because he didn't want anyone to outgain him in prominence or accolades, an egotistical condition that has been known to beset coaches?
"I just don't think he wanted any of the players to feel they were more important than the team," explains Lydell. "It was his way of keeping you from getting a big head. I know when most of the old players meet each other we say the things Joe used to tell us sure were true. He taught us to be good people and he helped shape my philosophy of life."
The longevity and success of Paterno -- now in his 26th year with 21 bowl appearances -- continues unabated. He won't permit squad members to be abusive with each other or the opposition. There's the discipline he imparts and the respect that's engendered.
Maybe Lydell didn't feel that way when he was playing at Penn State and going with other squad members to mandatory study hall every night, under strict supervision from academic advisers. Now he's indebted to the man for what he gave him -- a sense of realizing there's more to life, as it is with football, than running with the ball and playing to the spotlight.
Joe Paterno has to be proud of Lydell Mitchell. First as a player and now as a man.