For victims, Penn State story is horror relived

Imagine you were one of them.

Imagine you were 10 years old. A coach you trusted. A man you liked. A guy with white hair. An older person.

Imagine he led you. Imagine you listened. Imagine you didn’t want to. Imagine you did what you were told.

Imagine the setting. A bathroom. A shower. Imagine he said it was OK. Imagine his tone. Imagine his eyes.

Imagine the disbelief. The horror. The pain. The tears.

Imagine the shame. The confusion. The rage.

Imagine going home. Lying in your bed. Eating dinner with your family. Going to school – elementary school, fourth or fifth grade.

Imagine years passing, seeing the event, again and again, whenever you close your eyes. Imagine the nightmares. Imagine the loss.

Now imagine keeping all this to yourself.

Because most people do.

The damage done by former Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky, if the charges against him prove to be true, is almost unimaginable – except for the roughly 14% of boys and 33% of girls, according to some estimates, who have been molested before the age of 18.

That’s right.

A third of all girls. A seventh of all boys.

And most abuse goes unreported.

This horror did not begin with Penn State. It will not end with Penn State. It is an ugly underbelly of adult behavior that has been around forever and is only increasing with the Internet and spread of pornography.

Many were mistaken at Penn State.

But one man was responsible.

The damage done.

No JoePa at Beaver Stadium

Did you watch the Nittany Lions game on Saturday? Was it not surreal? Think about, in a matter of days, the lives Sandusky knocked over with his alleged behavior.

Here, for the first time in 62 seasons, was a Penn State team without Joe Paterno, who was watching, presumably, on a TV somewhere. He was weeks from a potential glorious retirement, a celebration of all he had done and represented at his school. Gone now. Vaporized by the mere allegations against Sandusky – not a trial, not a conviction, just the charges alone. The mere idea Paterno did not take more serious action if aware of Sandusky’s behavior was enough to ban him forever from a sideline and to punt seven decades of football into a cesspool.

The damage done.

The school president, Graham Spanier, one of the longest-serving university presidents, is gone, ousted. Same for Tim Curley, the athletic director, and another high-ranking official, both of whom, in 2002, allegedly heard from a graduate assistant about Sandusky having relations with a boy in the showers of the football building.

That graduate assistant, now an assistant coach, is on leave, hiding somewhere, the object of death threats.

All this from Sandusky’s alleged lust.

The current players, who had no part of any of this, are now altered, their experience shadowed. The university and the townspeople, once unified by Blue and White, are split over who to blame and who to pity.

So many affected. One man’s actions.

The damage done.

The pain that never subsides

Imagine you are one of them.

Imagine these last few weeks.

Imagine being questioned by authorities. Imagine having to relive the nightmare. Imagine anger. Imagine relief. Imagine fury. Imagine surrender.

Imagine saying, “Finally.” Imagine saying, “What took so long?” Imagine seeing rallies in support of those who knew – or might have known. Imagine thinking you will be blamed and hated for bringing a program down.

Imagine wishing to have your story told. Imagine wishing no one would ask you anything.

Imagine pain and confusion, all over again.

Imagine wondering, “Why me?”

This is not a football story. This is not a Paterno story. This is a daily story, an American story, an international story, a human tragedy. The shame, pain, hurt and confusion are no different for Sandusky’s alleged victims than they are for the dozens of cases reported last week, or the hundreds last month, or the thousands last year.

Fingers point. Blame is an arrow. And the months to come will unfold an already wincing story. But you need only survey the landscape to see what happens when an adult robs a child of innocence.

One man. A million little pieces.

The damage done.

Contact Mitch Albom: 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com.

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