What Virgil Taught Me About Football

Joe Paterno’s “What Virgil Taught Me About Football” appeared in Crisis Magazine in January 1990, and was excerpted from his autobiography “Paterno: By the Book,” coauthored with Bernard Asbell.

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Every one of us at Brooklyn Prep had to take four solid years of mathematics, four years of Latin, and two years of a modern language. Also we needed to study science or Greek. I took the Greek, but the coming of World War II soon forced science on us all. Our teachers, those who weren’t Jesuit priests, were scholastics, young men on their way to becoming Jesuit priests. All of them burned with idealism, and that made them marvelous teachers.

If destiny guided me anywhere, anytime, during my four years at Brooklyn Prep, it was through the door of my Latin class on the first day of my third year. The teacher up front, a black-robed scholastic with a bony-cheeked, long, ascetic face atop the wiry body of a welterweight, looked us over through cool, glassy blue eyes. A stranger to us all and probably hiding a quiver or two, he was an absolute rookie, facing the first meeting of the first class he had ever taught. Thomas Bermingham—Mr. Bermingham, as we addressed this future priest—moved the length of the blackboard, the width of the room, slowly, serenely. He was twenty-five. I was going on seventeen.

For him, this was not only a first class, but the first day of a long period within the thirteen-year trek to becoming a Jesuit. It’s called the “regency period.” For three years, with fellow seminarians, he had shut himself away, almost in confinement, with books, writings, and meditations all on a single subject, philosophy. Ahead of him lay four more years, equally locked away, all devoted to theology. But between those two periods, the seminarian is given a three-year time of change. He gets to return to the world of people, reminding himself of the lives of others, taking responsibility and serving them as a teacher—or regent. Here he was in our classroom, suddenly sprung.

This new teacher knew exactly where he wanted to bring us, he told me years later, but first he had to find out where each of us was starting from. Before even asking our names, Father Bermingham (that’s what I’m going to call him from here on because that’s how I address my lifelong friend today) passed out pieces of paper and said, in a surprisingly deep voice for a little guy: “I’m going to start by giving you a quiz. Don’t be upset. It’s the one exam you’ll get that will be graded not for correct answers or anything like that, but for being honest. How will I know if you’re being honest? You’ve got to convince me.

“I want you to draw up two lists of books you have read. On the left side of your sheet, I want you to list books you’ve read that you have really disliked. On the right side, anything you’ve read that you liked very much. If you try to start thinking about what will impress me, it will just throw you off and I’ll know it. I just want the truth, and I’ll know that, too. Remember, I’m grading only for honesty. That’s the only thing you can impress me with.”

That was the most puzzling darn test I’d ever heard of. After class, I got hold of one of my buddies, Frankie Snyder, a smart kid whose father ran a bar and grill around the corner from school, and we compared experiences. What Frankie said he’d done struck me as pretty daring and maybe a little crazy. The school had issued us a basic English literature textbook called Prose and Poetry that we used year after year. In a way, I liked the book because some stuff in it was pretty exciting, even though a lot of it put me to sleep. But Frankie hated the book, hated it cover to cover, page by page. So he put down on his left-side list Prose and Poetry—admitting right out loud that he hated a regular schoolbook. Worse still, under books that he liked he had the nerve to write The G-String Murders by Gypsy Rose Lee, a best-selling mystery of the time by the world’s most famous stripper.

I don’t remember what I put down for books I hated, but I remember nervously admitting what I liked—stories by Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck—and wondering whether they were okay to confess.

My grade seemed to confirm that they really were bad: I got an A for my honesty. But Frankie Snyder did better—an A+.

A couple of days later, Father Bermingham asked me to see him after school. He got me talking about what interested me outside of classes. I told him about my football, basketball, and baseball and that I was starting to think I’d have to drop baseball to focus properly on the other two. He got me to tell him about my elections to class offices, and we talked about clubs I belonged to and liked: the Book Discussion Club, as well as the Sodality Club, a religious discussion group that also gave us an opportunity to work in the neighborhood among the poor or whoever else we could serve.

“That’s a lot of activity,” he said. “I’m not sure you’d have time for something else I had in mind.”

He paused.

I waited.

“I had the thought that you and I might do up a list of further readings that we might go into together, but—”

Alarm flamed through my chest. I was scared that he was going to think me too busy and not give me the chance. I must have shown it.

“Would you be interested in my guiding you further along these lines?”

I couldn’t blurt out “Yes” fast enough.

Self-education

Starting from his first day as a teacher, Father Bermingham always kept an eye out for kids who had begun what he calls the most important task in education: their self-education. He meant kids who showed signs of taking responsibility for their own expansion instead of waiting for teachers to do it for them. Even the most talented teacher can try what he or she thinks is “teaching,” but it won’t really take unless the student takes charge of the more important job: learning.

He was not alone in looking for students ready to be coached either one-on-one or in small groups. Jesuits believe in doing that. The headmaster himself, Father

Hooper, had already picked out four or five of us and we met with him now and then to talk about his special interest, leadership, the importance of it and how to develop it in ourselves. One of the kids in school at that time was William Peter Blatty, who later wrote The Exorcist and other successful novels. (Father Bermingham appeared in a minor role in the film of The Exorcist and was technical adviser for the religious practices used in it.)

I was impressionable, eager, proud of my mind, probably overly so, simmering with intellectual curiosity. Two or three afternoons a week, Father Bermingham and I sat, usually in his classroom at two student desks, or in the scholastics’ quarters next door, almost like equals. We’d spend forty, forty-five minutes talking about something he’d told me to read, and then I went to the gym for basketball practice. Members of the basketball team had to shoot a certain number of fouls every day before the practice hour. So I had to ask Coach Graham (he coached basketball and baseball as well as football) for permission to shoot my fouls in the morning, before school, so I could meet for those sessions with Father Bermingham. Maybe that contributed to the habit I observe to this day of getting up at five-thirty in the morning and doing close to a half day’s work before breakfast.

At the beginning of my senior year, this austere big brother of a priest-to-be led me to Virgil. Father Bermingham told me that Virgil was the greatest of the Roman poets, that he lived just three or four decades before Christ, and that he is known mostly for his epic poem, The Aeneid. Father Bermingham asked if I’d like to read it with him.

“Sure,” I said.

“What I had in mind,” he said, “was reading it together in the original Latin.”

“In Latin? A poem as long as a book?”

“Yes.”

The book was on his desk, more than 400 pages thick. As a schoolkid, I always had the attitude about any challenge, “Hey, if it’s difficult, let’s do it.” That made it more fun.

“But if it’s in Latin,” I asked uncertainly, “will we be able to cover all that?”

“What’s important,” he said, “is not how much we cover. I don’t like that word, ‘cover.’ It’s not how much we do, but the excellence of what we do.”

Excellence. The way he pronounced that word made it shine with a golden light.

I’ll never forget the majestic ring of the opening lines and of how we approximated them in modern English:

Arma virumque cano, Troiae qui primus ab oris….

(Of arms and the man I sing.)

It made me hear cymbals and trumpets, and I envisioned a procession of gallant gladiators. At their head, on a huge horse, rode the most gallant of all, a king or a prince or some kind of general. It rang in my ears:

Of arms and the man I sing.

And then:

From the seacoast of Troy in the early days

He came to Italy by destiny….

I still feel the spell of that young robed cleric’s eyes searing into me, reminding me that I was special and that this was important. He never talked down. Instead of telling me thoughts, he’d pull them out of me. He’d ask, “Why do you think he used that word?” I’d think about that, and developed feelings not only for the precision of words, but also for the subtle shadings of Latin.

Shaped by Aeneas

So Virgil and his hero Aeneas, the founder of Rome, entered my life. More than entered it. The adventures of Aeneas seeped into far corners of my mind, into my feelings about what is true and honorable and important. They helped shape everything I have since become. I don’t think anybody can get a handle on what makes me tick as a person, and certainly can’t get at the roots of how I coach football, without understanding what I learned from the deep relationship I formed with Virgil during those afternoons and later in my life.

The story of Aeneas tells how the city of Rome was founded. By birth Aeneas is a Trojan, the son of the goddess of love, Venus. As Troy is ransacked and conquered through trickery by the Greeks, Aeneas gathers up an army of survivors and leads them to an escape by sea. In a scene of his leaving Troy, Aeneas lifts his aging father on his back and grasps the hand of his little son, who runs along by his aide. He was physically carrying, protecting, preserving the past, one could say, and, in the same act, taking care of those who would live in the future. That, I decided Virgil was trying to say, was the duty of a responsible man, a leader.

The poem actually begins at a later moment in his story, at a climax of Aeneas’ sea journey, the world crashing around him in a catastrophic storm. His fleet splits apart, some of his shattered ships and men sinking, some smashing into rocks and shore. Instead of his own ship landing where the fata, the fates, had promised him was his goal, on the shores of what we now call Italy, he finds himself stranded on the jungle shores of Africa, losing more of his men. “I’ve been deceived,” he cries. He’s ready to give up, craves to get out of this mission and its terrors and suffering. But he knows that his destiny, through the fata, has commanded him to get himself and the tatters of his army to Italy to start a new city. He’s exhausted, discouraged. Aeneas has to go through a great struggle with himself to renew any kind of faith in the fata, in the voices of his destiny.

That puzzled and bothered me. If he knew he wanted to quit, how did he know he had to go on? If he lost faith in the fata, how did he know what his destiny was?

So Father Bermingham had to explain some confusion over the modern meaning of the word “fate.” Today we think of fate the way the Greeks meant it: something that just happened, that takes control of your life, something meted out to you, the piece of pie you were handed. It’s not something you chose. Among the great Greek storytellers, especially Homer, heroes like Odysseus and Achilles are batted around constantly by predetermined accidents, obstacles they couldn’t foresee and can’t do a thing about.

The word fatum in Latin means something different. It means a divine word. All through the Aeneid, Aeneas gets the messages from Jupiter, the supreme god, through Mercury or others whose voices he hears in his head. They keep saying, You ought to do this, You’ve got to do that. (Today, people talk about a “voice within,” or intuition, or “a strong feeling.” Maybe they’re saying the same thing.) Virgil keeps harping that Aeneas—that anybody—needs to have faith and trust in that fatum. It may confuse, it may bewilder, it may contradict and frustrate all of a guy’s most precious urges. It sure as hell may seem illogical. But a fatum cannot be denied.

And that’s where the deepest trouble is. Destiny, the fatum, the divine word, the inner voice, whatever you want to call it, tells you where you have to wind up and what you’re destined to do, but it doesn’t tell you how to get there or how to do it. Aeneas has to struggle and suffer—and make his own decisions. How he acts is not determined by fate. He listens, he considers. But then he must act out of free will.

Aeneas cannot choose not to found Rome. He’s destined to create it. But he has to struggle with himself, inch by inch, hour by hour—play by play!—to figure out how to do it, to endure the struggle and torment of doing it, and take all the bad breaks along the way.

As I sat there, an impressionable twentieth-century 17-year-old, I wasn’t really swallowing Virgil’s rigid brand of fatalism. But I sensed him speaking to me with a broader and deeper kind of truth.

It was terrible that Aeneas’ beloved city of Troy had to be destroyed. But what I absorbed as we read was that the founding of Rome had a cost. The cost was Troy’s defeat and Aeneas’ years of torment. Everything costs. No accomplishment comes without suffering. Humanum est pati. To be alive is to suffer. There are tears in the very nature of things.

Virgil wasn’t saying something as simple-headed as “No pain, no gain.” That implies you can choose between hurting and taking life easy. To Virgil, nobody gets to choose not to suffer.

And nobody is guaranteed a reward, a victory, in repayment for his suffering. The best man, the best team, isn’t automatically entitled to win. The winds of fate can turn you around, run you aground, sink you, and sometimes you can’t do a thing about it. You can commit yourself to accomplishing a goal, doing something good, winning a game. Just to make that commitment to something you believe in is winning—even if you lose the game. But for committing yourself to winning the game, whether you win it or not, you always pay in tears and blood.

In some of the passages that touched me the deepest, Virgil looks straight into the heart of Aeneas. In the opening storm at sea, he figures everything he risked his life to save in leaving Troy is now lost. His mission seems impossible. He feels helpless and overwhelmed. He goes off by himself to tremble and cry like a kid. Then, somehow, he pulls himself together, knowing, even in his agony, that he can’t spill his guts to the men he has to lead. Destiny has stuck him with being a leader, and he can’t escape it.

The bravery, the picking up and going on, affected me, sure. But what got to me most in that scene was that Aeneas, the son of a god driven by fates, was, after all, a human being. His secret places were like mine. He might have had to put up a bold front as a leader, but he didn’t have to hide his sadness and trembling from himself.

There was one more important thing that Father Bermingham led me to see in Virgil, and it made the deepest mark of all on the way I coach.

Almost everybody who’s been to high school knows about Homer and his two epics, The Odyssey and The Iliad. Teachers often draw parallels between Virgil and Homer because their epics of heroes seem to have a lot in common. Of course, Homer was Greek and Virgil Roman; Homer was dead for 700 years before Virgil learned his alphabet. But there’s a more important difference between them, which teachers don’t always see, that helped shape my outlook on life—and on football.

To Homer—and, in fact, to most of the modern world—heroes are created through personal exploits and glorification—often through an ambitious drive for self-glorification. Heroes are superstars. In sports, the grandstands cheer them, and they throw their high fives up and slam the football down after a touchdown. Homer’s hero Achilles, in his pursuit of glory, ends up destroying his men and his cause and rotting at the end into a kind of monster.

Aeneas, as Virgil created him, was a totally new kind of epic hero. Like Homer’s heroes, he endures battles, storms, shipwrecks, and the rages of the gods. But the worst storm is the one that rages within himself. He yearns to be free of his tormenting duty, but he knows that his duty is to others, to his men. Through years of hardship and peril, Aeneas reluctantly but relentlessly heeds his fata until he founds Rome.

Aeneas is not a grandstanding superstar. He is, above all, a Trojan and a Roman. His first commitment is not to himself, but to others. He is bugged constantly by the reminder, the fatum, “You must be a man for others.” He lives his life not for “me” and “I,” but for “us” and “we.” Aeneas is the ultimate team man.

A hero of Aeneas’ kind does not wear his name on the back of his uniform. He doesn’t wear Nittany Lions on his helmet to claim star credit for touchdowns and tackles that were enabled by everybody doing his job. For Virgil’s kind of hero, the score belongs to the team.

Father Bermingham didn’t have to lecture me on most of that. We were just reading, sentence by sentence, in Latin, and there it was, like a living experience.

For entertainment today, we flip the channel to Rambo or Miami Vice or even The G-String Murders and get caught up by the fight scenes or the shoot-’em-ups and the chase. But it’s not the same kind of experience. Once a person has experienced a genuine masterpiece, the size and scope of it last as a memory forever.