Mike Reid always marched to the beat of a different drummer, which made more sense than anyone knew for the path that had been laid out before him was filled with the sound of music.
True, he played football, but he was one of the few that took advantage of the sport, rather than the sport taking advantage of him.
He was a pretty good player, you might say, recipient of the Outland Trophy and the Maxwell Award, an All-American at defensive tackle.
“People will ask me, they’ll say ‘Mike, when did you play?’ Rather than tell them the year, I say, ‘I’ll tell you when I played. I was the seventh kid drafted in the first round of the NFL draft and I signed for $22,000. Now that’s when I played,’” he said Tuesday night from his home in Nashville.
His final college year before Paul Brown drafted him for the Cincinnati Bengals was 1969.
His college was Penn State.
His coach was Joe Paterno.
And yes, his freshman year there was a senior linebacker on the team named Jerry Sandusky, an All-American himself, and now Mike Reid was thinking back to him.
“I knew Jerry a little bit,” he admitted. Considering what has transpired over the past three or four months, people do not volunteer knowing the man around whom the child abuse scandal at Penn State has stirred, the one that brought down Paterno and the reputation of one of the nation’s great schools.
“I think it would be too strong to say that I idolized Jerry, but he was a senior when I was a freshman. I had enormous admiration for him,” said Reid, an Altoona native.
Much has transpired since Paterno, Sandusky and Reid were drawn together in a far more innocent place and time than now exists — Paterno winning more football games than any other coach in history, Sandusky becoming one of the reviled men in America and Reid becoming a Country Music Hall of Fame inductee as a song writer.
It was really what he was made to do, it was why he walked out on pro football after just five years, much as Jim Brown had left prematurely to pursue a movie career. Reid had been a Pro Bowl performer, yet he was something of a disenchanted one, for he didn’t fit into the football culture the way others did.
After he left football, he became estranged from the sport, from Penn State, from Paterno, caught in writing and performing country music. The Country Music Hall of Fame describes his career this way:
“Moving to Nashville in 1980, Mike soon began providing a string of hits to Ronnie Milsap and was named ASCAP Country Songwriter of the Year in 1985. Mike initially appeared on disc as Milsap’s duet partner on 1988’s ‘Old Folks,’ another of his songs.
He had a family and an idea of where he was headed in life and what he wanted out of it.
Football, Paterno, Penn State were in his past.
“I lost touch with Penn State and Joe. My life went down other roads,” he said.
Why had he let it slip away from him?
“When I was there it was 46,000 we got into the stadium,” he said. “My sophomore year was Joe’s first year as head coach. We were the beginning, me and Jack Ham and a number of other really good players and people. We were the beginning of what he called at that time ‘The Grand Experiment.’
“In those days, it was true. It did feel like it was important to him to do things properly.”
Reid, however, saw things change.
“I think I lost touch when the thing grew to a dimension that it was hard for me to relate to. Joe went from being Joe Paterno, the man I played under, to becoming a cultural icon – JoePa,” he said.
He isn’t resentful about it. He even believes he understands how it happens.
“It happens for good reasons. People have it in their heart that they want to revere what they think are good people. They want to identify the best among us. That’s why we do that,” he said, but at the same time Mike Reid offered a warning.
“We also have to beware, and I hate to use a cliché as a cautionary tale, but I lost touch because the thing just got so … he became such an icon and the university became so massive that I went from feelings of warmth about the school to it seeming to be an economic monolith. It was hard for me to relate to having been there.”
Football has gone haywire, from college to professional.
“The whole culture is buckling under economic weight. My God, money just changes everything. There’s a certain cynicism that has crept into us. We know the cost of everything and the value of nothing,” he said.
And then, in the midst of this, three months ago Reid learned of the Sandusky scandal and was sent the grand jury testimony by a friend.
“Every page your jaw is hanging out,” Reid said. “It was more than I and probably anyone involved with Joe or the school or who knew Jerry could get your mind around. As it unfolded it got worse and worse and worse. Finally there was the firing (of Paterno) and then the report he was dying of cancer.”
It was too much to grasp and Reid put it as only he can.
“This was all what you’d call an adult portion of trouble,” he said.
Reid began thinking about the man he once called “Coach.”
“(Mythologist, philosopher) Joseph Campbell says, ‘The best things in life can’t be told,’ ” Reid began. “I really believe that whether it‘s art, God, love, we struggle to talk about these things. It’s like when you encounter someone who is extraordinary. You see people now trying to talk about what was extraordinary about Joe, and you just get a surface kind of thing. It escapes any kind of description. You just know it when you are around him.”
It was a stronger fear than anything physical.
“I lived in fear of disappointing him, the same way I did with my Mom and Dad. He inspired people. It forced you to find maybe deeper things in yourself you might not have found, but I think that is true about any difficult situation a human being is in. It doesn’t require a helmet and shoulder pads.”
It was Paterno, not the game of football, Reid maintains, that was the force driving him and others toward doing the right thing.
“Always, from the time I was young, I had a hard time with the notion that football had something to do with character, honesty and integrity the way that other things don’t. I just never bought into that,” Reid said. “Character, honesty and integrity require a series of events, any of which a human being can screw up.”
He offers something very personal as proof of this.
“I not only love my kids, I admire them. They are infinitely better people than I am, and neither of them were athletes,” he said.
Reid finds himself having a difficult time dealing with the reaction of people to Paterno’s role and actions in the scandal.
Paterno wound up being fired for not taking swifter, more decisive action when he learned of the Sandusky scandal, and in a perfect world those people are probably right.
“You have to think about generationally, consider Joe’s age and how that generation handled this sort of thing,” Reid said. “This is all through families and it was not spoken of in Joe’s time. It was the sin that’s not ever addressed.”
And now Paterno is gone.
“When he died the other day, it was the end for me,” Reid said. “He’s the last. He’s the passing of a time. His passing marks the end of what we loved and we had hoped was good and what we had hoped was true.
“That’s a blow to me,” Reid said.