Two trees named Joe fell in the forest last week and hundred of millions were there to hear them. The first was Joe Frazier, former heavyweight champion of the world. Two days later fell the second, a football coach, Joe Paterno, who moonlighted for half a century as King of Pennsylvania.
I met Joe Frazier twice and liked him instantly. Like many childhood heroes I have come to know, our paths did not cross until hair was flecked with gray and muscles were easier to spot in photos than in person. The second time I spoke with Joe, he introduced me to his son Marvis. I liked Marvis too but wondered what the heck he was thinking when he agreed to fight Mike Tyson. Marvis was a good son and fine young man — but had no business mixing it up with Tyson and in 1986 both men proved it. Iron Mike took Marvis out in thirty seconds of the first round. I hope Marvis saved and invested his money.
Upon that first meeting with Joe, what struck me immediately was the former champion’s size. To me, Joe seemed a small man. I am 6-feet-2. Joe, at best, was 5-feet-10. Ali, who stood 6-feet-4, cast a much more imposing physical presence. Nor Joe have a treetop canopy for shoulders, as many great athletes do. Joe was slope-shouldered but thick. At first glance you size him up and think, “He’s not so big. Maybe I could’ve got lucky with a punch. Caught him.”
Then you go home, watch footage of Joe’s fights, and realize what foolish folly such silly thoughts are. Smokin’ Joe had two things mere mortals do not: a whipsaw thunderbolt of a left hook — a devastating say-goodnight punch that was perhaps the best ever in the heavyweight division — coupled with the courage of a platoon of extraordinary men. He only knew one direction: forward. Once in the ring, Joe Frazier was never hard to find; he was the relentless buzzsaw bearing down on your face.
There was no quit in Joe Frazier. Not a drop. From the moment he decided to stop working at a Philadelphia meat packer in order to box for a living, Joe knew only one way: relentlessly forward. And when Joe and I talked that first day, I mentioned that of all the athletes in all the sports of my generation, one man stood alone in the courage department, and I was talking with him: Smokin’ Joe Frazier.
I told him, “You have more courage than any two man I’ve ever known.”
Joe beamed. There was no question how he wanted his legacy remembered. Joe was a simple yet singular man; he wanted to be known as a man of courage.
Since his death I have watched and read a score of eulogies for this minimally educated, self-made overachiever. Kind words and remembrances poured in from around the world from friends and admirers. In the area that meant the most to Joe — courage — Joe Frazier died an undisputed champion.
The drive from Joe Frazier’s Philadelphia home to Joe Paterno’s in State College is a 3 1/2 hour highway cruise from the land of the have nots to the glory of the haves. Frazier was an inner city hero who rose from the streets. He returned there and died there, surrounded by an environment that would scare most in the middle class, along with a sparsity of material possessions that belied life’s earlier achievements.
Paterno lived a different life. His view was across a manicured lawn, a rock star on eternal scholarship at a respected college campus. Compared to Frazier, Paterno’s life was showered with gold, his driveway paved with it.
Until, of course, it mattered.
When it mattered — when it was time for a real man to have the courage to act like one — the wrong Joe was in State College. If Joe Frazier were at Penn State on those days the little boys were sexually assaulted, there would have been swift, immediate justice. Joe Frazier backed down from no man or situation.
Joe Paterno did back down. He backed down from men, responsibility, and, worst of all, from the dire needs of innocent little boys. Maybe that was the problem: Joe Frazier had all the courage, Joe Pa none at all.
Last week was a good one for all Americans in search of a hero. Mine was not a false god, nor a made-for-TV papier mache icon. Mine was an inner city overachiever with an iron will and the lifelong courage to persevere, to never give up, and always do what’s right.
I hope yours was, too.
Alex Hanna saysJanuary 24, 2012 at 6:41 pm
Wow the entry blog was cast out Nov 13th! Today Jan 24th and the Late Joe Paterno is gone Jan 23rd!
Heartless man he was to allow those little innocent boys inflicted with pain from one selfish knucklehead! Ted You’re amazing and gifted! Joe Frazier had the knack of riding in Cadillacs! and he styled and profiled until his death! Joe Frazier will be remembered! And Paterno forgotten in my books!