Madison Merriam rushed through the double doors and tracked him down in the hallway as he was leaving the White Building.
She wasn’t about to miss her chance to wrap her arm around and take a picture with the legendary coach — even if she didn’t realize the significance of it.
“I’m only a freshman,” Merriam said, “so I don’t know if it’s that crazy like, ‘Oh my God, it’s JoePa!’ But knowing how everyone else is so crazy about him and everyone else is dying to get that picture with him. … I was like, ‘Maybe I will get a picture, because this probably won’t happen again.’ ”
Asked what she knew about Penn State U. football coach Joe Paterno before enrolling at Penn State, Merriam said, “Nothing. I didn’t even know him as JoePa.”
But Merriam and the rest of the Penn State women’s gymnastics team got a pep talk from the winningest coach in college football history Thursday at practice as they prepared for the NCAA Regional Championships at 6 p.m. Saturday in Rec Hall.
Paterno stressed the same principles he tells his players each Saturday before they take the field in Beaver Stadium: have confidence in yourself and, most importantly, have fun.
“If you’re uptight, it’s not fun,” said Paterno, whose daughter Mary Kay did gymnastics growing up. “Don’t get yourself in a state of mind where you’re so uptight when you take that last flip.”
Senior Alexandra Brockway had no idea Paterno was set to visit the team. Women’s gymnastics coach Steve Shephard got the word from associate athletic director for football administration Fran Ganter Thursday morning. Shephard ran to his car, picked up Paterno and hauled him to the White Building.
Brockway said to assistant coach Jess Bastardi she couldn’t believe she had just seen Paterno in the hallway. Bastardi then told her he was speaking to the team and to hurry up and get in the gym.
The fact Paterno took time right before spring football practice meant a lot to Brockway and the rest of the Nittany Lion gymnasts.
“It helps knowing how many people are in it for us, and he’s not just in it for his own football team but he’s there for us,” Brockway said. “It just shows you how much Penn State pride everybody has around here.”
Fellow senior Allie Southard thought she was dreaming when she saw Paterno walk through the doors. In her four years at Penn State, it was the first time she ever had the chance to “hang out” with Paterno, she said.
“I think I literally died,” Southard said. “I was like, ‘Is this real life?’ That was incredible.”
Southard said Paterno’s appearance alone gives her extra motivation for Saturday, when she will be fighting to keep her career alive. If the Lions don’t finish in the top-two, their season will end prematurely.
Paterno, on the other hand, didn’t put much stock into his speech with the team. Everything they need they already had, he said.
“They were gonna do all right without me, for crying out loud,” Paterno said. “I didn’t do a tumble. I didn’t do a flip.”