Before shaking a fist at the inequity of one misstep marring Joe Paterno's legacy, consider that the longtime Penn State football coach did not cry foul over his own unfortunate circumstance. He understood as well as anyone that life is unfair.

Before shaking a fist at the inequity of one misstep marring Joe Paterno's legacy, consider that the longtime Penn State football coach did not cry foul over his own unfortunate circumstance. He understood as well as anyone that life is unfair.

Paterno, who died yesterday at 85 after a brief but brutal back-and-forth with cancer, will be remembered as a good man and great coach who for most of his career at Penn State maintained a high degree of integrity while positively influencing the players in his care. But it also will be impossible to forget that his tenure ended ingloriously, spiked by a child sex-abuse scandal in which Paterno failed to show the leadership expected of one who oversaw every aspect of the football program for 46 years.

As former Florida State coach Bobby Bowden summed it up: "A million good things and one mistake. Can you believe it?"

Paterno could believe it, because he experienced the injustice of life through the unfairness of football.

Was it fair when poll voters placed undefeated Nebraska No. 1 ahead of undefeated Penn State in 1994? Was it fair when Adam Taliaferro suffered a paralyzing spinal cord injury during a 2000 game at Ohio State? Was it fair when an open receiver dropped a touchdown pass? Or a fumble fell into the wrong hands?

Fair? No, football is not always fair. And since Paterno considered football his life, it only made sense that an ill-fated ending might someday trip up even the most respected of coaches. Play the game long enough and you will see it all. Paterno played that game longer than most. Too long, it turns out. Had he departed 10 years ago, his connection to the Jerry Sandusky case likely would have been tied off more cleanly. Instead, when Sandusky, who was Paterno's longtime defensive coordinator, allegedly went too far into darkness, Paterno did not go far enough into shedding light on the ugliness.

But walking away from football was not an option for Paterno, because to give up coaching would mean to give up his life. Football was Paterno's breath. He inhaled it - two-a-days, meeting rooms, practice fields - and exhaled it - lessons on leadership, mentoring his assistants and finding that speck of a strategic advantage that made all the difference on game days. More than once he said he would not know what to do with himself if he left coaching. His hobbies included analyzing game tape, monitoring punt hang times and enjoying the statistical oddities associated with turnover margins.

It wasn't always that way. Paterno graduated from Brown University in 1950 thinking he might enter law school. By the time he was dismissed from Penn State in November, his black-rimmed glasses, high-water khaki pants, white shirt and black shoes were symbolic of the law of the land in State College, Pa. He was so much a part of Penn State that fans could not conceive of how they would manage without him; and he had no clue how he would get along without the daily grind of meetings, practices and preparation that overfilled his life.

Paterno admitted he would be lost without football. But that does not mean he quit on life when football was taken from him. To suggest that Paterno gave up on living, that his fate was a fait accompli the minute Penn State trustees fired him in November, is to show ignorance of the illness that felled him. Unlike Paul "Bear" Bryant, who literally died of a broken heart in January 1983, four weeks after coaching his final game at Alabama, Paterno gave way to cancer, which cares not if you are 85, 45 or 15. It is among the most unfair diseases of them all, which, not to be overly glib or ghoulish, summarizes the final months of Paterno's life.

A sense of unfairness hangs over Paterno death. It is a shame it had to end this way, with a sad whimper encased in the echoes of controversy. But as the beloved coach with the Brooklyn accent might have urged friends and foes alike, do not dwell on the one missed assignment, but on the many moments that squarely hit the mark.

Rob Oller is a sports reporter for The Dispatch.

roller@dispatch.com