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The Zak Zone

January 26, 2012

For as long as I can remember, there are two men I could have been speaking of when I simply called someone Coach: My former hockey coach Doc Snyder and Joe Paterno.

This week, the world lost one of those men in the same manner I lost one of my other greatest mentors a year-and-a-half prior when my pap's battle with lung cancer came to a close.

Since I was a young lad, I have always respected and even loved JoePa. From the beginning, I was a PSU fan because Dad was one, and it didn't take me long to realize Coach was a man worth respecting.

The inlayed photo with this column is a tin tray my grandma showed me this week after JoePa passed.

Circa 1976, it shows that even early in his coaching career, fans gravitated to Paterno and his coaching style.

I remember clinging to words in his press conferences and interviews that spoke of character, class and honor in winning and losing ... on the field and off.

Although I never had the athletic abilities to play at the level it would have required, a part of me always dreamed of playing for JoePa, of learning from the legend himself.

Fortunately, a chubby, unathletic youngster growing up near Reynoldsville didn't have to posses freakish athletic skills to play for my other "Coach."

Ironically, Doc reminds me of JoePa in more areas than just his ability to coach youngsters.

Doc's thick-lensed glasses and his easy-going but stern demeanor made him a spitting image of Penn State's coach. He was my JoePa, allowing me to play for a man just like the one I'd always dreamed of playing for.

Unfortunately, I didn't always realize it in the moment.

My relationship with Doc wasn't always smooth. He treated us all as his own kids, mixing compassion with discipline.

But on the flip side, when you spend so much time with an authority figure, you go through your share of growing pains with them, too.

Fighting for time on the floor with other more-skilled players, I often found myself riding the pine more than I liked, and at times, I allowed my attitude to turn sour.

Doc did his best to manage our young egos, but there were explosive moments. It comes with growing up and learning to work as a team.

JoePa — I still feel odd calling him just Paterno — always preached the importance of the team.

PSU's plain blue and white uniforms with no names on the back are still a reminder of that point.

You win as a team and lose as a team, so individual accolades meant little, and names on their backs would hurt that team aspect in Joe's mind.

Doc taught us the same lessons, though he used his own methods.

Good coaches are recognized for winning, and JoePa and Doc both did plenty of winning, but great coaches are remembered for growing young men and women in character, and both did plenty of that as well.

At the end, JoePa's coaching legacy came to a tragic end in the wake of a tragic scandal.

And while I don't want to downplay the severity of the alleged accusations, my view of Paterno as one of my ultimate coaches has not changed one bit.

The lessons he taught me and the hope he offered me just by being true to himself supersede these events.

Sadly, although my days of calling Doc "Coach" never ended, my days playing for him came to a rocky end.

As a pubescent, hormone-filled late-teen, my hockey style had grown to be more physical than in the days of my youth, just as many of my friends' had.

One night, Doc's grandson was playing at the rink. A very talented ball-handler — in roller hockey we played with a ball — he was coming on a break, as I was the only defender between him and the net.

He put the ball between my legs and went to go around me, so I countered by hand-checking him to slow him down enough for my goalie to beat him to the ball.

Unfortunately, our skates were tangled, and as we fell to the ground, I threw him over me to avoid hurting myself, not knowing the goal post was as close to us as it was.

His face hit the post, and I was told to leave and not return.

At first, I was bitter at losing something that meant so much to me throughout my childhood, but the bitterness soon subsided as I realized how blessed I was to have a coach who put up with me as long as he did.

Doc sent me off that night because of one isolated, over-hyped run-in with his grandson, but what he didn't know was just how well he'd prepared me to be sent off.

Since then, I haven't played many organized sports, but I still use the title of coach with great respect. When I address Punxsy's coaches, they are all "Coach" to me because of the respect I have for their work with others.

I never came face to face with JoePa to thank him for the lessons he gave me, but I have reconciled with Doc, and to this day, I consider him and his wife, Grace, very good friends.

While JoePa has moved on to be with his maker, he still lives in the actions of so many that he has influenced.

Coach, thank you for all you've done for us. You will be missed.

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