Lenny Moore and Lydell Mitchell were two of Penn State's greatest players, and not surprisingly, became two of the greatest Baltimore Colts. Two weeks ago they drove to State College, Pa., to pay their respects to Joe Paterno, who died Sunday and who they give much of the credit for their success on and off the field.
"When you say Penn State, you say Joe Paterno," said Moore, the Colts' Hall of Fame running back.
Moore played for the Nittany Lions in the mid-1950s, when Paterno was assistant to head coach Rip Engle. When Moore flunked out of college, early on, Paterno stepped in to help him turn his life around.
"He was a part of me," Moore said.
Paterno "was a man who gave not only money but his life to Penn State. You could talk to him anytime, about anything. He was straightforward and upfront," Moore said.
"Ask any player from the last 60 years and they'll tell you, 'This guy was No. 1' — not because he won all of those games, but simply because he was real. And he never, ever changed."
When Moore and Mitchell, another All-Pro running back for the Colts, drove to State College, they knew Paterno had been sick with cancer, and that he had fallen and broken his pelvis in December.
"Joe has been a father figure to a lot of us, and a mentor, and a friend," MItchell said. "We knew he wasn't strong, so we figured to stay 15 minutes. Well, Joe kept us for 1-1/2 hours. We sat at his kitchen table, had some cookies and reminisced."
Moore was the Colts' first-round draft choice in 1957; Mitchell, their No. 2 pick in 1972. Together, they gained nearly 20,000 yards during their Baltimore careers.
Both men were among Paterno's most vocal supporters during the fallout from the Jerry Sandusky scandal, and both sought to buoy his spirits during his illness.
"We were dismayed about the way the whole [Sandusky] process went down," Mitchell said. "Everyone will judge Joe the way they see fit, but [Paterno's firing] certainly didn't help, physically, with him being ill."
The coach and his two proteges chatted endlessly about the past — and future.
"We laughed, and cried, and taked about his love of Penn State — and his legacy," Mitchell said. "He didn't want to be bitter."
Finally, Moore and Mitchell had to go.
"I said, 'Joe, we love you, and we're behind you, but we've got to get over the mountains before it gets dark,'" Mitchell said. "Lenny and I felt so good, leaving there. And I think [the visit] gave Joe strength, too."
A third former Colts running back and Penn State grad, Charlie Pittman, also paid homage to Paterno Sunday.
"Joe had a major impact on my life," said Pittman, who starred at Edmondson before heading north in 1966 as part of Paterno's first recruiting class as head coach. "He taught me values and my management philosophy. He taught me to be a team player, and to reach for the heavens.
"From the start, life was more than games to him. He wouldn't let us live in football dorms, spike balls after touchdowns or do victory dances. He often said he would rate his best teams by the number of graduates who went on to become teachers, lawyers, politicians and successful businessmen."
Pittman, now vice president of a national media chain, lives in Indiana and credits Paterno with helping him move on with his life after football. An All-American who led Penn State to 22 straight victories and consecutive Orange Bowl wins in his last two years there, Pittman lasted just two seasons in the NFL, bowing out with the Colts in 1971.
"I was thinking of playing in Canada when, at a banquet, Joe put his hand on my shoulder and said, 'You're trying to prove that your college career wasn't a fluke. You don't have to. Get on with your life.'
"He connected me with a banker in Pennsylvania, I became a management trainee and, eventually, a vice president there. It was the best advice anyone ever gave me."
Pittman's respect ran so deep that he sent his son to Penn State to play for Paterno. Tony Pittman, a defensive back, also made All-American. Neither father nor son ever lost a Penn State game in which they started, finishing their careers with a combined record of 45-0-1.
In 2007, Charlie and Tony Pittman collaborated to write a book about those days, "Playing For Paterno." Last year, they interviewed him at length for a prospective PBS documentary on the legendary coach.
"We put the project on hold, when the Sandusky thing erupted," Charlie Pittman said. "Now, it's time to dust off our notes and get Joe's story on the air."