For elders Bowden, Paterno, football is fountain of youth


FORT LAUDERDALE, FLA. -- Why do we do the things we do? Why do you do what you do, and why do I do what I do?

I love these types of questions. That's how you get to the core of a person, deciphering the motive. The successful ones, it seems, have found something they like doing. Their passion is their work. But there's a whole class above them, men and women who find unprecedented success. They seem to be motivated by something very different - fear.

Here in South Florida, Penn State is preparing to take on Florida State in tomorrow night's Orange Bowl. All anyone can talk about, though, are two men, assigned to stand on opposite sidelines, each cherished like spiritual icons in their communities, both men with just a single equal in the college coaching ranks: each other.

Bobby Bowden and Joe Paterno have won more games than anyone else in major college football. Bowden is 76, Paterno 79. Neither seems to have any interest in walking away from the game.

Why haven't they already called it quits? Why do they do what they do?

Sure, they love football, but that's not why they've stuck around this long. The truth is, football's afterlife is a scary prospect. Bowden phrased it perfectly a couple of days ago. "A man needs a motive to live," he said.

That's right - they've stuck around because they're scared to walk away. Football was never a hobby and never a job. It was a reason to wake up. For Bowden and Paterno, that will never change.

Others have asked, begged, pleaded and ordered them to leave. Paterno has had Web sites and newspaper ads calling for his job. Bowden once pulled up to his home and found an effigy hanging from a tree branch.

Walk away? Never. When you reach that age and you're driven by fear, retirement is akin to death.

Both men fondly remember Bear Bryant. They both remember that the legendary coach retired after the 1982 season and died less than a month later.

Bowden is also reminded of his own father, Bob Bowden, who died 35 years ago. The elder Bowden, who'd found success in the real estate business, was less than a year removed from retirement when he died from complications of a brain aneurysm. Bowden remembers visiting his father's comatose shell.

"He couldn't do nothing by then," Bowden says, "except lay there and shrink up. ..[S]eeing that made me more conscious of a man needing a motive to live."

Neither coach has spent his adulthood dreaming about life after football. They don't want to fish or travel or work in the garden. Bowden said he's thought about cutting grass at a golf course. Paterno said something about working with inner-city kids.

Truth is, they don't really know what they'd do because preparing for retirement can seem like making funeral preparations. Bowden often jokes that after retirement, the next big event in a man's life is his death.

Paterno has worked at Penn State since 1950. Penn State is one of the largest employers in Pennsylvania, and Paterno is the longest-tenured of anyone at the school. Retirement? He has no plans. Death? He says he doesn't think about it.

"I probably would think about that if my grandkids would leave me alone," he says. "Every time I start to sit on my sofa and start to think when I'm going to die, some 9-year-old kid comes in and starts to ask me, 'When are you going to do this?' "

"It's not like I get to sit by myself and wonder when I'm going to die."

Bowden is three years younger and probably no closer to hanging up his whistle. "My wife spends too much money," he jokes. "I can't afford to retire."

Of course, he resorts to a joke. That's what I do, too, when I'm not comfortable with something.

Everyone lauds these two old coaches for finding so much success this late in life, but they don't get caught up in the triumph of it all. Winning seasons are met with a sense of relief. Bowl games buy more time on the sidelines.

Bowden and Paterno aren't exactly cut from the same cloth, but because of their ages and because of their successes, we view them through the same lens.

Their eighth meeting belongs in Florida. There are more than 5 million people here age 55 or older - nearly one-third of the state, according to census figures. It's not like a giant hospice in the Everglades, though. Seniors here are active. They live in retirement communities, they trade in their cars for golf carts, they compete in pickleball and they take yoga classes. They have social calendars that make Paris Hilton look like a homebody.

Old people come to Florida to live, not die.

One of my favorite myths is rooted right here. Nearly 500 years ago, Juan Ponce de Leon left Puerto Rico with three ships. As the story goes, he'd heard tales of a wondrous Fountain of Youth, with waters that could foil the biological clock.

Ponce de Leon found Florida, but not the fountain. Today, the Fountain of Youth exists only as a metaphor, one that Bowden and Paterno discovered on their own. They're here this week showing that success doesn't discriminate based on age.

Why do they do the things they do?

Bowden and Paterno, the sporting world's favorite septuagenarians, embrace life the only way they know how: fueling and prolonging their remarkable careers with a fear that we can all relate to.

Read Rick Maese's blog at

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad