I was a Second Mile kid. Now that the organization I grew up with, founded by disgraced Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, is likely to fold, I want to write an obituary for the program as most of us knew it.
Since the news of the scandal broke, I have done a number of interviews, trying to explain how the organization—so closely tied to a man who stands accused as a serial molester—could have done real good. Some interviewers have been interested in listening. Others haven't.
On Issues With Jane Velez-Mitchell, on CNN's HLN, I heard nothing but conspiracy theories and screaming from the moment I sat down and put in my earpiece. Then Velez-Mitchell turned to me:
"Thomas Day, you are a Penn State graduate, you came up through Jerry Sandusky's Second Mile foundation, you are an acquaintance of Jerry Sandusky's. Did you ever see anything that seemed a little creepy?"
I hadn't, I told her. I explained that The Second Mile has helped thousands of kids around Pennsylvania, and that I hoped its work could continue. I added that my mom had told me she didn't regret sending her son to the foundation.
What? Your mother would send you back to The Second Mile? Velez-Mitchell turned to Archie Spanier, your standard shock-jock radio host, who had an on-air meltdown over my comment: "You're going to be going back to a MOLESTATION FAAAARM!"
That's not the foundation I knew. When I was 15, my mother signed me up for The Second Mile's Friend Fitness program, a program not unlike the Big Brother, Big Sister program. I wasn't a "troubled" kid; I just wasn't doing well in school, and she wanted to see my energy channeled toward something productive.
So twice a week, the other kids and I worked out with our mentors at a local sports club. The idea was that as we built physical strength, we'd build confidence. Weighing in at about 120 pounds, I needed both.
My Second Mile mentor was Fred Howard, a former Yale defensive lineman who carried a muscular 250 pounds on his frame and slightly resembled Val Kilmer, back when Val Kilmer was still a movie star. My first workout was an easy one, going through the motions. Fred sent me on my way, seeing if I'd come back the next week.
When I did, Fred took me aside, looked me in the eye, and said, "I have some bad news: Today is going to be an extremely painful workout."
He wasn't kidding. My first exercise was the leg press. There were no weights loaded into the machine. Instead, Fred got in front of the apparatus and, with one foot against the wall and the other on the cross bar, pushed with all of his 250 pounds. With all the strength in my body, I pushed back—moving the bar not even a little bit. Only when my face went purple did Fred let the bar move.
Afterward, I was queasy and my legs were shaking. I couldn't walk without bracing myself on the other exercise machines. And we were just starting. Another round or two of exercise and I ran to the bathroom and curled up in a ball.
In that sense, and that sense only, I was certainly harmed. I can imagine Fred laughing with his drinking buddies about how he made a teenager cry. And he never made it any easier for me. But I kept coming back.
After a few weeks, Fred took me aside again. "When you talk to me, look me in the eye," Fred told me. He wanted firm handshakes when I arrived to the workout too. And if I was running late to a workout, he'd better know about it in advance.
I remember the day Fred left State College to enroll in the University of Michigan's MBA program as among the most difficult in my youth. When I ran the Chicago Marathon last month to raise money for the Second Mile, Fred was my first donor. I'm 31 now, but Fred remains my mentor in every sense.
The Second Mile gave me the strength to do things I never thought I could do: enlist in the military, serve a year in Iraq, earn a master's degree from Northwestern, earn another in public policy from the University of Chicago (next June if all goes to plan), do 12 chinups.
Now I live with the knowledge that an organization that made me into a man may have ruined the lives of others. Certainly the leadership of The Second Mile is not blameless in this tragic episode. I fear that with The Second Mile's mission coming to an end, there will be no more Fred Howards for kids in Pennsylvania who need a mentor.
Last week, the Wall Street Journal added another layer to the Penn State scandal: According to a front-page report, Joe Paterno and then-Vice President of Student Affairs Vicky Triponey, Penn State's top disciplinarian, clashed repeatedly over punishing football players for off-the-field crimes. The disputes eventually led to Triponey's resignation in 2007.
Few close observers of the Penn State football program could have been surprised by the report. I doubt even Joe Paterno would deny that, when it came to disciplining his football players, he viewed his law as supreme. If power breeds arrogance, and Joe Paterno built his power over the course of a half a century, we can pretty much guess how he viewed the authority of a career administrator—one without a statue built on campus in her honor.
That didn't mean, however, that Paterno granted blanket immunity to misbehaving football players. Joe's Law often sentenced offenders to community service, and that community service most frequently involved The Second Mile.
The Second Mile is but an extension of the Penn State football program. The former cannot function without the support of the latter. During my time with The Second Mile, first as a kid and later as a mentor, I saw Brian Gelzheiser (the leading tackler of the 1994 Rose Bowl team), John Greene, and Blair Thomas visit our workouts.
Second Mile fundraisers almost always included a visit from several players and coaches. Its annual fundraising golf tournament brought together nearly everyone who's anyone in Penn State football, past and present. According to one report, Mike McQueary attended the 2003 Second Mile fundraising golf tournament, one year after he'd told authorities he witnessed Sandusky assaulting a 10-year-old boy.
Frequently football players were sent to The Second Mile after getting kicked off the team. The Second Mile would provide older mentors to keep an eye on them. The players would be pupils for the older volunteers, but heroes to the kids, who didn't know or care if they'd been recently involved in a bar fight. If the players did what they were supposed to, they would get their way back on the team, with The Second Mile's imprimatur.
One player who received this treatment was E.Z. Smith, the starting center on the 2005 Orange Bowl team. Smith was welcomed into The Second Mile, at the request of the Penn State coaches, after he was cited for underage drinking. If Penn State fans truly took pride in Joe Paterno's focus on character development off the field, then they would recognize E.Z . as an ideal Penn Stater.
E.Z. left a different legacy among most other Penn State fans, however. One night before his senior year, during a night of drinking, E.Z. and his buddies (a few on the football team) shot arrows from a compound bow at a Steelers t-shirt, mounted on a wall of their apartment—a dangerous but, frankly, hilarious drinking activity. E.Z. spent a good amount of his Penn State career in Joe Paterno's famed doghouse; after that incident, Paterno's doghouse became his permanent address.
E.Z. was no problem child. He was the kind of guy I'd want my younger sister dating. His father was his high school football coach and his mother was the principal. He couldn't have possibly come from a better family. E.Z. was guilty of getting drunk and stupid—a crime committed by nearly every man or woman who has ever attended Penn State University. It's a crime committed by literally thousands of people each weekend in State College. I too acted equally drunk and stupid in college. My buddies and I just never had the creativity to have a close-range, indoor archery contest.
When one arrow broke through the wall, E.Z. was in trouble. So were the other players. All of the players involved in the incident were suspended indefinitely. Paterno said he received "six different stories" about what transpired.
I believe E.Z.'s end of the story. Bruce Heim, a State College businessman and then a board member of Jerry Sandusky's Second Mile foundation, had taken E.Z. under his wing months earlier. Bruce told E.Z. he was welcome to work out with him and participate in The Second Mile, provided he meet his rigid expectations, including one non-negotiable one: Don't lie to me.
"E.Z., did you shoot those arrows?" he asked.
"Yes, Bruce, I did," Smith told him flatly.
E.Z. owned up to his end, and E.Z. paid for it. Playing in the home opener against South Florida was out of the question. The road back to the field was going to be a long one.
From that point forward, Bruce worked with E.Z. on how he could rebuild his name and get back onto the team. It was a frustrating process for E.Z., one in which he was forced to watch linemen with far less ability play in front of him.
If he was going to be around the Second Mile kids, E.Z. needed to act like a man. Bruce set standards for him—like showing up to workouts not a second late—and E.Z. met them all.
When he started doing so, Bruce let him mentor his own kids, and Joe Paterno let him back on the field.
By anyone's standard, E.Z. emerged from Penn State a responsible adult. Yes, E.Z. did some things in college that others might shake their heads at, but so did you and I. Sometimes you have to learn life's lessons the hard way. The people who've emerged from The Second Mile go through life drawing on lessons learned from their mentors in the foundation.
E.Z. has since gotten married, earned a master's degree in adult education, and coached for his high school football team. "I wouldn't have even graduated from Penn State if it weren't for The Second Mile," he told me in a phone conversation this month." That's the Second Mile I'll remember.
Thomas L. Day grew up in State College, Pa., and graduated from Penn State in 2003. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, ESPN the Magazine, and Philadelphia Magazine. He was also a bureau reporter for McClatchy in Kabul, Afghanistan, in 2009 and 2010.