Alex Brandon, Associated Press
Charles V. Pittman, senior vice president for publishing at Schurz Communications Inc., an Indiana-based company that owns television and radio stations and newspapers speaks at "A Memorial for Joe" in honor of Joe Paterno at the Bryce Jordan Center in State College, Pa. Thursday Jan. 26, 2012. Pittman is a former player who has said he was in Paterno's first class and was the coach's first All-America running back. A capacity crowd of more than 12,000 packed Penn State's Bryce Jordan Center for one more tribute to Paterno, the Hall of Fame football coach who died Sunday from lung cancer.

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — With fond memories and lavish praise that might have embarrassed the school's beloved coach, Penn State paid tribute to Joe Paterno at a public memorial Thursday, an event that capped three days of public mourning following his death from lung cancer.

A respectful crowd of about 12,000 came to the Bryce Jordan Center to hear former players and others laud not just Paterno's accomplishments but the man himself.

"Bless us this day as we honor and celebrate one of your greatest gifts to the world — Joe Paterno," the Rev. Matthew Laffey said in the opening prayer.

A short time later, after a video montage, former star Penn State quarterback Todd Blackledge said, "No one individual has ever done more for a university anywhere in the country than what Joe Paterno did for this school."

The line drew applause, and Blackledge was followed on the podium in the darkened arena by Lauren Perrotti, a Penn State student and Paterno fellow.

The service served as both a tribute and catharsis for the emotion-wracked school.

The coach's death Sunday at age 85 came less than three months after his stunning ouster as head coach in the wake of child sex-abuse charges against a retired assistant, Jerry Sandusky.

The campus has been torn by anger over the Sandusky scandal and Paterno's firing, but this week thousands of alumni, fans, students and former players in Happy Valley have remembered Paterno for his record-setting career, his love for the school and his generosity.

Charles V. Pittman, a member of Paterno's first recruiting class, made the first reference to the turmoil at the event.

"Despite being pushed way from his beloved game, and under the extreme pressure of the events of the past few months, Joe's grace was startling," said Pittman, senior vice president for publishing at Schurz Communications Inc., and a member of the Board of Directors of The Associated Press.

Many Penn Staters found themselves reflecting on Paterno's impact and the road ahead.

"What's Joe's legacy? The answer, is his legacy is us," former NFL and Nittany Lions receiver Jimmy Cefalo said Wednesday before Paterno's funeral. He was on the speakers list Thursday.

Public viewings were held Tuesday and Wednesday morning, before the funeral and burial service for Paterno on Wednesday afternoon at the campus interfaith center where family members attended church services.

Cefalo, who played for Penn State in the '70s, said it will be the most difficult speech of his life. But he offered a hint of what he might say.

"Generations of these young people from coal mines and steel towns who he gave a foundation to," Cefalo said. "It's not (the Division I record) 409 wins, it's not two national championships, and it's not five-time coach of the year (awards). It's us."

As with all Paterno-related events this week, the crowd included well-known figures from the sports world. New Ohio State coach Urban Meyer had a seat near the front, where Paterno's widow, Sue, sat with her children and grandchildren.

Also in the seats were former Penn State and NFL players Franco Harris and Matt Millen, along with former defensive coordinator Tom Bradley. So was former Nittany Lions quarterback Daryll Clark.

Associated Press writer Kathy Matheson in Philadelphia contributed to this report.