Jim Prisching, File, Associated Press
FILE - In this Oct. 22, 2011 file photo, Penn State coach Joe Paterno stands on the field before an NCAA college football game.

A Japanese proverb says the reputation of a thousand years can be determined by the conduct of one hour. Doesn't Joe Paterno's family know it. The man coached football at Penn State for 61 years, started foundations, taught principles, inspired millions, earned honors ...

And now his reputation is gone like a busted play.

It's true he protected Jerry Sandusky's child molesting secret for 14 years, but somewhere Paterno made a decision. The wrong one, as it turned out. The man who engineered thousands of big plays fumbled at the goal line. He nearly went down as one of the great names in sports history. But he'll henceforth be remembered as a man who chose friendship over honor.

It would take at least a thousand years for him to undo what the Freeh Report revealed last week, and the Paterno family is trying to do just that. It released a statement on Monday saying it "vehemently" contests Freeh's findings that Paterno stayed silent about his former assistant coach and even impeded efforts to report him to authorities.

Reputation is the trickiest thing. You can do a million things and get characterized by one. Just attend a class reunion. Often someone will say, "Oh, yeah, you were the guy who ..."

You might not even remember what you did, but somebody else certainly does.

If an alien were to drop in from space and see today's commentaries, he might think it was Paterno who committed the crime, not Sandusky.

Joe Pa earned that by keeping quiet.

In simpler days, a person's reputation was largely determined by those in his town, built over time. Now media have made sure everything is immediately everyone's business. What used to be a whispered secret at Penn State is now world news. In this case, that's a good thing. Sandusky's acts should be reported.

Through association and omission, Paterno's reputation has been dragged into the muck. Good things he did do: graduate players, teach citizenship, support charities, promote sportsmanship, earn two national titles, win more games than any coach, treat others respectfully and live modestly.

Things he didn't do: report a child predator.

One horribly bad choice will outweigh all the good in the public memory. People who wouldn't know a double reverse from double jeopardy now know Paterno's name.

In an interview with Kobe Bryant by Graham Bensinger of Yahoo! Sports, the basketball star talked this week about the 2003 sexual assault charges against him. They were later dismissed when the accuser chose not to testify. Nine years later, Bryant still deals with catcalls and hand-made signs mocking him in arenas around the NBA.

"There's times where it just seems like days are just endless, like this is never going to end," Bryant said of the months after his arrest. "This feeling, this dark time is just never going to be over ..."

In some ways, it still isn't.

Bryant's incident in Colorado could have been a lapse in judgment or maybe a continued pattern. Whether he sexually assaulted a woman or merely chose to cheat on his wife — as he contented — a single decision changed his public persona forever.

Everyone makes thousands of choices each day. Some are seemingly small but they shape character. Others frame our reputations.

Thus it was with Paterno, who apparently chose to cover his friend, thus traveling down the Path of Denial to the Highway of Deceit. Maybe he figured it wasn't his crime, so it wasn't his business.

Except that it was.

Joe Pa's good deeds will never outlive this.

He had the chance to make things right — which is more than you can say for the kids. Would I have made that choice? Easy to say no, but I'm not trying to protect a friend, a team, a reputation.

Still, I like to think I wouldn't have done the same.

Not now, not in a thousand years.

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