STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — More than 340 players once coached by Joe Paterno have shown support for their former Penn State coach through a letter released in time for his 85th birthday Wednesday.
Hall of Famer Lydell Mitchell, a standout Nittany Lions running back from 1969-71, helped organize the effort and hoped to get more signatures in the coming days. It's believed to be the largest such effort by former players since school trustees fired Paterno last month in the aftermath of child sex-abuse charges against retired defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky.
Since then, Paterno has been diagnosed with what his family has called a treatable form of lung cancer. He is undergoing radiation and chemotherapy.
"He is not aware of (the letter)," Mitchell said Tuesday night in a phone interview. "It is so important that he keeps his health up and stays strong ... We're in the fight with him."
Paterno, like Mitchell is in the College Football Hall of Fame.
The letter posted online addressed from "The Penn State Football Family" is entitled "We Stand in Support of Joe and Penn State." Besides Mitchell, other notable signees include Greg Buttle, Shane Conlan, LaVar Arrington and Ki-Jana Carter.
"As members of the Penn State community, we are deeply saddened by the allegations against Jerry Sandusky, and our thoughts and prayers go out to the victims and their families. Given the allegations against Sandusky, we understand the public's outrage because we share it," the letter begins.
Sandusky, who has pleaded not guilty to the allegations that span from 1994 to 2009, is awaiting trial. Authorities have said Paterno is not a target of the investigation, though he was dismissed by trustees amid mounting pressure that school leaders should have done more to stop alleged abuse.
"At the same time, however, it's important to remember that all of the facts surrounding this troubling matter are not known," the letter continues. "Until all of the facts are known and due process has run its course, we ask that the public reserve judgment about Joe Paterno and the Penn State community."
The letter goes on to praise Paterno's impact on his former players off the field. "Joe has taught Penn State faith, fairness, philanthropy and the importance of academic excellence — all values that make Penn State a great institution today, the letter said.
Mitchell said the effort came together to honor Paterno's 60-plus years of coaching, including the final 46 as head coach.
"I'm just speaking to coach Paterno's character. The type of guy he's been over the years," Mitchell said in the phone interview. "He didn't just care from (us) as football players. He cared for us as people. These are the things that really meant so much to me."
Paterno was released from the hospital Sunday, a week after breaking his pelvis again following a fall at home. He stayed in the hospital to make it easier to get cancer treatments while his pelvis healed.
Mitchell hopes to visit Paterno next week.
"Many in the Penn State community view the public's rush to judgment of Joe as a rush to judgment of everything Penn State. We ask for due process for Joe Paterno and the Penn State community," the letter said. "Based on the immense quality of Joe's character and the absence of all the facts, we stand in support of Joe and Penn State."
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