Former Penn State star Lydell Mitchell visited Joe Paterno about a week and a half ago, hoping to get just a moment with his ailing coach.
After an emotional hour and a half, Mitchell said goodbye and told Paterno that he would always have the support of his players.
"I said, 'Hey, man, we love you.' We'll fight the fight for him," Mitchell said Sunday after Paterno died at age 85.
AP file photo
Former Penn State football coach Joe Paterno is embraced by his wife, Sue, following Penn State’s 30-6 victory over Texas on Jan. 1, 1972, in the Cotton Bowl in Dallas. Paterno, the longtime Penn State coach who won more games than anyone else in major college football, died Sunday. He was 85.
"Joe's legacy will always be intact because we won't let Joe's legacy die," said Mitchell, who played running back at Penn State from 1968-72.
Paterno won more games (409) than any coach in major college football history during 46 seasons at Penn State.
"I think history will say that he's one of the greatest," former Florida State coach Bobby Bowden, second on the wins list, told The Associated Press. "Who's coached longer? Who's coached better? Who's won more games? Who's been more successful than Joe? Who's done more for his university than Joe? You've lost one of the greatest. He probably means the same thing up there that Bear Bryant meant down here. He's an icon."
Sports figures by the dozen, including many Penn State alumni, and fans by the thousands paid tribute to Paterno after the longtime coach died from complications of lung cancer less than three months after he was ousted amid a child sex abuse scandal involving one of his former assistants.
"It's just sad because I think he died from other things than lung cancer," former Penn State tight end Mickey Shuler said.
Before the Penn State wrestling team faced Iowa at Rec Hall on the University Park campus on Sunday afternoon, a moment of silence was observed.
When it was over the capacity crowd of more than 6,500 gave a 30-second standing ovation while an image of Paterno flashed on two video boards.
The screen flashed the words "Joseph Vincent Paterno. 1926-2012," just below the digitized picture of a smiling Paterno, wearing a blue tie and blue sweater vest with arms crossed across his chest.
"Please recognize now the passing earlier today of Penn State educator, philanthropist and coach, Joe Paterno," the announcer said.
"With coaching milestones too significant too list and impact too substantial to measure, JoePa - as he is known to Nittany Lion fans everywhere - will forever be remembered as a man whose family includes a team, a university and an entire sport," the announcer said. "Thank you Coach Paterno."
There also were moments of silence at Penn State men's and women's basketball games.
Former Penn State assistant coach Tom Bradley, who was interim coach for the Nittany Lions after Paterno was pushed out, called his former boss his "mentor for 37 years."
"Coach Paterno never believed that his role as 'Coach' ended after practice, or when the fourth quarter wound down or when a student-athlete graduated," Bradley said in a statement. "He was a coach for life."
Paterno began his career at Penn State in 1950 as an assistant coach under Rip Engle.
That's when Pro Football Hall of Famer Lenny Moore played for the Nittany Lions. Moore joined Mitchell - they both played for the Colts and live in Baltimore - for that trip to State College a couple weeks back.
Moore said he, Mitchell, Paterno and Paterno's wife, Sue, sat around the kitchen table and talked until it got dark and the visitors needed to get back.
"We talked the whole time and he was very together," Moore said. "Didn't look like he was having any pain. We told him we loved him and we left.
"I'm glad that we had the opportunity to do it. And I was glad that I told him how I felt about him."
Mike Guman, who played fullback for Penn State in the late 1970s, said the Paterno's legacy will be carried on by the many people whose lives he has touched.
"Football's a small part of his legacy, but it goes far beyond that," he said. "You could have become a good football player at many places but you wouldn't have become the man you are if you didn't go to Penn State."
Guman said he didn't think Paterno was treated fairly at the end of his time at Penn State and Mitchell agreed.
"They knew Joe was going to retire (at the end of last season)," Mitchell said "They could have let that play out but I think they panicked and jumped the gun."
Ohio State coach Urban Meyer - one of many sports figures to pay tribute - said he was fortunate to have developed a personal relationship with Paterno over the last few years. In Meyer's last game at Florida, his Gators beat Penn State.
"We have lost a remarkable person and someone who affected the lives of so many people in so many positive ways," Meyer said in statement. "His presence will be dearly missed. His legacy as a coach, as a winner and as a champion will carry on forever."