The Making of… “The Joe We Know”
How it all came together
Thank you for your interest in the film, “The Joe We Know.” The story of how the film came to be, and it’s metamorphosis from a birthday gift to coach to a birthday gift for Sue Paterno on Valentine’s Day, and then a gift to the community, must be a fascinating story. We are being asked repeatedly, “How did this happen? How was this done so fast? How did the guys keep it a secret?” We’ll be releasing chapters serially. Chapters will include additional content, such as early planning documents, script treatments, and more in the coming days.
By Max Stanley
In 1975 Dan Leri was a heavily recruited quarterback/safety from Freeport High School, with Pitt and Penn State emerging as the front runners. Leri opted for the latter, but any second thoughts about his decision quickly vanished, he says, after hearing a broadcast of Paterno’s weekly press conference. “A reporter asked Joe about a particular guy, I can’t remember who, but he said, ‘Do you think he’ll make an impact?’ He was clearly talking about the next game, but there was a pause…and Joe said, ‘I’ll let you know in 15 or 20 years.’”
After the disastrous series of events last fall, Leri kept recalling Paterno’s answer to that reporter’s query 36 years earlier. “Joe truly believed it,” he says. “And he convinced every one of us that, whether you ever played a down or not, that this place is concerned about you and we want you educated. Then we want you to go out and change the world with what we gave you. But you know what? That 15 or 20 years is up for a lot of us. So what is the impact? Where are the guys? What are they doing?”
November 9, 2011
Leri was in his office at Innovation Park when he got the call informing him that the Board of Trustees was going to move their emergency meeting to the Penn Stater, starting at 9:30 p.m. He stayed at his desk that evening, followed the proceedings on Twitter and finally left the building after the announcement was made that Joe Paterno and PSU President Graham Spanier had been relieved of their positions, and that defensive coordinator Tom Bradley would take over as the interim head football coach.
“I was riding home thinking about what had just happened,” Leri recalls. “Everybody involved I knew personally, having played for Joe and Jerry, and I worked with Gary Schultz, Tim Curley is a fraternity brother and a friend, I play racquetball with Graham on occasion, and Tom Bradley was an old teammate. So I felt…well, I wasn’t angry. I just felt sad…very sad….like everybody else. I knew a lot needed sorted out and felt anxious with such major decisions being made so quickly. ”
All was quiet at the Leri household when he arrived. His wife, Diann, was already in bed and, presumably, so were their kids. He went downstairs to his home office, powered up his computers, and began to watch the news reports. Things had gone from bad to worse. Penn State students, more angry than sad, were gathering on College Avenue. Leri became so absorbed by these disturbing images that he barely noticed the sound of footsteps on the stairway. By the time he turned around, his 12-year-old daughter, Gracie, was standing in the doorway, crying.
“It’s just not right,” she said. “They can’t do that. They can’t fire Coach Paterno.’” Leri called her over and she sat on his lap as he tried to calm her down. “I said, ‘Gracie, it’s okay, Babe. He will be okay. He’s safe, he’s fine.’ After a while and to lighten the mood I said, ‘You know, Gracie, you’ve never even met Coach Paterno.’” “Yes I have, Dad,” she replied. “He comes out of your mouth every day. Every time you tell me, ‘Take care of the little things, and the big things will take care of themselves? If you want to be a good person, hang out with good people.’” She then proceeded to rattle off several other expressions that her father had adopted from his former coach. “You know, Dad…all those things that you say—the JoePa-nese.”
After Gracie finally regained her composure and headed off to bed, Leri went back to the news reports. About 10 minutes later, he heard someone else coming down the stairs. He turned and saw his other daughter, 14-year-old Faith, standing in the doorway, tears in her eyes. “Dad, this can’t happen,” she said.
For the next three days, leading up to the final Penn State home game with Nebraska, Leri tried to work but it was difficult, especially since he was getting calls, a couple a day, from Bob Capretto, a former Penn State defensive back who graduated in 1968 and is now a retired orthodontist and business man living in Pittsburgh. “Bobby helped recruit me to come here and I’ve known him 36 years,” Leri says. “He’s actually Gracie’s godfather. And he kept saying, ‘They fired my coach. You can’t fire my coach.’ So I finally said, ‘Bobby, you’re going to grind yourself into the ground.’”
However, now that Paterno’s coaching career was officially over, Leri began to wonder who, if anyone, was going to speak. He called Eric Porterfield, a filmmaker friend who was vacationing with his wife Susan in Mexico, and woke him at six in the morning. “The networks don’t want anything to do with Joe unless he’s going to confess something,” Leri told him. “Penn State has distanced themselves and there’s a line drawn—a legal line, a communication line. And Joe can’t speak—legally, he can’t speak. The only people who can speak are former players.”
Meanwhile, in Miami, Jimmy Cefalo was venting. Cefalo, the star wide receiver for the Nittany Lions from 1974 to 1977, went on to play for the Miami Dolphins before becoming a veritable media renaissance man: sportscaster for NBC, play-by-play announcer for the Dolphins radio broadcasts, Emmy-winning writer, television sports director, game show host and radio newscaster. Naturally, as one of the giants in world of broadcasting, he was sought out by television reporters anxious to hear his opinion about whether or not the once-pristine legacy of Joe Paterno was damaged by the Sandusky scandal.“My vacation was over,” Porterfield says. “But I knew that something special was about to begin. I ended up writing a treatment and getting totally obsessed with it. I started staying up really late, and laid off the ojo rojos. I was reading a book the night before Dan called and the exact page where I left off took on a whole new meaning.” The page ….. “The Art of Living“, by Wilferd A. Peterson. After he returned from Mexico a few days later, he and Leri began to re-work the treatment, pitching ideas back and forth on a concept that would become, through the voices of former players from six decades, a video document on The Grand Experiment. They’d call it “The Joe We Know; We are the legacy”.
“Capretto sent me this news clip of Cef being interviewed,” says Leri, who begins paraphrasing. “And Cef talked about, ‘It’s not the 409 wins. The legacy’s already been written. We are the legacy. I am the legacy. Every other young guy who came here as a boy and was turned into a man through this program—through the Grand Experiment—they are the legacy.’ But the [interviewer] tried to tell him, “Yeah, but it’s been tarnished,’ and Cef said, ‘No, no, you’re not listening to me. It’s already been written. It can’t be tarnished because we are the legacy.’”
Leri was relieved and encouraged that another player—and a former roommate, no less—was so forcefully defining The Grand Experiment while unaware of the ongoing preparations in State College. “It was just confirmation that we were on the right track,” Leri says.
Leri and Porterfield have been friends since 1997 when Porterfield and Mark Shelow started a State College based company called Distance Learning Network and Leri assisted in the start up. The company was sold six years ago and Porterfield was doing creative video freelance – his first love. “Eric and I were working on a small film project called Journeys for the past 18 months for Innovation Park at Penn State. So we had a history of working together. Which means we trusted one another”, said Leri. Once the two were comfortable with the project treatment and a rough budget, the recruiting started. Leri ’79 shared the concept with Capretto ’68, then with another former player, Tom Donchez ’74. Leri explains, “Tom along with Ray Tesner ’74 were the two lettermen who founded the Penn State Football Lettermens’ Club 30 years ago. As soon as I talked to Tom, he talked to Ray. We were looking for a small group of clear thinkers who understood that ideas are easy, execution is king”. One more guy was needed and Leri recalled a discussion he had with Brad Scovill ’80 on the sidelines of the Nebraska game following the November 9th board actions. Scovill’s name was added to the document and plan without a discussion with him. When a copy of the treatment and plan was emailed to Scovill, his comment to Leri was, “I notice my name is already on the document”. And Leri replied, “Yep, is it spelled correctly”? The project set to launch, Leri was the only team member who knew the film making capability of Porterfield. The first sign of locker room trust emerged.
With the Project Team assembled , the planning began. Peter Thomas, one of the great legends of broadcast announcing, came on board as narrator. Interviews would be shot in five locations—State College, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York City—during a 12-day span. The goal – to present Joe with a video at a belated birthday party. The guys were using connections to monitor his treatment progress for cancer and would target a party date once they took to the streets to film. Initially, they hoped to fill 48 slots, but the number grew to nearly 70.
The Porterfield Group members, including Eric and his wife Sue, Rick Brandt, and Michelle Hagan, began organizing shoot logistics. Since the project was to be a surprise for Joe and his family, along with the Penn State Athletic Department’s limited ability to communicate due to legal restrictions (and the Football Lettermen’s Club is part of the Athletic Department), contact information of former players was unavailable for project use. The team resorted to phone and email networking to build a contact database to reach potential interviewees. As a courtesy, officers of the Football Lettermens’ Club were briefed on the project and they encouraged the TJWK Crew to continue the effort. The selection of potential interviewees and their contact information started the third week of December and continued through the Christmas holiday season. Donchez explains, “Once we knew our target guys, we lit up each guy’s personal network and got the information collection done quickly by phone and email. We had a good mix of age on our team, so guys knew guys from different decades. We each had assignments ….. and we simply got on it and got it done”. The logistical tasks ahead were daunting and every team member had a day job, except Donchez.
Needing more talent, Leri contacted another Letterman, Brian Hand ’79 and his wife, Nina in State College. Following a lunch meeting, including an explanation of the plan and description of the team, the Hands accepted a logistical assignment – and took an unsolicited check to Brad Scovill to help with the effort. Scovill, the CFO for Kish Bank in State College, was the designated “green eye shader” for the team. Hand did not know any project team members well except Leri, yet he was all in. Locker room trust was deployed again. Out of the gate, the guys had decided this was a project, not a business. No one cared whether the contributions were tax deductible. The project was a figurative gift for Joe, Sue, their family, along with other team mates and it was apparent that whatever was necessary to reach the goal would be done.
With a core team assembled, the draft “treatment” for the film was circulated by email to the members for input and revision. It was an explanation of the film’s intent and a brief description of the approach. The document left room to make adjustments as the project proceeded. Little did the team realize all that could happen would happen in the course of the next several weeks. Within a few rounds of email exchanges the document was set. (See the document.)
The treatment was soon packaged with an invitation for selected men to be interviewed at various sites throughout the Northeast. With little information to go by they picked guys’ names from the back of last year’s press guide. They selected men who wouldn’t have to fly in or drive too far to be interviewed. The selection process was about as random as it could get. One player found out about the project and flew north to interview in a twosome with one of his college teammates and best friend to this day. Another kept a corporate charter on the tarmac so he could participate. When thanked for participating he simply said, “Anything for Coach.”
The project was seed funded by the original team and a few other former teammates who were contacted individually. Quickly gathering $40,000 between their group and a few others, they launched with the hope that more men would contribute; if not, they were prepared to cover it. Professionals contributing to the effort worked over two months for free and others tossed in services at a deeply discounted rate. The passion and adrenaline of the effort was evident on all fronts. Concurrent to creating the project description, a project model was drafted on an office chalkboard (you can take the boys out of the locker room, but you can’t take the locker room out of the boys) and remains on the wall today as written in November of 2011. (The play worked just as it was drawn up. Yeah… right!)
Assembling almost 70 forty-minute interviews, in five different cities in the northeast part of the country in the winter within 12 days wasn’t aggressive – it was crazy! Once contacted, each invited player had 48 hours to sign up. Men were notified of the shoots in a rolling fashion. While shooting in State College on January 7th, men were being notified of the Pittsburgh shoot and so on. As each of the five locations was announced (State College 1.7, Pittsburgh 1.10, Baltimore 1.12, Philadelphia 1.17, New York City 1.19), they filled up fast. Guys who hesitated didn’t get a seat under the lights. With all the chaos circling the Program and the University, some guys wondered if the effort was legitimate and hesitated in responding – others quickly seized the opportunity. When Zach Mills couldn’t get a spot in Baltimore after a late call back, he jumped line on the Philadelphia shoot just so he could participate. (That’s creative play-calling!) Men were a bit puzzled at first: the University didn’t initiate the project, the Football Lettermen’s Club didn’t sponsor it, and the Football Program didn’t organize it. Right in the middle of the most turbulent time in the University’s history, it was just a small huddle of former players on a high road for The Grand Experiment. No statement to be made, no anger toward anyone, no underlying agenda, just some guys capturing teammates’ thoughts on the impact of The Grand Experiment in their life. Some admitted later they didn’t expect anything more than a guy with a camcorder and a handheld microphone at the shoot! In spite of that the men responded beautifully – locker room trust never leaves a true teammate. When the whistle blows, men move into action. Most were amazed at the professional film set when they arrived at their respective site.The scheduling and work ahead was daunting. More help was needed at each satellite location. A new ring of teammates was engaged: Chuck Fusina ’79 teamed up to help Bob Capretto to host the Pittsburgh shoot. Tom Donchez called Joe Carolozo ’73 in Baltimore and convinced him he had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make Coach’s all-star team. Joe’s response: “Tell me what to do.” Mike Cappelletti ‘77 answered the call to head up the Philly team. And no one would even get considered as host for New York except the real mayor of the City, Greg Murphy ’75. The deputized site hosts were given specific instructions (And “Murph” didn’t follow one of them – but he’s very kind to old ladies and good with babies – see the instructions) on site identification, technical specifications, amenities, and the requirement to get all of it for free or barter whatever trade bait they owned or could steal. Men with no experience in what’s needed to shoot high quality HD video were scouring their neighborhoods for eligible spaces like monkeys on cupcakes. In frantic cell calls with Michelle Hagan, the production team asset manager, they were site hopping for days working to land suitable locations. Each site needed a Green Room space for staging sign-ins, make-up, and food for the crew. Crew calls were at 6:30 a.m. and shooting went until early evening. The Philadelphia site became a special location. After several candidate locations were eliminated, Mike Cappelletti landed the prize. Rocco English had flown to Philly to ride with Mike for their State College interview slots. On the return ride to the Philly airport, they remembered Bud Meredith, Jr. was the Manager at the Crown Plaza in Malvern. Bud Jr. is the son of legendary sports ticket manager for Penn State, Bud Meredith, Sr. One call and the Crown Plaza was booked. The shoot in Philly was pure Blue & White magic.
As men were confirming their slots for the January 7th shoot in State College, Lydell Mitchell contacted Michelle Hagan to select a time. During the conversation, Lydell asked if he could bring another former player. Michelle informed Lydell all the slots were taken, however, she would check and see if it was possible to include another player. Hagan called Dan Leri to check on the request, who told her, “Great, who does he want to bring with him?” Hagan responded, “Let me check, I wrote his name down. It’s Lenny… a man named Lenny Moore. Is it okay?” Smiling at the fact Hagan didn’t seem to know the storied history of Lenny Moore’s college career and his Hall of Fame NFL career, he said, “Gee, Michelle. Let Lydell know we appreciate the effort. However, we are tight on time and don’t really have room to fit in another interview.” She agreed and was about to hang up when he stopped her. “Michelle!” he said. “You really don’t recognize the name Lenny Moore, do you? Tell Lydell we most certainly do have room for Lenny and would love to have him participate.” Laughing, she asked, “Is he someone important? You know, Dan, I don’t know much about football. But my husband does!” Leri responded, “It’s not about important. He is a gentle soul, no doubt with some fascinating stories about his amazing personal journey through life. Ask Lydell if there is anything we can do to help him join us.” Lenny worked to make arrangements for someone to stay with his ailing wife for the day so he could respond to the call to participate.
Midway through the Baltimore shoot on January 12th, Porterfield raised the idea of a premiere at The State Theatre in State College on February 18th. Calls were made to the Theatre between interviews to check on availability of the facility. By the end of the day, a premiere concept was hatched. It would include former players, coaches, and managers only on Saturday night, February 18th with two additional showings on Sunday, February 19th for the families of the former players, coaches, and managers who traveled to town. The team was confident they would get more than 500 men back for the event and fill the venue. Also, calls were made confidentially to check on the total number of old blue buses available for transportation – game day style.The fast response to participate became a hallmark of the project. Word spread among former players and guys called for slots. Men asked what else they could do to help. Site hosts took direction from Hagan and used their genuine hospitality to turn each day of shooting into a very special event. Since the final product was a surprise, the organizers worried about the word getting back to Coach and Sue. Men operated confidentially, all wanting to surprise Joe and Sue on February 18th at his belated birthday party. What started out as a video to be presented at a birthday party was growing in quality as each shoot was completed. “After the third interview at the first shoot in State College, the interview quality was so compelling, we decided every man’s interview would be archived in its entirety,” said Eric Porterfield, the producer. That meant another $4,000 – $5,000 in storage devices would need purchased. “It became obvious we were recording history during a very special time. This was not going to be your average birthday video for Uncle Joe,” he said.
The plan called for the men to gather at 5:00 p.m. at The Penn Stater Hotel at Penn State’s Innovation Park, load the trademark blue buses, and in route to The State Theatre, stop at Thon in the Bryce Jordan Center. Coach and Sue were such great supporters of Thon, the idea included having the 500-plus men make a walk-through showing on behalf of Coach since he was unable to visit due to his health. Before the end of the day in Baltimore, with calls between interviews, tentative plans for the premiere logistics were in place. And, yes, there were just enough of the blue buses remaining to hold the expected attendance.
Greg Murphy was the final interview in New York City late on January 19th. The film crew packed quickly and headed straight home to State College, commencing post-production work early the next morning. During the week, Mark Shelow, a friend of Mary Kay (Paterno) Hort, had placed several calls to her to initiate confidential contact with one of the family members to let them know of the surprise project and show date for Mom and Dad. It was imperative someone in the family know of the project so they could make sure the family members were available on February 18th. Mark had no success in contacting Mary Kay all week – uncharacteristic of Mary Kay’s normally prompt responses. Messages were left, yet no direct contact was made. As was discovered later, the family members were immersed in issues at the hospital where Coach was a patient. The date had to be set in order to provide ample time to invite the 1,000 members of the Football Lettermen’s Club to attend the event. With information on the status of Coach’s health, there was a rush to get the project finished and arrangements set. Yet, there was still no contact with an inside member of the family due to the quickly approaching end of life issues with Coach. Saturday, January 21, as the team was deep in post-production, they got word Coach’s health was failing. As several worked through the night, they received confirmation of Coach’s passing early morning on Sunday, January 22, 2012. That evening, “The Joe We Know” Team scheduled a conference call to discuss options. The mood was heavy as the sadness could be felt through the phone lines. Yet, by the end of the call, it was a consensus that Coach would say, “It’s not what happens to you, guys, it’s how you react”. So the team decided to “keep their feet moving, and drive to the February 18th showing”! The men believed it would be the first time Coach could look truly into the hearts of the many men he coached over six decades. So the men set out to finish what they started.
The coming week gave witness to nearly 1200 former players, coaches, and managers flying or driving to Happy Valley to pay their respects to the Paterno Family, be with old team mates, and simply say “thank you” to their football coach. It was the single, largest gathering of former players in the history of the Penn State Football Program. Following the current and former player viewing in the early morning of January 24th, nearly 900 men gathered in the Football Lettermen’s Club in Beaver Stadium for a buffet lunch. Men shook hands, hugged, laughed, and cried as Coach Paterno’s body lay in state in the Pasquerilla Spiritual Center. It had all the feel and emotion of an Italian funeral gathering. As the afternoon drew longer, it was obvious no one wanted to leave.
Assets were in play for the February 18th showing of the film. However, it was a very awkward time to try and explain the project to one of the Paterno family members. Word was quietly passed to Jay and Mary Kay the players had put together something for Coach that they would like to share with the family – and more information could be provided at a less trying time. It was decided the core project team of Donchez, Tesner, Capretto, Hand, and Scovill would work the crowd of the lunch informing former players of the upcoming February 18th event. It needed to be held in confidence since it would be another week or so until someone could inform one of the Paterno Family members of the surprise – and hope there was no major conflict for the family. It was becoming obvious that with the unprecedented number of players returning for the memorial services, it was unlikely so many men could return just three weeks later for the showing. The project team kept moving forward and hoped for the best. During, and in the wake of the emotional week, the crew continued post-production work on the film. Deciding after the first three interviews to keep all the footage, it took almost 9 days to simply download the two cameras to storage devices. Someone needed to be present to execute the download process. Very little editing, colorization, and other post-production functions could begin until the downloads were complete.
With less than three weeks to go, due to the intense focus on the film, a web site had yet to be conceptualized and built. A few folks who were aware of the project willingly donated their evenings, weekends, and often worked through the night to create a unique web experience. The vision was for a digital story-telling site. The site would need original content in combination with some archived, public photos. Both time and talent were scarce and there was no time to recruit and brief new team members. Those few who were in the know would have to grind out a site. A team of two very talented volunteers set to work to create the www.grandexperiment.org in time to launch with the Premiere. Christian Heilman, a sophomore majoring in Broadcast Journalism had been enticed into the project through a hometown connection with one of the former players involved in the project. He willingly accepted the task of creating the Lions’ Tales. To find help with his task, he texted with some fellow students he thought may be interested in helping with video editing. They met the next day, a Sunday morning, in a wing of the Paterno Library. Individuals’ interests were discussed, skills honestly assessed, assignments drawn, and the around the clock student video editing crew launched. Both the student editing team and the code and content team worked for the next several weeks, often through the night, to complete the site. The site was to include the story of the project, an inside feel of the Grand Experiment, shoot location photography and vignettes, and a suitcase of Lions’ Tales – short clips of player interviews. The launch and the site exceeded everyone’s expectations, most importantly, site visitors.
Between the time of the funeral and the first chance Jay and Mary Kay could talk to a few of the project organizers the following week, Sue had made a commitment for February 18, unaware of the film’s premiere for her and her family. So in conjunction with Mary Kay, the team again adjusted by making arrangements to surprise Sue on her birthday, February 14, Valentine’s Day, with a private screening of the film at a local electronic firm, Videon, owned by former Blue Band member, Todd Erdley. So, along with a 5lb heart shaped box of chocolate, Sue watched the film in a beautiful 8-person theatre with her daughter, Mary Kay Hort. Following the screening, knowing Sue would not be able to attend the premiere in person, Eric Porterfield and Rick Brandt had set up an interview room a short distance from the in-house theatre. When asked if she would like to share a few thoughts with “the boys”, she gladly said yes. Her thoughts were shared at the premiere and only the premiere as a coda to the film.
On February 18, 2012, “The Joe We Know” was premiered to approximately 650 former players, coaches, managers, and their families. The film was introduced by Tom Donchez, class of 1974. Following the film, Jay Paterno addressed the audience with a moving and sincere thank you to all the players and families in attendance on behalf of his family, his Mother, and his Dad.