Lydell Mitchell wasn't going to sign with Penn State in 1968.
"They weren't my first choice or my second choice," Mitchell said.
Then Joe Paterno made the trip from State College, Pa., to tiny Salem, New Jersey.
"Joe Paterno challenged me to attend Penn State," Mitchell said.
Mitchell said that changed his life.
One of the best players in Penn State history, the 61-year-old Mitchell is struggling to deal with the fallout from the scandal that has rocked his alma mater and cost Paterno his coaching job.
"It's like a blow to the stomach," Mitchell said Tuesday. "It knocks the wind out of you. It's just devastating to me and so many players who played for Joe and thousands of students."
Mitchell said he doesn't want to downplay the suffering of the victims of alleged sexual abuse by former Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky.
But Mitchell said he remains steadfast in his support for Paterno.
"I adore Joe Paterno," Mitchell said. "This man has more influence on my life than any male that I've ever come into contact with. This is just devastating to me to see what has happened to him and his family.
"I tell people that I don't want to make light of the victims. I know how important that is.
"But for a man like Joe Paterno to walk the sidelines for 60 years and have such a clean reputation and such a great legacy and have it all taken away in one swoop, it's just hard for me to accept that."
Mitchell teammed with former Rancocas Valley star Franco Harris to lead some of Paterno's better teams. Mitchell averaged 5.5 yards a carry as a sophomore for an 11-0 team in 1969. As a senior, he ran for 1,567 yards and scored 29 touchdowns -- a Division I record that stood for 17 years -- and was Most Outstanding Offensive Player in the Cotton Bowl as Penn State beat Texas to finish an 11-1 season.
Mitchell played nine years in the NFL. He was a three-time Pro Bowl player for the Baltimore Colts in the mid-1970s and finished his career with 6,534 rushing yards and 47 touchdowns.
Mitchell lives in Baltimore. He is partners with Harris in a business, Super Bakery, that produces healthy foods for schools and youth organizations.
Mitchell said he has stayed in contact with Paterno over the years and plans to visit the 84-year-old former coach next week.
"I don't know what I can say to him," Mitchell said. "I can't say, 'I know how you feel.' I can't say, 'How are you doing?' I know how he's doing. Not well.
"I just want to tell him that I'm praying for him and that I hoped that when this all is over that something good comes out of this for him and his family."
-- Phil Anastasia