(AP, WJLA) - Decked out in Penn State hats and jackets, students and townspeople stood in a line more than a quarter-mile long Tuesday to pay their respects to Joe Paterno, the coach who for nearly a half century was the face of their university.
Mourners waited for hours along a main campus artery for the chance to file past Paterno's closed casket at the campus spiritual center during a public viewing session. Some departed crying. All were moved.
It was a somber pilgrimage for those paying their final respects. Current and past Penn State players came from across the country swarming the spiritual center on campus for one final goodbye to the man many refer to as a father.
"He was my hero. He was my hero. I had to come," said a sobbing Gloria Spicer, who was freshman in 1966 when Paterno started his first season as head coach at Penn State. The 85-year-old Paterno, the winningest coach in major college football history, died Sunday of lung cancer. He had been fired just days before learning of his diagnosis in November.
"He was a teacher to me," Spicer said. "He taught me to be a better person and a better teacher."
Members of the public were preceded by Paterno family members - the coach's son, Scott, was seen at the event as was Jay Paterno, who tried quietly to blend in among those gathering at his father's statue and savor the outpouring of emotion.
"I didn't want the wait to go by with so much stuff going on," Jay Paterno said. "A lot of the preparations and planning and things going on, you get lost. I wanted to feel the emotions, I wanted to see other people's emotions."
Despite the bitter end of his legendary career, family members say his final moments were anything but.
"His eyes would light up and he'd nod," Paterno said. "And when we were praying, you'd see him mouthing the words even though he had a ventilator."
The Penn State football team, both present and past, were there as well. Players wore dark suits and arrived in three blue Penn State buses, the same ones that once carried Paterno and the team to games at Beaver Stadium on fall Saturdays. Players took turns watching over the body of their beloved coach.
"I would go to see him after everything that had hapened and he would smile you know and make jokes and let me know that everything was going to be all right," said player Darryl Clark.
Among that group was Mike McQueary. As a graduate assistant to Paterno in 2002, he went to the coach saying he had witnessed former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky assaulting a boy in the shower at the Penn State football building. Paterno relayed that to his bosses - including the head of campus police - but university trustees felt he should have done more, and it played into their decision to oust the longtime coach on Nov. 9.
That came four days after Sandusky was arrested on multiple child sex-abuse counts.
Dressed in a blue coat and tie with a white shirt, the school colors, McQueary was among thousands of expected mourners at an event that was to stretch late into Tuesday night.
One current and one former team member will stand guard over the casket for the duration of the public viewing, athletic department spokesman Jeff Nelson said.
"Going in there, waiting two hours in line, it was worth every second of it," Penn State junior Rob Gressinger said. "It helps in the grieving process for everybody and I hope the rest of the people that are waiting in line longer than I did, get to experience the same thing."
Earlier Tuesday, a line of ex-players stretched around the corner and down the block. Among the mourners were former Penn State and Pittsburgh Steelers great Franco Harris. Others there included NFL receivers Deon Butler and Jordan Norwood, Norwood's father and Baylor assistant coach Brian Norwood and former quarterback Daryll Clark.
The event marked the first of three days of public mourning as the Penn State community in State College and beyond said goodbye to the man who led the Nittany Lions to 409 wins over 46 years and raised the national profile of the school.
There is another public viewing Wednesday at Pasquerilla Spiritual Center, and after that Paterno's family will hold a private funeral and procession through State College.
On Thursday, the school's basketball arena will be the site of a public service called "A Memorial for Joe." Tickets were quickly snapped up for the event, even though there was a two-per-person limit for those ordering.
Former players began arriving shortly after members of Paterno's last team filed in. Some players hugged, and new Penn State coach Bill O'Brien shook hands with others at the curb outside the center.
Penn State linebacker Khairi Fortt recalled his coach's lessons.
"He said the most important thing for us was to keep the Penn State tradition going," the sophomore from Stamford, Conn., said after leaving the viewing.
Scott Paterno has said that despite the turmoil surrounding his termination from the school, Joe Paterno remained peaceful and upbeat in his final days and still loved Penn State.
Bitterness over Paterno's dismissal has turned up in many forms, from online postings to a rewritten newspaper headline placed next to Paterno's statue at the football stadium blaming the trustees for his death. A headline that read "FIRED" was crossed out and made to read, "Killed by Trustees." Lanny Davis, lawyer for the school's board, said threats have been made against the trustees.
Scott Paterno, however, stressed his father did not die with a broken heart and did not harbor resentment toward Penn State.
"His legacy is still going to be filled with the great things that he did. Look at this place," 1969 Penn State graduate Tom Sherman said before tearing up. "It's like he's part of your life. I admire that guy so much."
A public memorial service is set for Thursday in the 16,000 seat Bryce Jordan Center on campus. So far his intended burial site has not been disclosed.