Joseph Vincent Paterno was born in Brooklyn, New York, on December 21, 1926, to Italian parents who pressed upon him early the importance of education. His father worked hard, and eventually obtained his law degree when he was forty years old, while at the same time supporting a family with his full time job. The drive and determination of his father rubbed off on Joe.
Growing up, Paterno spent most of his time either playing touch football or with his nose in a book. His parents encouraged friendly debates, and the family spent much of their dinner hours engrossed in heated discussions about one topic or another. According to Sports Illustrated, "At the dinner table we were allowed to talk about anything. And we did. You name it, we'd argue about it. Kids from the neighborhood would walk into our kitchen, unannounced, and sit in, just to listen."
Initially Paterno considered—like his father, whom he idolized—practicing law. But when he graduated from Brooklyn Prep High School and then spent a year in the military, his focus began to change. He ended up at Brown University on a football scholarship where he played quarterback. Though he was not an outstanding player, he was quick and very intelligent, able to outwit defenses and able to inspire his teammates to victory. In 1949 he led the Brown Bears to an 8-1 record.
After graduating from college, Paterno was offered a job as an assistant football coach at Pennsylvania State University. Although he was initially unsure if he should accept the position, he soon fell in love with the people of the community and stayed.