Sitting at his kitchen table in a wheelchair, a blanket rests in his lap. A broken pelvis has taken its toll, so have the constant radiation treatments for lung cancer.
In his first interview since being fired by Penn State two months ago, the winningest coach in Division I football told The Washington Post he's "shocked and saddened" by the scandal that enveloped the place where he spent more than six decades.
Yet the 85-year-old Paterno refused to bash the school or say a bad word about the man at the centre of the turmoil.
Instead, Paterno said he "didn't know which way to go" after an assistant coach came to him in 2002 saying he had seen retired defensive co-ordinator Jerry Sandusky sexually abusing a boy.
"I think we got to wait and see what happens," Paterno said in an interview posted Saturday on the newspaper's website. "The courts are taking care of it, the legal system is taking care of it."
Post reporter Sally Jenkins paints a portrait of a frail Paterno, hardly the robust character seen walking the sidelines for so many years.
"Speak up," Paterno's wife, Sue, sometimes says.
Paterno told the Post that assistant Mike McQueary "didn't want to get specific" about details in his allegation involving Sandusky, who McQueary said was showering with a boy in the Penn State football facility.
Paterno said he was hesitant to make follow-up calls because he didn't want to be seen as trying to exert influence either for or against Sandusky.
"I didn't know which way to go ... And rather than get in there and make a mistake," he told the Post before trailing off.
A day after he heard McQueary's allegation, Paterno reported it to his superiors. Paterno said he previously had "no inkling" Sandusky might be a child molester.
Sandusky was criminally charged on Nov. 5 and faces dozens of counts. Paterno was ousted four days later after 46 years as head coach.
"Right now I'm trying to figure out what I'm gonna do," Paterno said. "'Cause I don't want to sit around on my backside all day."
Paterno was diagnosed with lung cancer days after his dismissal. He was readmitted to the hospital Friday for observation for what his family called a minor complication from treatments. He has been undergoing chemotherapy and radiation.
His condition improved Saturday morning, and he remained in the hospital, the family said.
Paterno said he was initially reluctant to speak because "I wanted everybody to settle down," but the Post reported he was so eager to defend his record that he insisted on continuing the interview from his bedside Friday morning, though ill.
Paterno, who testified before a grand jury investigating Sandusky, is not a target of the criminal probe.
But his firing came as criticism mounted against Paterno and other Penn State leaders that the 2002 allegation should have been reported to authorities outside of Penn State.
"You would think I ran the show here," Paterno said.
The 67-year-old Sandusky is charged with sexually abusing 10 boys over a 15-year period. He maintains his innocence and remains out on US$250,000 bail while awaiting trial.
If Sandusky is guilty, "I'm sick about it," Paterno said.
Paterno said he wished he knew how the charges against Sandusky didn't come to light until years after the alleged assaults occurred. "I don't know the answer to that," he said. "It's hard."
Asked to respond to the Paterno interview, Sandusky lawyer Joe Amendola said in a statement to The Associated Press that the former Penn State assistant was "greatly dismayed by the knee-jerk reaction" of the Penn State Board of Trustees in firing Paterno.
"In the meantime, we'll continue to keep coach Paterno and (athletic director) Tim Curley in our thoughts and prayers for a speedy and full recovery from their illnesses and Jerry and I will continue our work in preparation for this trial."
In court testimony last month, McQueary said his account about the 2002 allegation to Paterno wasn't as detailed as what he relayed to Paterno's superiors out of respect for the older Paterno.
According to the Post, Paterno reiterated that McQueary was unclear with him about the nature of what he saw — and added that even if McQueary had been more graphic, he's not sure he would have understood it.
"You know, he didn't want to get specific," Paterno said. "And to be frank with you I don't know that it would have done any good, because I never heard of, of, rape and a man. So I just did what I thought was best. I talked to people that I thought would be, if there was a problem, that would be following up on it."
In recent weeks, Paterno's dismissal has come under question from many former players and alumni wondering about the motivations of trustees.
Others are roiled by a perceived lack of communication by trustees and President Rodney Erickson during a period when the school has promised to be more open and transparent. Many alumni who attended town hall meetings in Pittsburgh, suburban Philadelphia and New York this week questioned why Paterno, after 61 years of service to the school, wasn't afforded due process before his dismissal.
Paterno met his legal requirement to report suspected abuse, according to authorities.
But two days after Sandusky was charged, state police Commissioner Frank Noonan said Paterno and other school leaders had a "moral responsibility" to do more and report allegations to police.
With a media storm descending on the campus, Paterno announced his resignation the morning of Nov. 9. That day, he called the scandal "one of the great sorrows of my life. With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more."
The trustees fired him about 12 hours later. Paterno recounted that he was passed a note at the door of his home by an assistant athletic director with the name of trustees vice chairman John Surma and a phone number.
According to the Post, Surma told Paterno, "In the best interests of the university, you are terminated." Paterno hung up and repeated the words to his wife, who redialed the number.
"After 61 years he deserved better," Sue Paterno said. "He deserved better."
Paterno could not recall the last time he had seen or spoken to Sandusky. He declined to offer his opinion on the charges other than saying he would wait for the legal process to unfold.
Paterno reminded the Post he is not a victim.
"You know, I'm not as concerned about me," he said. "What's happened to me has been great. I got five great kids. Seventeen great grandchildren. I've had a wonderful experience here at Penn State. I don't want to walk away from this thing bitter. I want to be helpful."