The Best Reasons for Keeping the Worst Name in America

A grave for the father of Gerry Sandusky

Recently, as I boarded a flight, a colleague playfully chirped at me, “How’s it going Lee Harvey Oswald?” He was commenting on the double-take and triple-check of my driver’s license by the TSA agent who couldn’t quite get over seeing the name Gerry Sandusky. Yes, it sounds exactly like the convicted former Penn State coach who committed heinous crimes. But, for those paying close attention, you’ll notice we spell our names differently.

Gerry with a G

The letter GI’m Gerry with a G. He’s Jerry with a J. We aren’t related.

Several hundred, if not thousands of people, have asked, suggested, even demanded that I change my name. Following the Penn State story, I sat down to do an interview with ESPN’s Rick Reilly. The first question he asked me was “Why wouldn’t you change your name?”

There are three reasons:

  1. My parents
  2. My children
  3. My legacy

In December of 1985, my mother passed away. In March of  2006, my Dad died. Both of their headstones read, “Sandusky.” They both left me with a very good name. I intend to do the same for my children—even though that won’t be easy for any of us.

When my son, Zack, was in high school, he attended a  football camp in Pennsylvania. Each of the players had his name written on a large, white strip of tape, adhered to the back of his tee-shirt. In a population of more than a thousand kids who didn’t know him, Zack had to listen to the heckles, the digs, the jokes and he had to absorb the stares that the name Sandusky now brings from people who don’t know us.

A Name Cuts Both Ways

That same name is also engraved on my father’s Super Bowl ring from when the Baltimore Colts defeated the Dallas Cowboys in Super Bowl five. And the Super Bowl ring I won as the voice of the Baltimore Ravens in 2012.

Super Bowl and ring

My daughter, Katy, during her senior year in college actually punched a guy in a bar who kept saying things like, “So how does your Dad like being in prison?” After a third warning, she slugged him.

Her grandfather would be proud. He wouldn’t have waited until the third comment.

My wife, after a business trip, came home exhausted and frustrated. She grew weary of the stares of disbelief and the follow-up explanations every time she introduced herself and said her last name.

I remember the day we got married, Lee Ann said to me, “I’m so proud to have this last name.”

The Easy Way Isn’t Always the Best Way

There is no doubt I could make life easier for all of us, in the short term, by changing our name. Dusank, Andky, Sky, Sand, Kay, Susand, or any other combination of letters found in Sandusky would certainly eliminate the stares from strangers, the wide-eyed shock of hotel clerks, and the flinch of surprise from store clerks when we hand them a credit card.

In the short-term.

The Long-Term Perspective

But in the long-term, each of us would know we had caved in to external pressure. We had failed to stand up to the legacy that made us proud of the Sandusky name in the first place. We would know we took the easy way out. And if we take the easy way out now, what will we do when life gets tough again?

John Sandusky in football uniform

My father and mother didn’t leave me a legacy of taking the easy way out.

My father didn’t take the easy way out by avoiding fighting in World War II as an 18-year-old. He landed on the shores of France.

He risked his life. And he did it with the name Sandusky on his dog tags. He wore that same name on his football uniform as a member of the Cleveland Browns, the only expansion team in NFL history to win a championship.

That same name was on the hospital bracelet he wore on his wrist on the day he died holding my hand.

I believe I will see my father and my mother again. What exactly do I say if I change my name? Sorry, things got a little tough what with social media and all. I folded. Hope you don’t mind.

Not a chance.

The Second Reason

The second reason for keeping the worst name in America is the lesson I want to leave with my kids. It has everything to do with the Penn State mess—even though we have nothing to do with it.

Do the Right Thing, Not What’s Right for the Moment

I truly believe the leaders at Penn State at every level, from football to the president’s office, thought they were doing the best thing for the University when they kept the atrocities of that assistant coach out of the public eye. In the short-term, they were keeping a potential scandal under wraps. They genuinely believed they were doing the best thing for the University. But they weren’t doing the best thing, period.

I want my children to know their name is stronger than the challenges of the short term and I want them to know doing the right thing, period is always more important than doing what’s right for the moment.

The Third Reason: The Lesson for All Leaders

There is a higher good we are all called to serve at different times in life. When the storm hits, when the unpredictable challenge presents itself you have the opportunity to be one of two things:

  1. A lighthouse that shows others the way in a storm
  2. An outhouse, the kind of person who is full of you know what and falls apart in the storm

It’s really that simple.

Whether you lead a family, a business, a community or any other group of people, here is the most important lesson I can share with you from my experience. Do you want to be a lighthouse or an outhouse?A lighthouse

Doing the easiest thing to do in the short-term, is almost never the best thing to do in the long-term.

In the long-run, you wind up paying a much higher price for giving into the temptation of what looks like the easiest option in the short-term.

If the leaders at Penn State had lived up to that lesson they could’ve saved several victims from living a nightmare. In the end, their school, their football program, and their legacy would look much different, and much better than it looks now.

One day, my name, like my parents will belong to the domain of legacy, to memories we hold on to and to principles that guide others.

I want my name to be just that. Mine.

I want Sandusky to be a name that stands for something instead of a name that ran from something.

I know that won’t be easy. But I suspect fighting in World War II wasn’t much fun either.


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