Penn State football coach Joe Paterno laughs during a news...

Penn State football coach Joe Paterno laughs during a news conference before the Blue and White spring college football scrimmage. (April 25, 2009) Credit: AP

FOXBORO, Mass. -- The tweets came in steady succession, expressing shock and sadness over the loss of a legend.

Despite his ailing health, word of Joe Paterno's death stunned the football world Sunday, prompting NFL players to rush to Twitter to express their grief.

"Thank You Joe 4 taking a chance on me & helping to make me into the man I am today," wrote Jets linebacker Aaron Maybin, who played for Paterno at Penn State. "i will never forget the lessons i learned from u #WeAre"

Giants defensive tackle Jimmy Kennedy, also a former Nittany Lion, tweeted: "My heart is truly hurting! The #PSUFAMILY lost a Great Man today. It was a honor to learn from JOE PATERNO.

"He helped a Thug from NYC turn into a Man! My prayers go out to his Family. My Heart will beat LOUDER everytime I hear or say WE ARE PENN STATE!!!! I LOVE YOU COACH PATERNO & YOU WILL BE MISSED! #RIP JOEPA :-( "

Paterno, the face of Penn State football and the winningest coach in major college football history, was fired in November amid the Jerry Sandusky sex scandal that rocked the idyllic "Happy Valley" community. Shortly thereafter, his son Scott revealed his father had lung cancer.

Paterno had been hospitalized since Jan. 13.

Patriots offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien, who was tapped as his successor, issued a brief statement through the university in which he called Paterno "a great man, husband, father and someone who is more than just a coach."

"First, on behalf of Penn State Football, we offer our sincerest condolences to the Paterno family for their loss," O'Brien said. "We also offer our condolences to the Penn State community and, in particular, to those who wore the Penn State colors, our Nittany Lion football players and alumni. Today they lost a great man, coach, mentor and, in many cases, a father figure, and we extend our deepest sympathies.

" . . . There are no words to express my respect for him as a man and as a coach. To be following in his footsteps at Penn State is an honor. Our families, our football program, our university and all of college football have suffered a great loss, and we will be eternally grateful for Coach Paterno's immeasurable contributions."

Paterno's presence stretched throughout college football. Patriots linebacker Niko Koutouvides, who played for Big Ten rival Purdue, expressed disbelief over Paterno's passing.

"I mean, it's just sad," he said in the midst of a celebratory postgame locker room after the Patriots' win over the Ravens. "Any time you lose someone who's done so much for the game of football, it's just a sad day. And my prayers and thoughts go out to him and his family."

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