HARRISBURG - It's never been easy for Mike McQueary to stay in the shadows.

With a 6-foot-4 frame capped by a beacon of neon-orange hair, the young coach always stood out like a lighthouse amid the consciously drab blue-and-white sea that is the Penn State football sideline.

Joe Paterno certainly never had any trouble finding him and his headphone-cupped ears on those football Saturdays that now seem so impossibly quaint and long-ago.

And on Friday, from the moment he walked into Courtroom 1 on the fifth floor of the Dauphin County Courthouse, McQueary again became the absolute focus, this time for a few hundred rapt media members and spectators.

More than a month after a child sex-abuse scandal crashed into his alma mater and employer like a meteor, McQueary, the 37-year-old assistant at the center of perhaps the most lurid of the many accusations against Jerry Sandusky, finally surfaced at a preliminary hearing for administrators Tim Curley and Gary Schultz.

His hair, in keeping with Penn State's accepted grooming customs, was perfectly combed, the sky-blue tie he wore over a white shirt well-knotted, his charcoal-gray suit crisply pressed.

That neat image, though, couldn't sanitize the grubby details contained in the self-assured answers he provided lawyers for the state and the defendants.

A year ago, of course, McQueary told a grand jury that late one night in 2002 he'd stumbled across Sandusky molesting a boy in a football-building shower.

Since then, he has been mostly silent, allowing for constant, often cruel second-guessing, much worse than the kind he experienced as a Nittany Lions quarterback in the mid-'90s.

That silence, almost certainly the result of legal advice, came naturally.

Like monks, the square-jawed McQueary and the rest of Paterno's assistants took a vow of silence. Except for rare occasions, they were not permitted to talk with reporters. Many, like McQueary, didn't mind. They felt comfortable in the legendary coach's vast shadow.

So he was as unprepared for the responses his initial testimony provoked as he was for the network cameras that camped outside his State College house and, nearby, his parents' home.

Instead of a whistle-blower, he became a whipping boy.

People infuriated by the crimes at the heart of this sordid affair derided him for what they perceived as unthinkable inaction. On Friday, when he was followed on the stand by his father, John, one Tweeter labeled the elder McQueary "the Coward's father."

For more than a month, critics wanted to know why the assistant coach hadn't stopped Sandusky that night. Why he didn't go to the police instead of Paterno. How he could have remained silent during the eight years that passed between his informing the old coach and his grand jury testimony.

On Friday, in nearly two hours of compelling testimony, during which the only sound was the soft clatter of reporters' fingers on phone and computer keyboards, he provided some answers at last.

He'd watched an unnamed football movie that Friday night in 2002, a night he had no way of knowing would take him from elation to revulsion in a flash.

When the film ended sometime after 9, he felt so inspired that he decided to make the eight-minute drive to the Lasch Center and get some work done.

One of those chores was depositing a new pair of sneakers - "tennis shoes," McQueary called them - in his locker. En route, he passed a shower room.

He heard two or three slaps of "flesh on flesh."

Then, through the reflection in a mirror, he saw a young boy pushed up against a shower wall and Sandusky, his arms around the boy's waist, pressed tightly against him.

"I didn't want to see any more," McQueary said.

But he looked twice more, at first confirming that what he'd hoped had been a terrible mirage was "a sexual act" and then, after Sandusky and the boy "looked directly into my eyes," seeing that their naked bodies had "separated."

No one spoke, McQueary said. Having witnessed such an unimaginable tableau involving a respected former coach, McQueary was dazed. He went back to his office and called his father. He then went to his parents' home, where it was decided he'd inform Paterno the next morning.

When he did, the old coach, McQueary said, slumped in his chair and told him "you've done absolutely the right thing."

Ten days later McQueary met with Curley, the athletic director, and Schultz, the athletic department administrator whose oversight included the campus police department.

What happened next, who told what to whom and when, will be sorted out in the legal proceedings that, unfortunately for Penn State and its supporters, will be scattered throughout the future like land mines.

And what about McQueary?

It's difficult to see him resurrecting what had been a promising coaching career, certainly not at Penn State.

It's difficult, really, to see him resuming a normal life.

But before we condemn him, we should try to imagine how we might have responded that terrible night.

He was 27 at the time, a bottom-of-the-totem pole grad assistant. Out of the blue, he was confronted by the unimaginable.

He didn't say so, but he probably wishes he'd acted differently.

Maybe he realizes he should have gone to the police. Or pulled the boy away from Sandusky.

But there's one thing that, after running a gauntlet of cameras and questioners on his way in and out of the riverside courthouse, he knows for sure.

There's no place to hide.

Contact staff writer Frank Fitzpatrick at 215-854-5068, ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com, or @philafitz on Twitter. Read his blog, "Giving 'Em Fitz," at www.philly.com/fitz