Now, prosecutors say that very success enabled Sandusky to find boys and sexually assault them.
Sandusky, 67, was charged last weekend with molesting eight boys over a 15-year period in a scandal that rocked the Penn State campus and brought down the university's beloved football coach, Joe Paterno.
In the aftermath, some are wondering if The Second Mile can survive amid questions about its role in the alleged cover-up.
Sandusky was a star assistant coach at Penn State from the 1970s to the 1990s, and many assumed he would lead the team one day, or even head to pro football. He founded The Second Mile in 1977 for youngsters from broken homes and troubled backgrounds, building it into an organization that helped as many as 100,000 children a year through camps and fundraisers.
Among the big-time athletic figures listed as honorary directors were Cal Ripken Jr., Arnold Palmer, former Pittsburgh Steeler Franco Harris and Philadelphia Eagles coach Andy Reid. President George W. Bush praised the group as a "shining example" of charity work in a 1990 letter. (Sandusky's reaction: "It's about time, George! This is long overdue," he recalled in his autobiography, "Touched.")
But prosecutors said that running the charity gave Sandusky "access to hundreds of boys, many of whom were vulnerable due to their social situations."
He invited youngsters for overnight sleepovers at his home and took them to restaurants and bowl games. He wrestled in the swimming pool with kids who craved the attention. And he gave them gifts: golf clubs, sneakers, dress clothes, a computer and money, according to the indictment from the Pennsylvania attorney general.
The good-guy aura around Sandusky was so great that when some children questioned behavior that didn't seem right, no one took the complaints seriously.
Troy Craig recalled attending a weeklong sleep-away camp run by The Second Mile on the Penn State campus in the early 1990s. He was never sexually abused, but in other ways the coach's behavior seemed inappropriate at the time, said Craig, 33, who is now a disc jockey in State College.
Sandusky "had a way of, whether it was a hug or a hand on the leg in the car as we were driving, or just a way of putting his arm around you," Craig said. "I said this back then to people I knew. Everybody found it hard to believe, or that I was overreacting. I remember feeling as if I was the only one that thought anything was amiss."
Through his attorney, Sandusky has maintained his innocence.
Experts on pedophiles aren't surprised by the stories that have shocked so many people.
Richard J. Gelles, dean of the school of Social Policy & Practice at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia and author of several books on abuse and violence in families, said pedophiles typically engage in a "grooming" process in which they select a potential victim and proceed to "break down the inhibitions and establish trust." Gelles said it is no accident so many people saw a "good" Jerry Sandusky.
Sandusky "covered himself by being so beloved that nobody would think he would do something as awful as this," Gelles said.
The mother of one alleged victim told the Centre Daily Times that that disconnect enraged her.
"I just lived with this for so long, and it killed me when people talked about him like he was a god, and I knew he was a monster," said the woman, whose name has not been released.
Thomas Day was 15 when he began a Second Mile fitness program in 1996. Scrawny and not doing that well in school, he was suddenly getting one-on-one encouragement from big college football players who helped run the program. Day met Sandusky only a few times but remembers him as a mythical figure around The Second Mile.
"I remember being kind of envious of kids who got to spend more time around him," said Day, who never witnessed any abuse.
Day said he has trouble sleeping this week because of the scandal.
"These guys took me in and made me in to the man I am today," Day said. He went on to work as a mentor with the program, served with the 101st Airborne Division in Iraq, and is working on his second master's degree at the University of Chicago.
Sandusky also had the support of many other powerful figures in the community. The group's current board includes state Sen. Jake Corman, and attorneys, prominent business leaders, and community volunteers. Corman didn't respond to a message seeking comment.
The grand jury said that Penn State officials in 2002 told Jack Raykovitz, executive director of The Second Mile, that there had been an issue with Sandusky and a minor. But the charity took no action against Sandusky because, it said this week, Penn State did not find any wrongdoing.
And in 1998, Sandusky was investigated after he was accused of "behaving in a sexually inappropriate manner" with a boy in a shower at the football team's facilities, the grand jury said. The report said an attorney for Second Mile who was also university counsel, Wendell Courtney, was aware of the allegations.
Phone calls seeking comment from Courtney on Saturday rang unanswered, and emails sent to him were returned as undeliverable.
The Second Mile said that Sandusky told the organization in 2008 he was being investigated, and that from then on the charity separated him from programs involving youths.
But the word about Sandusky may not have reached other youth programs he was involved with.
Sandusky held summer football camps - both at Penn State satellite campuses and at other Pennsylvania schools - for years after he was banned from taking youths onto the main campus by the school's athletics director and senior vice president. Both officials have now been charged with failing to tell police about a 2002 allegation that Sandusky had sexually assaulted a boy in the showers of the football building.
Sandusky held the football camps through his Sandusky Associates company from 2000 to 2008 at Penn State's Behrend satellite campus near Erie. There were never any complaints, according to a spokesman. Still, Behrend's athletics director said he wishes someone had told him about the 2002 allegation.
"You definitely would know that person doesn't belong here on the campus," Brian Streeter said. "It's a sick feeling even to think about it."
The very success of The Second Mile meant there was plenty of money for Sandusky to lavish on boys. A review of tax forms filed by The Second Mile shows that out of almost $3.3 million in revenue during the 2008-09 year, salaries, wages, and payments to directors totaled almost $1.4 million, along with $190,000 for "camp food" and $288,000 for "other expenses."
Sandusky is no longer on the payroll; his last payment was $57,000 in 2007-08, according to tax records. Over the years the payments to Sandusky totaled hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Records from The Second Mile show that the organization asks staff members and volunteers to sign a statement affirming they have never been suspected of child abuse. They must also submit a criminal background check. Officials from the Second Mile didn't respond to a question about whether any such checks were ever done on Sandusky.
The Second Mile said in a statement that it has done "everything in our power to cooperate with law-enforcement officials." But Pennsylvania Attorney General Linda Kelly said that during the grand jury investigation there was an "uncooperative atmosphere" from some officials at Penn State and The Second Mile. And Gov. Tom Corbett said he believes there will be an investigation into what Second Mile officials knew.
Deborah Small, an associate professor of marketing and psychology at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, said she doesn't think The Second Mile will survive the scandal.
"There's too much moral hypocrisy going on," she said. "No one's going to want to be associated with them."
Late last week, The Second Mile removed the list of honorary directors from its website.
Associated Press researcher Judith Ausuebel in New York and writer Michael Rubinkam in Allentown contributed to this report.