Tell me: What makes a hero anyway?

  • Wednesday, September 5, 2012

In my eighth grade technology class, a friend gave me a Livestrong bracelet. Like most of my classmates, we didn't really understand the gravity of the cause it supported. Frankly, it was a cool thing to wear around your wrist.
Lance Armstrong seemed invincible, beating cancer and continually beating a field of the world's best cyclists in the Tour de France. The recent lifetime ban and removal of his seven titles doesn't change the fact that the Lance Armstrong Foundation has raised nearly half-a-billion dollars for cancer research and support.
But, it does change his public perception, and what's most crippling is the children he let down. Surprisingly, he gave up fighting allegations he took performance-enhancing substances, subsequently accepting the harsh levies against him. Forfeit was something no one thought was in Armstrong's vocabulary.
The most recent athlete-to-idolizer letdown is just another episode in this culture's depressing show stuck on reruns. The television show was once riveting, and we hung on every success and failure. Now it's just mundane, and we've come to expect this kind of behavior.
This doesn't mean the idea of children having role models is extinct. It just means we should be careful who we put all our trust in. We should be paying more attention to the people who say, 'Don't talk to strangers.' Lance Armstrong is a stranger to me. Was it smart or dangerous to consider him one of my childhood heroes?
When athletes feel tangible to the public, it's a sign of good sports media. That's what I strive to do. But, in that realization, we forget that athletes are just people too. We stop at the quote reminding us of something a crazy uncle would say, yet we hold them to higher standards than that crazy uncle.
Uncle Jerry got drunk this weekend? Ha, that's funny.
That famous athlete got drunk this weekend? How irresponsible.
Some drive nicer cars and some can't go to Dairy Queen without getting asked for autographs, but they're just people. And if I want to put my faith in an ordinary person, I have better candidates for my heroes.
Because Armstrong made cancer a fight involving more than himself, those Tour de France victories belonged to us too.
It's easier to vilify Barry Bonds, the cocky baseball player whose alleged steroid use was much more noticeable than the lean Lance who underwent chemotherapy for testicular cancer. But, in the cutthroat world of sports, he's a cheater too.
Growing up a basketball fan in North Carolina, it was easy to label Michael Jordan as a personal hero, although I'm not sure which I was a fan of first: Jordan or basketball. His Airness was probably the reason I came to love the game in the first place. So many kids are like that: the athlete, not the game, draws them in.
Pair Tiger Woods in that equation. Both superstar's public lives came under scrutiny for marriage infidelity. When those heroes fail the kids that look up to them, they risk damaging the entire sport. But that's not their fault. When professional athletes are given multi-million dollar contracts and even bigger endorsement deals, the sport isn't purely a game anymore.
More than a decade ago, I was in a grocery store checkout line. I remember seeing tabloid magazines blasting Jordan for cheating on his wife. His alleged mistress was on all the covers offering statements that didn't match up with the Space Jam star - playing himself - that I felt like I knew.
Every kid wanted to wear a No. 23 jersey. I grew up in the same town as he did and frequently drove by his old house. Several times practicing in my driveway, I tried to force myself to dribble with my tongue sticking out the side of my mouth. He's the reason why I hung up a miniature basketball goal on my bedroom door to practice slam dunks for when I thought I could also sign endorsement deals. I wanted to be the next great to come out of Wilmington.
When you're younger, first days of school are all the same. You answer a few generic questions about yourself in front of the entire class, and one of them most always is: 'Who is your hero?' You're supposed to call out a celebrity that has accomplished the very aspirations you currently have. But, that shouldn't be. Blinded by my obsession for a third-party hero, I put all my faith in a stranger - a man who betrayed the trust of his own wife and a man who was rumored to be having gambling problems. One of my heroes was in that grocery store checkout line that day, but not on a magazine cover. The person who tolerated my bedroom basketball games, which resulted in more than a few broken vases and lamps, was right next to me.
The person who drove me to practices and games, making sure that I was as early as I wanted to be, was right next to me. The person who always had dinner ready when I came inside after hours of playing in the driveway was right next to me.
I missed the realization of it then, but I don't now: my mother is one of my heroes. The other is my father, who still gripes about missing a game or two of mine when he had pneumonia. He knows the exact number of games he missed; I don't, which is telling of his commitment. Of the half dozen kids I grew up playing sports with, my dad easily won the parent's attendance award. I don't care how many games he missed, although I'm sure I could count them on one hand, because he was always there.
As you grow up, you go through phases of wanting to be with your parents all the time, then being too cool to have them pick you up in front of school, and then you come back to wanting to be with them. As they made my aspirations their own, bouncing from gym to gym, they've now become the next extension of the Moultrie News coverage area 180 miles away.
They won't let me down.

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