An adage advises we never meet our heroes lest we discover they have feet of clay. We may end up disappointed or disillusioned if they don’t live up to who we thought they were—or perhaps who we’ve built them up to be.
Our culture has a fascination with athletes. We cheer them on, wear their jerseys, follow their stats, and get excited about getting pictures or autographs. If we get the opportunity to meet them in person there is, perhaps, a risk they might not meet the height of the pedestal on which we have placed them.
I have had some opportunities to test the theory and a couple of times I came away with something I did not expect.
I was 15 years old when my family attended a baseball game at Dodger Stadium. We arrived early and had time to wander around and watch the athletes go through their warm up. Groups of kids were clustered at field level to collect autographs from players. I was able to get a couple of signatures too, but the encounter that stands out was joining a group where no one was holding out baseballs to be signed. Instead the player simply talked. We listened.
He briefly but powerfully shared his battle with drugs and what they cost him as a man and an athlete. He told us to work hard in school and to stay clean. Tim Raines is in the baseball Hall of Fame earned through a career of hits, runs and stolen bases, but he was also a ballplayer who had a message for young fans who looked up to him. I was wanting a signature. He was seeking an opportunity to instruct.
Is anybody else counting down to the next Olympics? No? Okay, it’s just me then marking 166 days until the opening ceremony in Paris. As a fan of both summer and winter Games, I was thrilled there was an opportunity right here in Outlook to meet gold medal hockey players Colleen Sostorics and Sami Jo Small, as well as one of Canada’s greatest Olympians, speed skater Catriona Le May Doan.
I had a magazine with me featuring Catriona’s picture from the Olympics with the intent of getting her to sign it. I did indeed get her autograph, but also so much more. Her message covered not only athletics but dedication, perseverance, accountability and leadership. I was hoping for an autograph. She seized the opportunity to inspire.
Neither meeting disappointed. Not by a long shot. But maybe instead of cautioning against meeting our heroes, we should instead be examining who our heroes are in the first place.
On a radio show I heard a father declare with disgust, “some role model he turned out to be” upon news that the athlete he and his sons had cheered on to a championship had been arrested.
“Some role model he turned out to be”…the words of a frustrated father to be sure, but what are we looking at that we think would automatically qualify an athlete to be a role model? An ability to run, skate, throw strikes, drive a golfball, catch a pass or kick a ball has no bearing on character, integrity or the discernment an individual might display. So why would we look to them to be role models for our children, or for that matter, for us?
Many certainly accept it to be part of their responsibility. But to assume them to be role models when we know little about them apart from their athletic prowess is to set them up for possible failure and their fans for disillusionment.
Our role models should come from amongst the people who can make an impact on our lives day by day. I have had several different favourite athletes, but it was my dad who took the time to play catch in the backyard, coach my teams and teach me what mattered. In all the sports we watched together not once did he ever say I should choose one of the players and make them my role model.
If we want to find real heroes look no further than down the street or across our town. It is those who work in protective services keeping us safe. It is those in the helping professions providing us with care. It is those making decisions to strengthen our community. It is the coach who celebrates a display of sportsmanship. It is the instructor who builds up a child’s belief in their ability to succeed. It is the volunteer who makes events happen. It is the neighbour who attends games and recitals to show their interest in what young people are doing. It is each individual who puts others ahead of themselves.
Reimagining who are heroes are will open our eyes to the many who are all around us. The great thing is there’s little risk in meeting them because we already know who they are. Yes, fortunately they have feet of clay. It’s what ensures they remain on solid ground. That’s my outlook.