My kids recently met Najee Richardson, a competitor from the TV show American Ninja Warrior, at a gym in Hamilton, and it struck me as ironic that with all the potential role models in the world—athletic, entertainment, or otherwise—they settled on a guy I’d never heard of until a couple of weeks before.
It also caused me to recall my own list of childhood heroes, which, as an adult, reads more like a rogues’ gallery. I was less enamored of entertainers, so the term “hero” might be stretching the truth, but many of the celebrity personalities who populated my younger days suffered dramatic falls from grace during my teen years—Pee-Wee Herman and the cast of Diff’rent Strokes immediately come to mind. More recently, Bill Cosby, a familiar face from Fat Albert, The Cosby Show, and Jell-O pudding commercials, infamously joined their ranks.
I enjoyed fictional heroes in comic books and movies, but as an early teen, baseball is where I looked for real-life examples, only to find my choices wanting. Dwight Gooden and Darryl Strawberry of the 1986 New York Mets dealt with drug and alcohol addictions, parade and autograph session no-shows, tax evasion, and more. In 1987, Mark McGwire thrilled the baseball world with home runs, but was later revealed as one of many cheaters in the major leagues. In defense of his unprecedented ability to hit home runs, McGwire refused to give due credit to modern chemistry, commenting, “I was given this gift by the man upstairs.” Since the gift in question apparently required frequent booster shots via hypoderrmic needles to the posterior, perhaps he was referring not to God, but rather fellow steroid user and Oakland Athletic, Jose Canseco.
My father watched silently as my heroes self-combusted. For him, Joe DiMaggio was a lifelong hero, but Dad never talked about the hitting streak or the World Series victories—those were a given, and there were plenty of other great baseball players. Instead, he’d speak admiringly of the way DiMaggio would always hide his cigarettes in public so that kids wouldn’t get the idea it was OK to smoke.
Joe D. had his shortcomings, like anyone, but one rarely heard about them. I sometimes wonder how “The Yankee Clipper” would have fared in the age of social media. It’s hard to become a hero, but even harder to stay one—John McCain, who’s probably one of a handful of people in the world who could legitimately lay claim to the title, based on his military service and conduct as a POW during the Vietnam War, was famously dismissed as “not a war hero” by none other than the current president of the United States.
The current president makes for a good segue into the way we all willingly overlook character flaws, minor or major, because it suits us to do so. Everyone wants someone to look up to—the problem is, when you look too closely, the flaws become impossible to miss. Everyone from Mother Theresa, to Nelson Mandela, to J.F.K. and F.D.R. have been justifiably criticized, and yet, the mythology of their personas persists. Albert Einstein conducted numerous affairs, neglected his children, and claimed, toward the end of his life, that he had “never belonged wholeheartedly to a country, a state, nor to a circle of friends, nor even to my own family.” The cost of greatness, perhaps?
After such disillusionment in my teens, I largely abandoned hero worship. I don’t idolize sports heroes, or entertainers, or even writers. I can admire the work, but the person behind the work is as likely to disappoint as to impress or inspire. I try to take most heroes as they’re given—artificial creations, carefully composed, but not able to withstand close scrutiny. It’s the difference between being a fan of someone’s work, and setting them up as larger-than-life.
Maybe it’s the larger-than-life part that ruins everything. Sometimes, the least known and least celebrated make for the best heroes—people like Lee Anne Walters and Marc Edwards, a mother and a professor who exposed the Flint lead situation at great personal risk and cost.
But larger than life? No, these days everyone’s just about my size. It’s a little sad, perhaps—the loss of that innocent world where the noble can do no wrong, where every grade school kid wants to be president. But when the president himself has as many skeletons in the closet as a haunted house, it’s perfectly understandable.
And yet, kids need heroes and role models—at least for a while. Maybe it’s just a necessary step along the path to realizing that no one’s perfect, that life is largely a matter of choices made, and that everyone makes good ones and bad ones. So to my kids, I say, for today—maybe just for one day, to paraphrase David Bowie—enjoy your heroes. And Najee, I won’t ask any questions… please don’t tell them any lies.
Peter Dabbene’s website is peterdabbene.com, and his previous Hamilton Post columns can be read at communitynews.org. His poem “F You” can be viewed at diodepoetry.com. His latest book, The End of Spamming the Spammers (with Dieter P. Bieny) is available on Amazon.