Sports Heroes and Role Models

I had heroes as I grew up. Some were sports “heroes”; even if in “modern” times, the term “hero” for a sports figure is commonly rejected as an inappropriate moniker for a person who makes a living by playing a sport. I disagree.

They are people who give inspiration — the good ones — and serve as examples to aspiring youngsters. That is heroic energy. The hard work and dedication shown by sports heroes, indeed, can inspire youngsters to apply the same principles to any other discipline.

I had several heroes at an early age, sports heroes and a writing hero. The Detroit Tigers’ Al Kaline was my first sports hero. And Walter Farley, who wrote about racehorses, was my writing hero. Golfer Arnold Palmer soon followed, as I joined his army. These were men who modeled true character with career success.

Al Kaline played his entire, successful baseball career with Detroit, and was an exemplary fellow on and off the playing field. Much praised, he finally had his true moment in the spotlight when he helped the Tigers win the 1968 World Series against the previously unstoppable St. Louis Cardinals.

Walter Farley titillated and thrilled me with his stories of Alex Ramsey and The Black, a young boy and his great black stallion. Farley’s “The Black Stallion” also earned accolades years later in movie form.

Growing up between two brothers, I quickly took up the challenge of sports, in particular, baseball and basketball. As a farm girl, I naturally had a healthy respect for animals. Although we never had a horse on the farm, the horse, of course, was the natural for a young girl to fantasize over and to write about, even before I realized that some writers, like Farley, actually got to do that for a living!

Writing was my first love, and I quickly found writing heroes. Farley came first. I scoured the school library for every one of his books, and they all are on my personal home shelves to this day. Much later in my life, I found Dick Francis, Britain’s champion jockey turned mystery writer. His moral characters always fought the Good Fight against Evil, and they always did it with a horse racing — usually steeplechasing — backdrop. All of his books, and those co-authored with his son, are in my collection.

My “live” horse hero was Native Dancer, the white fellow on our black and white television who chased the black competitors across American flat tracks. Hmmm…

Mark Twain, or Sam Clemens, as he was born, became my ultimate writing hero. Everyone knows his “twin” mischievous protagonists, Tom Sawyer, and Huckleberry Finn. Twain told societal truths with lovable rascals and with the sharpest humor ever recorded from pen to paper. Society and its ills, particularly racism, were his underlying messages in his characters’ adventures. “What about it?” was his challenge to readers.

I also admired Twain for his courage and his family values. His wife provided him with a writing gazebo, a place on their property where he could go to work and write on his own. And he wasn’t afraid to sit on city councils and make suggestions to improve society’s worth.

Twain wasn’t personally popular because of his willingness to serve, or to write from a different point of view — as in his “Letters from the Earth”, which actually was published after his death by permission of his wife through a trustee arrangement.

The truth and vision of Twain’s work, however, earned him the title of “America’s greatest humorist” — a pointed, challenging humor — and I believe he remains that to this day.

My family hero, my own Father, didn’t read much, but he believed a sense of humor was the most important sword against the darkest situations in life. And so, my reading Twain was a gift from not only the author, but from my Father, as well.

My sports heroes evolved over the years. After Al Kaline — even before he retired in the early ’70s — Muhammed Ali — then Cassius Clay — captured my attention. Here was another example of incomparable talent and mental conviction. He was the first man to win the heavyweight boxing title three times over.

Ali’s triumphs were followed by tests to his faith and imprisonment for refusing to answer the call to the government’s military draft. He persevered for three years, returned to boxing, suffered a broken jaw, returned again. In his second trip to the title, he vanquished all those who had defeated him, and when he knocked out the giant George Foreman, his place in ring history was solidified. In his “old age”, he lost the title, but won it back — the third time — by beating the same man who had taken it from him, Leon Spinks.

For the rest of his life, Ali battled a form of Parkinson’s Disease, but remained beloved throughout the world.

LeBron James is my current sports hero. He’s handled every criticism from the time he finished high school to enter the NBA, and from Cleveland to Miami and back again. He never hung with barflys and troublesome individuals, never lashed back at the awful treatment he received when he first left Cleveland as a free agent, never deserted his family, his hometown of Akron, his friends. He married the mother of his children; shares his wealth by giving back to Akron and Cleveland; helps kids become motivated to stay in school and graduate. What’s not to admire?

Do we need heroes? Perhaps not. I just happen to believe they’re inevitable if one has a drive for success in whatever endeavor. When individuals inspire and motivate others around them to aspire and achieve, those individuals are, forever, heroes.

When I look at my heroes — and there are others than those named, here — I realize they all fostered me, for all their positive characteristics and inspirations were first exposed to me by my own Father. Mental toughness. Bodily strength. Morality. Humor. Faith. Caring and sharing. As the head of a household of eight children, my Father never wavered in his beliefs in these characteristics and in his willingness to fully lead and participate in his family’s life.

Applause for heroes!

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Header Photo is a partial image from the cover of the book “The Heart of A Champion — Celebrating the Spirit and Character of Great American Sports Heroes”, 2002, by Frank DeFord, Tehabi Books, San Diego, California, (from the blog author’s personal copy of the book.)

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