Two Kinds of Heroes

Written by Wes Walker on August 10, 2012

Raising kids — especially sons — has made me pay attention to heroes.

Of course, heroes can — and should — be found in all walks of life, but there is something remarkable about a champion. Just think of the Olympic excitement, and you can see what I mean.

People dedicate their lives to a singular goal, with zero guarantee of success. They face long hours of training, injuries, delayed gratification. Their diet, social life and entertainment all become secondary to the larger goal. Anything — even a good thing — that might interfere with performance is cast aside. These are thoroughly counter-cultural values; as precious as they are rare.

And then, every so often, an athlete demonstrates what it means to truly excel. He distinguishes himself above others in his sport, and becomes a champion. This excellence is worth celebrating and emulating. It is good for the young and impressionable to witness the results of hard work and patient practice.

But we must choose our heroes carefully.

Not long ago, an athlete so talented that he was known by his first name was claiming title after title. Nobody could touch him. I told my sons to watch that man. A man so young could not rise to that prominence without enormous determination, hard work, and practice. I encouraged my boys to admire him for those traits.

That quickly changed with the news of his wife smashing their SUV with a golf club. Although he remains an example to my sons, the reasons are very different.

I now point to another athlete, a goalie. A Stanley Cup Champion with a brimming trophy case and some NHL records to call his own. But that isn’t why I point to him.

Tim Thomas has announced that he’s going to step away from the game (and a heap of coin) for a year to “reconnect with (his) friends, family and faith”. That says a lot about a guy’s priorities. Besides that, he is non-compliant to Neo-Tolerance Orthodoxy: Tim publicly affirmed Chick-fil-A’s position on marriage. “I stand with Chick-fil-A.”

Oh, and one more thing. He refused a White House invitation to meet the President with his championship Bruins. His reasons, in his own words:

I believe the Federal government has grown out of control, threatening the Rights, Liberties, and Property of the People. This is being done at the Executive, Legislative, and Judicial level. This is in direct opposition to the Constitution and the Founding Fathers vision for the Federal government. Because I believe this, today I exercised my right as a Free Citizen, and did not visit the White House. This was not about politics or party, as in my opinion both parties are responsible for the situation we are in as a country. This was about a choice I had to make as an INDIVIDUAL. This is the only public statement I will be making on this topic.

I admire Tim Thomas for something beyond his athleticism. He has more than proven his hockey talent. What I admire are his off-ice qualities.

There tend to be two kinds of heroes in athletics. One will excel at their sport, only to shame themselves in their private lives. What good is it to be the best at your sport if you bite off an ear, get arrested for drunk driving, or face seventeen paternity suits? What good is a championship ring, Heisman Trophy, or Green Jacket if you are remembered for violence against women, a criminal record, or your routine trips to drug rehab? Only Charlie Sheen could call that “winning”.

I admire that other sort of hero. The kind that knows success in sport is not carte blanche to fail at life, the kind that goes home to his wife and kids. The kind that knows his principles and will hold to them, rather than cowering before popular opinion, or compromising for the powerful.

Can we really afford to lionize athletes who use pharmaceutical shortcuts? To elevate men whose wives wait at home while their husbands pay for the company of strangers?

When we set heroes before our kids, we are telling them about what we value in a person, and how we, the parents, define success. If we only measure a man by his stats, his prestige, and his bank account, should we be surprised if our kids judge themselves the same way?

When we dismiss celebrities’ failings as unimportant, should we be surprised if our kids do the same? Wouldn’t our kids rank fame, wealth and prestige above family or character? By showing what we were willing to ignore, we show what we consider important.

Let my kids admire a well-rounded champion; a man of substance, integrity and character. Why should they celebrate paper tigers?

Image courtesy of Vitaliy Saveliev / Виталий Савельев