Needing a Hero

“I need a hero …
and it’s gotta be soon,
and he’s gotta be larger than life”

Holding Out for a Hero (Bonnie Tyler, 1984)

There likely have been sadder weeks in sport, but I don’t recall one easily.

Joe Frazier died Monday and Joe Paterno was fired Wednesday. Losing those giants could cause even the most optimistic sports fan to go searching for heroes. Seems not many are around these days.

Let’s spend a few minutes reflecting about Smokin’ Joe first.

Each spring, I have the pleasure of teaching about the great Frazier-Ali rivalry in my sport history course. Their triology of battles between 1971 and 1975 personified the greatest era of American heavyweight prize fighting. I liked both men when they fought, but over time have come to admire Frazier more, both as a boxer and – especially – as a man.

Frazier whipped Ali in their storied matchup of 1971 when both men were undefeated. It was the closest they would ever come to meeting at their peaks (though in fairness to Ali he missed his prime after being stripped of the title in 1967). After Frazier lost a non-title rematch in 1974, the men staged one final epic encounter in Manila in 1975. Frazier’s corner (specifically the quiet and gentle Eddie Futch) threw in the towel after the 14th round, unwilling to risk Joe’s health for another round. Frazier was ready to keep fighting. Ali won the decision, but Frazier probably did the most damage in the fight – Frazier danced the night away after the fight; Ali went to the hospital.

We could debate their merits inside the ring all day, but outside the ring I think Joe was clearly the better person.

Ali, for all his fortitude in standing up for his religious beliefs and refusing induction into the military, was in many ways a fraud. He decried the racism in America, but was himself racist … aligning himself with the Nation of Islam and their radical notions of blue-eyed devils, spaceships, and other such vitriol. Ali espoused pious beliefs for the cameras, but cheated on his multiple wives by running around with women like a drunken sailor on shore leave. Ali spoke of respect for his race, but poked fun of the noble Frazier in the most vile terms … Gorilla, Uncle Tom, ugly … names that cut Frazier in ways that Ali’s lethal left jab never could. Nor was Ali alone. Bryant Gumbel, as pompous a personality as you’ll find in national sports coverage (then and now), penned an article asking if Joe was just “a white champion in a black man’s skin;” a hateful phrase Gumbel cavalierly and irresponsibly threw out against Frazier – who grew up dirt-poor in South Carolina and faced far greater hardships than Ali (son of a Louisville schoolteacher) or Gumbel (son of a New Orleans judge). Gumbel is still pulling his tired act, recently comparing NBA players (who earn on average more than $5 million annually) to slaves. I’d give a month’s paycheck to go back in time and have Joe dust off Gumbel with a left hook.

Frazier wasn’t glib, quick-tongued, funny, or silly like Ali. He was ferocious, fearless, and loyal (even giving the spendthrift Ali money at times). He was repaid with hate, jealously, and insults. He deserved better … he was the better man.

Rest in peace Smokin’ Joe … you were the bravest guy in the ring I ever saw or ever want to see.

Now to the even sadder case of Joe Paterno and the mess at Penn State.

The word so many national pundits use is “unspeakable” as they continually speak about the alleged crimes committed by Jerry Sandusky, Paterno’s longtime defensive coordinator.

Obviously, any empathy felt about Joe Paterno is not meant to diminish feelings of anguish, anger, and sympathy for the victims and their families. It’s not the same reaction and one should not exclude the other.

The victims are unknown to the general public. They have not been on our television screens, our computer monitors, or in our newspapers for the majority of our lives. Obviously, we felt like we knew Joe – coke bottle glasses, high-wader khakis, black shoes and white socks. My gosh, the last time Paterno was not on the Penn State coaching staff Harry Truman was President. So, yes I hurt for Joe Paterno, for myself because I’ll miss him greatly, for college football fans, for American sports fans who loved him. My sadness and hurt regarding Paterno does not diminish in the least what I feel for the victims. Nor should yours.

There’s simply no sense to be made of this case.

Why didn’t Mike McQueary, a twenty-eight year old 6’2 strapping former Nittany Lion player, stop Sandusky when he caught him harming a child in a deserted locker room shower? Why didn’t he call the police right then (and better yet, beat hell out of Sandusky while waiting on them to arrive)?

Why didn’t Paterno or his bosses – all the way up to PSU president Graham Spanier – inform the police and make sure Sandusky was put away? There’s no rational answer.

Until more information comes out, I refuse to believe Joe Paterno would sweep something like this under the rug to keep from tarnishing his image or that of his program. I refuse to believe it because Joe Paterno is a good man who did great work for his university for over sixty years.

Revisit that word “unspeakable.”

In my neigborhood growing up near Atlanta, there was a strange guy that was about seven or eight years older than the kids in my age group (we were about eight or nine). He had a reputation for approaching young boys and offering them free comic books or the like if they’d come to his house and play. We didn’t really understand what was going on with the guy, but our parents told us to stay away from him, and when he rode his bike up around our circle (cul-de-sac to you more affluent readers) once too often, my mother went and spoke to his parents. The second time he came back about five of us pelted him with rocks and ran. Looking back, there was nothing ever spoken about what this guy did … we were told he was weird, we were to avoid him and tell our parents if he came around, but otherwise his behavior was … unspoken.

Ivan Maisel of ESPN wrote the only piece that has made much sense at all to me in this Penn State story and he spent some time on that word – unspoken. He (presciently) remarked that while Paterno’s age never failed him in his coaching duties, it did off the field – tragically so – when he was faced with Sandusky’s actions. I can believe that behaviors, even crimes, like those Sandusky is accused of, were unspoken in Joe Paterno’s world … embarrassing matters to be handled quietly and privately.

Does that excuse McQueary, Paterno, Tim Curley (AD), Gary Shultz (VP), or Spanier? No. The university had to rid themselves of all those men (why McQueary is still on staff baffles me). The institution failed to protect children … and allowed Sandusky free reign around the football complex to continue his evil. That’s unforgivable.

In the weeks and months to come nobody will be surprised to find out more heartbreaking, unspeakable acts committed by Jerry Sandusky. It seems too convenient that he retired soon after one of the earliest complaints about him in 1998. The coverup at Penn State may be far worse and more devious than we know right now. It is altogether sickening.

Joe Paterno – a tremendously significant figure in American sport history – failed to do all the he could to stop a staff member from harming children in the most vile way.

That should sadden all of us on so many levels.

At the risk of overload, let me close with comment on heroes.

Those who look to the sports world for heroes are going to be disappointed (same goes for any public profession in America). Look in the mirror and make that person a hero to someone. You be the person that your child reveres. You be the person that is a good neighbor, a good friend, a trusted confidant, a fine spouse, a community leader, a loyal employee, or a kind boss. Don’t count on the quarterback, the coach, the baller, or the slugger.

Searching for a hero?

Look in the mirror and find one staring right back at you.

One thought on “Needing a Hero

  1. Fine post. I like to think that Bear Bryant (or insert the name of your own favorite old-time coach) would have stormed into that shower, old age be damned, and encouraged Mr. S. to pray that the police arrived swiftly.

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