Growing up my idols had always been professional athletes. These were the guys I wanted to be when I grew up. I wanted to be the best at my sport, travel around the country, and be looked up to by kids everywhere. I thought about how awesome it would be to walk to my car and have kids screaming my name and asking for my autograph. I considered how rewarding it would be to shake the kid’s hand, ask him his name, and write, “to Junior, keep chasing your dream, Trevor Marca.” I imagined the kid running to school the next day to show it off. That to me was my vision of a hero.
However, I grew up and the naïveté of my youth sadly faded away. I learned the true reality of the professional athlete. That they are just regular people who have a gift that society holds much more prestigious than it warrants. That of course is the nice way of putting it. To tell it like it is, most athletes are overpaid crybabies who have had it easy because they have been given preferential treatment throughout life. They couldn’t care less about their fans or their obligation to children to conduct themselves in a respectable way.
Still, I hated to stereotype an entire group of people the same way. I began to look through the ranks of professional athletes and try to pick out the ones who seemed to be the exception to the typical athlete. Years ago I thought I found my hero. Kobe Bryant was a well-spoken, educated, likable guy that appeared to hold himself to a higher standard. I began to read a lot about him and felt the two of us shared the same ideals. He was well liked by his teachers in high school. They all said it was obvious Kobe would go on to bigger and better things in his life, but you would never know by his attitude and behavior because he never treated anyone like he was above them. Kobe did well in school and chose to go to the NBA straight out of high school because he was just that good, not because he didn’t have any other options. In fact, he could have gotten into top universities, such as Duke, on his academic achievements alone.
I then read that Kobe took singer Brandy to his prom. This impressed me because at the time Kobe was just a high school basketball player, far from being rich or famous. By asking a celebrity like Brandy, he showed that he exuded confidence in himself. Brandy said she had a great time that night with Kobe, and he was the perfect gentleman. What a great guy, intelligent, confident, polite, respectful. Then I read about how hard he worked out. Every coach he ever had said Kobe was the first in the gym and the last one out. They said his work ethic was second to none. This weighed in big with me because I’ve always thought of myself in those same terms.
I thought I had found my icon, then in the summer of 2003 I heard on the radio that Kobe had been arrested for rape. I refused to accept it and stood by my hero. Two days later he came forward and admitted to adultery. I quickly shut off my radio in shame; I had been let down again. In the end, the case was dismissed, so the general public will never know what really happened in that room, but we do know something went on that shouldn’t have.
With Kobe letting me down, I vowed to never let myself get behind another athlete again. However, the allure was hard to withstand. I witnessed some amazing athletes who presented themselves with such dignity on and off the field. The temptation to adopt another hero proved too strong.
The athlete that sent me over the top was baseball great Rafael Palmeiro. I had followed Palmeiro’s career for a long time and grew to respect his consistent greatness that went so unnoticed throughout the media. This was a man whose statistics could be compared to the greatest of all time, yet received no acknowledgement for his achievements. Yet, you would never hear Palmeiro complain. He knew his job was on the field, helping his team win ball games. Whether or not anyone bothered to take notice of his feats was not his concern. When a reporter would get around to interviewing him, Palmeiro always answered modestly and gave a tip of the cap to whichever Hall of Fame player the reporter would try to compare him to. In his 19 years as a big league player, he was not involved in a single incident that disgraced his name in any way.
Then today I found out he failed a drug test and has been suspended for 10 games. My heart dropped to the floor. I was crushed. The last bastion of hope that remained in me had been found guilty of one of the most despicable crimes in sports. Rafael Palmeiro destroyed the last fragment of the child-like sports fan that persisted in me.
People may refute my take on this subject in a few different ways. They may say that nobody is perfect and as a mature adult, I should be the bigger man and learn to forgive. True, nobody is perfect; that is why I always stayed by his side through his good times and bad as a player. I once traveled across the country to Boston and watched him play in a game at the legendary Fenway Park. He went hitless in that game. Still, my admiration for him never faltered. I understood he is just a man and is prone to having bad games. However, when he stands in front of a Congressional hearing, puts one hand on the bible and the other in the air, and gives a sworn testimony that he has never taken drugs, only to fail a drug test less than a year later that is both inexcusable and unforgivable. That is behavior unbecoming of a hero.
Secondly, some may say that he never asked to be my hero, so he shouldn’t have to bear the burden of living up to my expectations. I find this to be false on many levels. When one perform on a stage as large as Major League Baseball and is seen by millions of people world wide, he holds a responsibility for setting a good example. He has made 10s of millions of dollars throughout his career and part of the deal should be to represent himself properly. When he signed a major league contract to make the big bucks and play in front of the world, he signed an unwritten agreement to be a role model, like it or not. Unfortunately, professional athletes just can’t live up to this.
Being a high school coach, I would love to be able to use a professional athlete as a positive example to my team. Be like Kobe. Work your hardest, and you’ll be the best. Be like Raffy. Be consistent; be a team player; be modest, and your rewards will surely come. Now, I can no longer look to professional athletes for this type of inspiration.
All that being said, there are surely some athletes out there that possess the right morals, work ethic, and attitude, but I am done searching them out. I refuse to be let down again. I will let the professionals go on with their lives, and I will go on with mine. From now on, when I need someone to look up to, I’ll look closer to home. I’ll choose someone I know, someone I respect, someone who has proven themselves to me time and again. It’s time to shape our lives through those we are closest to, not some public relations myth created by the media that we see on tv or read about in the newspapers. It’s time to appreciate those who have done the most for us, those who have been with us through our highs and lows. They are the ones who set the example. They are the ones to emulate. Leave the professional athletes to do the one thing they know how to do, play sports.
I will always remember August 1, 2005, the day Rafael Palmeiro failed that drug test, as the day the hero died.