Tuesday, August 28, 2007

One Man's Heroes...

Hero worship, for the most part, is a male activity. Oh sure, there are little girls who cheer the exploits of the stars of women's basketball or soccer. In tennis [which is in the middle of a long drought of memorable male stars], the Williams sisters have their fans. But women who pick their favorites usually base their choices on a variety of factors that only begin on the field of play. Boys and men don't care about their stars' fashion sense, or favorite music, or anything that doesn't impact their skill during the game.
As I've gotten older, it's been harder to find sporting heroes. I think I've gotten cynical, more observant to those off-field peccadilloes that make it hard to admire a player. Then again, in this era of Too Much Information, the less-than-edifying habits of athletes are as easy to find as a well-worded Google search. (I've so far resisted the temptation of Googling my own name, but, knowing myself as well as I do, I cringe at the thought of what such a search would turn up.)
Further, as I've gotten older [I'm rapidly approaching my 50Th birthday], my definition of heroism has changed. Instead of sporting exploits, I'm finding myself admiring the skill of people who live their everyday lives in extraordinary ways. I've written about my father in this space (, and I find myself admiring his quiet skill at living with respect for his fellow human beings. As you look around yourself, there are probably people who've earned your honor and praise. But, from time to time, the heroes of your youth come back into your head with a vengeance.
Last Saturday. The Woman I Love and I found ourselves sitting in uncomfortable chairs along the corridor of a shopping mall. We were awaiting the arrival of Gilbert Perreault, Richard Martin, and Rene Robert. Together, they were the most dangerous scoring line in the history of the Buffalo Sabres hockey team. The line also had a memorable nickname: The French Connection [noting the fact that all three grew up in French Canada]. Long-time fans of the team will tell you that Buffalo clubs are usually more notable for their goaltenders than their forwards. That's because no line caught the public fancy [or performed so well] as the Connection. TWIL had bought me the opportunity to get their autographs as an early birthday gift. She'd also gone to the trouble of buying a poster-size photo of the three (not the image at the top of this post; I don't have a picture of it available. But you get the idea) for their signatures (Thank you very much, Darling).
We got to the signing area early enough to be near the front of the line. There were a few discussions of the Sabres' chances in the upcoming season. But most of the talk was about...autographs. You were expecting it to be about hockey memories. Well, I was. I really though that people at such an event would be remembering the great plays of the trio we were waiting on. But no, the chat was about this or that player, and how hard it was to get them to sign, how much they had paid to get an autograph, whether the items they had brought to sign would be valuable on eBay, that sort of thing. (Understand, I'm not an autograph collector, as such. I get the names of players I admired. So far, that's Perreault, Martin, Robert, and former Buffalo Bill Steve Tasker [someday, I may write a post as to why I wanted his autograph].)
The three arrived almost on time, and moved quickly to the signing table. They looked in great shape for guys in their late-50's. They were very polite [then again, they were picking up a nice pocketful of cash for their penmanship], posing for photos as they signed, joking with the fans as they added their signatures to this or that item [some people brought five or more bits of memorabilia to be signed].
When I reached the head of the line, I fished my poster out of its protective case, and placed it on the table. I made sure TWIL got a picture of me standing behind the players as they signed. I wanted to say something, let them know what their skills had meant to me; Hell, meant to the success [and survival] of an expansion team. But nothing worth saying was coming out. Finally, as they finished, I told them the truth: "When you're around your heroes, you don't know what to say. Thank you". I'm not sure how they felt about all that, but they did thank me for coming. All in all, it was a wonderful and slightly embarrassing situation (I don't like to be at a loss for words; given my job, it's not professional).
I've been wishing that I'd told my father (and mother) what they meant to me. Sure, I could [and did] tell him I loved him, but not that he was a hero of mine. I think we both would have been embarrassed by the sentiment. But sometimes, the embarrassing things need to be said. With this in mind, I'm hoping that you, during the next week after you read this, tell someone in your life the embarrassing truth, "You're my hero".
-Mike Riley