Hippo Manchester
November 3, 2005

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LONGSHOTS: Hero’s death lays to rest misuse of the word

By Dave Long

A few weeks ago I scolded sports reporters in general for applying the word “hero” to anyone or anything having to do with playing a game. With the passing of Rosa Parks last week it seems like a good time to discuss this topic a little more thoroughly.

Parks, as I hope you know, was a real American hero. If you don’t know the story you should be ashamed. What she did in Montgomery, Ala. 50 years ago next month was a simple act that showed how a seemingly ordinary, everyday run-of-the mill person can have an awesome impact on social change. Others had done the same thing before but they’re like Larry Doby.  He’s a guy whose contribution to ending baseball segregation is largely forgotten, despite entering the majors just a few months after Jackie Robinson. Yet Robinson stands out, probably because he was the right person at the right time.

I won’t retell the story of how Parks’ arrest in Alabama — which was still 15 years away from integrating the state university’s football team — brought Martin Luther King to the national stage and sparked the beginning of integration in American. She also was the right person at the right time. Her story, along with others from Iraq, New Orleans and Keene are why it bugs me when the word “hero” shows up in any sports story.

Now, maybe I’m just a grumpy old man. But words like great, superstar and dynasty are used these days without giving much thought to what their real meaning is and, in the process, diminish what they do mean. Since they are from sports it’s of little consequence really. But when “hero” is used by the redneck fans chronicled in the book Rammer Jammer, Yellow Hammer (which I just read) in talking about the legendary Bear Bryant — it sticks in my craw. Bryant was the coach during most of the 15 years Alabama football remained segregated, after Parks refused to move to the back of the bus.

But being the kind of guy I am, I have a solution. Here are some words (and examples) to substitute next time the urge strikes to use the lyrical “hometown hero” or to just call some player heroic or courageous.

Tough: A lot of athletes go into this category. Given what he endured during his bloody-sock run through the playoffs and World Series Curt Schilling comes to mind. So does flu stricken Michael Jordan torching Utah for 37 in the NBA finals even though he had to be carried off the court after doing it. Throw in Ali and Frazier refusing to give in to exhaustion in the Thrilla in Manila.

Inspiring: Most in the Nation will cite Schilling’s effort as the most inspirational performance they’ve seen. For others it’s Larry Bird emerging from the Boston Garden locker room to lead a frantic comeback after being knocked cold in a playoff game with Chuck (people) Person and the Pacers. For me Willis Reed limping into Madison Square for Game Seven in the 1970 Finals to bury LA by scoring New York’s first two baskets when he could barely walk still gives me goose bumps.

Rise to the occasion: Bird, Magic, David Ortiz, Pete Sampras, Derek Jeter — all have done it many times. But the best I’ve seen was Billie Jean King dusting Bobby Riggs in the Battle of the Sexes. In the largest spotlight tennis is ever likely to have she delivered for women everywhere fighting to gain equality in a society that always favored men.

Classy: Anika Sorenstam at the Colonial comes to mind. As does Chris Everett, Tim Duncan, Mariano Rivera and young Mr. Brady fits here too.

Great: Bill Russell. Hank Aaron. Steffi Graf. Jack Nicklaus. Barry Bonds. John Wooden. And lets not forget the aptly named Great One, Wayne Gretzky.

Admirable: Folks who use celebrity to give back to their community like the Manning brothers, Bob Tewksbury, Chris Carpenter and Ted Williams with the Jimmy Fund.

Selfless: Wellington Mara. He passed on the millions that TV rights would bring his New York Giants to share the pie with the entire NFL. That trait is probably why he drew a SRO crowd to his funeral last week at cavernous St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

Sports Hero: To name two — Moe Berg and Pat Tillman. The former was the Jewish, former Boston Braves catcher who was a spy behind German lines during WWII. The latter left a pro-sports life to fight in Afghanistan after 9-11, where he died in the line of duty.

And finally there is just hero, which brings me back to Rosa Parks. She is a women who has been my hero since the first time I heard the story of what happened on Dec. 1, 1955, because she stood up to injustice when it stared her in the face.

I only hope that if it ever happens to me I do the same.