By Gray Bostick
Four basic letters; one simple word. But few terms in the English language carry more weight, designate a more hallowed and honored status.
And even fewer are more misused.
As we approach Veterans Day this Saturday it is shameful, at best, how society assigns its admiration and accolades to so-called sports “heroes” who claim to make a social statement by disrespecting the flag and anthem of our nation—the very flag that so many of our forefathers selflessly fought and died under, protecting the right of arrogant athletes to be so foolish as to consider themselves activists simply by kneeling during our national anthem—before playing a game, then returning to their multi-million dollar mansions in gated communities and enjoying their platinum card lifestyles.
Heroes? Ha. With the exception of the couple handfuls of today’s professional sports stars who actually put their money, time, and fame behind their political or social stances, the small group that looks beyond Twitter and ESPN soundbites to actually getting something done, as opposed to just making their opinions known, these guys are closer to zeros than heroes, a bunch of overly-entitled and self-important jerks who, at the end of the day, couldn’t care less about their fellow man. Or, even worse, given the prevalence of domestic abuse issues among pro athletes, women, in particular.
You want to talk about a sports hero? Forget these overblown dudes on your TV these days. Try to match Roberto Clemente, a Puerto Rican-born baseball star who, over the course of an 18-year career with the Pittsburgh Pirates, played in 15 All Star games, won 12 consecutive Gold Gloves, four National League batting titles, was the first player of Latin American or Caribbean descent to be named both a league Most Valuable Player and World Series MVP, was twice a World Series champion, and batted over .300 in 13 seasons while amassing over 3,000 hits. His off-season hobby: Doing charity work for the underprivileged and economically-distressed people in his beloved Latin America and Caribbean. Such was his commitment to his home region that he organized relief flights to Managua, Nicaragua, which had been heavily damaged by a massive earthquake in late 1973. Learning that his first three flights of relief supplies had been diverted by the corrupt Somoza regime ruling Nicaragua at the the time, Clemente chartered a DC-7 for a New Year’s Eve supply flight—which he decided to accompany himself to ensure it got to the people most in need. Sadly, the flight crashed soon after take-off, killing Clemente, at age 38, along with everyone else on-board.
How big a hero was Clemente? So great was his appreciation of his good fortune and concern for his fellow man that Pittsburgh Pirate catcher Manny Sanguillen, who considered Clemente a personal hero, chose not to attend a memorial service for the fallen star–the only Pirate to do so–opting instead to scuba-dive the spot of the crash in a futile effort to recover the body of his friend and teammate, which was never found. And Clemente’s on-field accomplishments were so outstanding that the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame held a special vote the following year and amended the five-year waiting rule specifically so that Clemente could be inducted immediately.
THAT, folks, is a sports hero.
But that’s irrelevant anyway, for, as Hemingway noted, “There are only three real sports: bullfighting, motor racing, and mountaineering; all the rest are mere games.” And if you want to see REAL heroes, look to the guys with the American Flag on their sleeves, the soldiers who have sworn to protect our way of life, even if it costs them theirs.
War is certainly not a game. And in my own life I’ve been fortunate to work with and know several veterans, men who amazed me with the depth of their sacrifice and commitment to American ideals, men who saw things that changed them forever, who lost dear friends right before their eyes, who even suffered severe injuries themselves, yet never allowed any of it to slow their pace, diminish their patriotism, nor weaken their resolve.
Those are heroes.
Men such as Roy Arant, and others like him, who piloted B-29 Super Fortresses off North Field on Tinian Island in the Pacific Theatre during World War II, making the 1,500 mile flight, the very outer range of their planes, to fire-bomb Japan, or mine the Shimonosaeki Straits—dodging Japanese fighter planes and both ground and naval-based anti-aircraft fire both going in and heading out, knowing that even the slightest problem, either mechanical or enemy-inflicted, would mean that they wouldn’t be able to make the long flight back to their small home island and would, at best, have to ditch at sea. And every morning they would arise and have breakfast with a mess hall full of other crews, knowing that, on average, two of those eleven-man crews would not return for another meal. Or home to loved ones. Then they’d get up the next day and do it again…day after day after day.
That’s a hero.
Or Clifton Bull, a veteran of the Korean War who would not speak of the horrors he saw, and which apparently far outweighed any pleasant memories he might have had of his military years. It was as if he simply decided that that part of his life would be forever blocked out. The mere mention of his war service would bring a change to him, a sudden doubling of his focus on the task at hand, almost certainly in an effort to keep his mind from revisiting the brutal days American soldiers endured in Korea, and the horrific things they saw and experienced. But they kept on going. No, he wouldn’t communicate about it, but his face and eyes spoke volumes about what he’d seen and lived thru.
That’s a hero.
Or maybe Arthur “Toot” Davis, who was drafted into the military and sent to Vietnam for his Senior Trip…and brought back chunks of shrapnel in his arm that you could still feel, and a crater in a thigh where shrapnel was field-dug from his leg, as souvenirs—shrapnel that hit him after passing thru the body of another soldier when a grenade, tossed from out of nowhere, exploded at chest level. And lived the nightmare of celebrating with a buddy who had completed his time “in country” and only needed to make it back to camp the next day to be helicoptered out and homeward-bound to loved ones, but instead see him killed by a single sniper shot to the head during a patrol break. Day after day, buddy after buddy a bloody casualty or fatality…then, with a prayer for him and his family, they’d move on.
That’s a hero.
For perhaps an even better view of a hero, just look at today’s service men and women, who are 100% totally volunteer. They sign up for whatever awaits. Whatever. And they do it for us, not themselves. Then we send them into harm’s way all around the globe, far too often for debatable or unfounded political reasons, or without the proper support or equipment, or even a clear-cut purpose or goal. And for that sacrifice what do they get in return? The possibility of suffering horrific injuries from Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) that leave them physically challenged for life, or emotionally damaged to the point of being unable to cope due to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and often unable to access the medical care and attention they so badly need that approximately 20 Vets commit suicide every day. And yet young people still sign up to defend the American way of life.
Those are heroes.
In fact, if you want to meet a real hero, just look to your neighbors and the people in your own life: the service or National Guard member guy or gal a few pews over at church, the individual driving a car with military insignia, the WW II vet drinking a lonely cup of coffee, the young person who aspires to military service—or someone like the stranger wearing a Vietnam Veteran cap I recently held a door for at Sprint who told me, in reply to my thanks for his service, “It was my honor to serve under OUR flag.”
Heroes are among us, folks, not on TV, and kneeling is for prayer.
And we’ve never needed it more.