George Washington Statueby Robert Gillis
Published in the Foxboro Reporter and The Boston City Paper, 6/2013

Last week, in light of the events in the Aaron Hernandez case, the New England Patriots organization announced that anyone who wanted to return their Hernandez jersey for another jersey would be welcome to do so. The reasoning is sound and it’s a nice thing for the organization to do. I applaud it.

And it got me thinking — as a culture we love wearing team jerseys with our favorite players on them — I have a few myself — And yet, isn’t it strange that we wear jerseys of these sports “role models” and “heroes,” and want to be just like them, then disassociate immediately when they do something unspeakably evil, or illegal, or immoral.

Tiger Woods, Lance Armstrong, Michael Vick, Roger Clemens, O.J. Simpson, Pete Rose: All extreme examples to be sure, but how quickly these “role models” and “heroes” let us down.

Sometimes these “heroes” do stupid things and make bad choices — that can happen to anyone. Some are just amazing on the field but treat their fans badly — that’s human nature. Some make deliberate bad choices knowing the decision could end their career and do it anyway. And a few, just a few, have resorted to horrific violence.

There was so much discussion ad nauseum this week on the sports channels about how these “role models” let us down.

And to be VERY clear, MANY athletes, including many on Boston / New England teams, are certainly role models off the field and good people making a difference.

But the designation of “role model” should not be automatic.  Athletes enjoy a special designation in our society, because once they make the team (any team) and start doing magic on the field, we immediately glorify them. We elevate them to godlike status and wear their names, buy their merchandise and want to be just like them. And if they win the championship, start sculpting that marble statue now.

They are all, for the most part, incredibly talented, good people with great gifts. And like I said, some ARE role models and a few can even be called heroes — (Tedy Brushci comes to mind as hero of mine). But they are human, and we as a culture ignore that simple fact and grant automatic sainthood upon them. And when one of them  screws up (or worse, commit acts or terrible violence), we shouldn’t just not wear their jersey — we need to take a look at how we choose our heroes.

I don’t look to say, a Red Sox player, and think, “That’s the man I want to be.”  MY role models and MY heroes are fire fighters. Police. Clergy. EMTs. And of course, anyone who puts others ahead of themselves. Many heroes and role models were revealed to us on April 15, 2013 at the Marathon Finish Line. Or after 9/11. There are so many people out there who save lives, who run INTO the fire and smoke, and show remarkable courage that would send most people running in the other direction.

I know a guy who is one of my heroes. Fire fighter, an EMT, great father, loving husband, awesome friend, and does a lot for his community. He talks about his work so casually but he puts his life in danger for others. I know a young woman on her THIRD tour in Afghanistan, serving the country. I could never do what she does. She is one of my role models, one of my heroes. I have several friends who are teachers — you are all role-models, all heroes to me. And to everyone in this town who for years has worked behind the scenes making a difference, you are my role models, my heroes.

You know who else is one of my heroes? A person with fibromyalgia, who still gets up every day, gets the kids off to school and goes to work — and is always so friendly and kind. The single parent who raises children in difficult circumstances. The person battling severe depression who still gets up and goes to work. The person who stands up for the bullied child. The people who does good things even when no one is watching. The people who do the right thing simply because it’s the right thing to do.

And when people really screw up, the one who takes responsibility and says, “I made a mistake but I will make this right, whatever it takes.” That’s a role model.

And I would be remiss, during this Independence Day, if I did not remind everyone that regardless of politics, that the REAL HEROES are every person who puts on a uniform and serves this nation in any branch of the service. THANK THEM. They are the ones keeping you safe.

My heroes are real heroes. My role models are people whose behavior I try to emulate. None of them are perfect, but they do the best they can and often rise above their limitations to show us all the right way to live.

Great athletes come and go. Some just do so well they’re in the hall of fame or remembered fondly. Some ARE role models.  But athletic prowess is not what makes a person a role model or hero — it’s how they live their lives and the example they set.  So many of these “heroes” are, yes, exceptionally gifted athletes, but ordinary people off the field.

This Independence Day, take a look around and notice who the real heroes and role models in your life are — chances are, none of their names are on the back of a sports shirt you are wearing. They’re the ordinary people who make a difference in ways big and small — and if you take a closer look, you’ll realize your heroes are a lot closer than you thought.

Happy Independence Day everyone — God bless this great nation and all of you. Be safe, enjoy the day … And chose your heroes wisely!

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