Humanizing Heroes

How much do we "really" know Walter Payton as a person, away from the field? A lot less than you think.

Athletes have always been considered idols and role models by many fans.  They are worshipped when they make the big play for our teams, and derided when they don’t come through in crunch time.  We marveled at the high level of performance they work hard to achieve and we wished we looked like them physically:  bigger, stronger, and faster. 

However, we continue to fall into the trap of thinking that they are (and should be) perfect.  We don’t care what personal problems they have or issues they face when they are not on the playing field, as long as they win games.  To us, athletes can’t do no wrong, especially if they are our heroes or on our team. 

The recent news items of the late Chicago Bears Hall of Famer Walter Payton and the great marathon runner Frank Shorter has sent another salvo towards those who think there is no such thing as athletes being perfect to make up for our own shortfall of being perfect. 

When news spread last week that noted author Jeff Pearlman has written a biography of Walter Payton, some people cringed at what Pearlman would write about, given his reputation of uncovering stories that are unflattering or steeped in dark secrets.  It wasn’t a surprise that Payton’s post-football career wasn’t the best, but it was his private life that took people by surprise.  The reaction to it was no surprise:  anger. 

Frank Shorter used running to block out the pain of his abusive childhood. Only until now he has felt comfortable to talk about it.

While the Payton story garnered the nation’s attention, Frank Shorter‘s story is the most compelling.  Shorter opened up about his childhood and what drove him to be the best marathon runner in the world.  His childhood, in no good way of being politically correct, was a nightmare encased in hell.  His father, a well-respected and admired physician in the community by day, was a psychological and physical abuser at home behind closed doors. 

The concept that Shorter never talked about his childhood for so long and how he kept it to himself without disclosing it is amazing. 

Maybe it shouldn’t be amazing.  After all, they are people around us, athletes or not, that are carrying a past that drives us toward finding a way to exorcise the demons or fall into the same destructive cycle. 

The thing is, we think we know someone, but we really don’t know them

Payton, for all things considered, struggled with keeping the flawed part of his life private, for fear of embarrassment and being viewed differently.  Shorter internalized his pain and used running as a way to block the pain and the fear of his father. 

Being perfect is a difficult job.  It’s so difficult that it’s impossible to live this life perfectly.  Heroes and role models are no different from you and me:  simple people who can do extraordinary things and are imperfect at the same time. 

There is some truth to the famous line uttered by Charles Barkley about athletes being role models.  If we expect athletes to be “perfect” role models, then we are doing a disservice.  


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