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Thursday, December 31, 2009

Chapter 5. A Hero Ain't Nothin' But a Sandwich

by Bob Andelman

"During the late 1940s and early '50s, I peddled my bicycle 20 miles in each direction two or three times a week to watch the Los Angeles Rams practice in training camp. I was able to meet a lot of players. I wasn't an autograph seeker, though. I just liked to watch them practice, hear the grunts and groans, the hits. I'd try to do what they did. I grew up without a father around (his father died in World War II) so I had to pick that up alone and be successful at it."
Jim Runels
Retired management executive
Yorba Linda, California

As boys, we're drawn to athletes who embody all we strive to be: cunning, fast, aggressive, agile, handsome, witty, attractive to women. Guys like Johnny Unitas, Mean Joe Greene, Joe Namath, O.J. Simpson and Dan Marino never age in the eyes of idolizing youngsters. The image of the stars as hearty, full-of-life players cements in the eyes of young men, no matter how many hairs on Namath's head turn grey.

It's a different experience for grown men. Our boyhood heroes retire and fade from the game before we reach our assigned cubicles in the work place and we don't become as attached to their replacements.

Even worse, one day we wake up and they're all younger than us.

And thanks to free agency, the guy we rooted for last year joins our arch-rival for the coming season. Or our quarterback becomes more interested in chasing big bucks in greener pastures and endorsing roll-on, non-stick deodorant than leading us to victory. We blanche at his annual demand to be paid 10 times what we'll earn in a lifetime rather than just double. Or the team's general manager sours on our favorite wide receiver and trades him without warning.

Chicago sports radio personality Mike North grew up in the aura of Bears legends Gale Sayers and Dick Butkus, an era when star players mated with a team for life. He worries about the ties between a new generation of players and fans.

"It's hard to be a fan of individuals with free agency," he says. "Players used to be 'your guys.' They're no longer your guys."

Adults learn to pick their heroes more carefully than children and grudgingly realize most heroes will be short-lived. But we still indulge that boyish need to worship the gods.

Contemporary men are desperately searching for heroes in their lives. We're wanting for role models at a time when the ranks of positive male role models are fairly thin. So many athletes undeserving of our loyalty have been glorified by the press and glorified by Madison Avenue. Every little kid wants to be like Mike. Everybody wants to have their face on the Wheaties box and go to Disneyland after the big game.

Men search for an identification with a winner, a male figure who is effective, virile, potent and capable and knows how to get things done. All of the hype that goes into sports serves some need where men come up empty.

"Everybody has somebody that they look up to as a model. That personal attachment says, 'I would like to be like them,' " says Dr. Thomas A. Tutko, a clinical psychologist at San Jose State University and a director of the Institute of Athletic Motivation. "I went to a real estate office and hanging behind this guy's desk -- a very, very successful guy -- was a huge print of Joe Montana. Heroes provide hope. They provide identity. They provide an opportunity to be a step above and beyond where you are right now. It is people like Montana that give us that hope. Personally, I grew up worshipping Lou Gehrig. The 'Iron Man.' He was, to me, the greatest single athlete that existed. I loved baseball. Lou Gehrig was part Hungarian and I was part Hungarian. There were all those bizarre reasons. I identified not just with him but the traits that he represented."

Isolating a hero on a team is also good for what ails fans of lousy teams. You want to stick by your guys through thick and thin, but it sure helps if one of them stands tall even in darkest night.
* * *
Some of us eschew individuals for teams.

Palmiro "Paul" Mazzoleni came by his devotion to the Green Bay Packers when his family moved to the west side of Green Bay. Five or six players lived in the neighborhood, often inviting Mazzoleni to watch them practice. That's how, years later, he met and became acquainted with Vince Lombardi in 1959. And it helped his service station became a favorite place for Packers players and staff to fuel up.

"In those days, the Packers weren't paid until the first game of the season," Mazzoleni, now in his 80s, recalls. "I carried a lot of those guys on the books. They all remembered those days -- Bart Starr, Paul Hornung -- when old Paul carried them."

Mazzoleni's service station ("Get your gasolini from Paul Mazzoleni, who sells the best gasolini" was his radio jingle for years) stands as much a part of local football legend in Green Bay as any Bart Starr pass. That came to pass for three reasons: No. 1, Mazzoleni didn't allow anyone to say a discouraging word at his place about the Packers; No. 2, Mazz always knew where a fella could get a ticket to the game (he once redistributed 87 to a single game); and No. 3, Martha's Coffee Club.

"I always said I never wanted to hear anything negative," Mazzoleni says. "To this day, I always say, 'Rome wasn't built in a day.' I never let anybody run down the Packers. Even when Tony Mandarich was here and all the sportswriters wrote that he was a bust, I said, 'Give him a chance.'"

Martha's Coffee Club began early in the Lombardi regime and continues to this day. It took its name from Martha's, the restaurant at 515 S. Broadway, a few steps down from Paul's Standard Service (now Tom's Marathon) at 505 S. Broadway. The club meets every Monday morning at 9 a.m. for half an hour to dish dirt on the team. Everyone must be ready with a new Packer rumor. There are other strictly enforced rules as well: any member who talks business has to put 10 cents in a cup; if you take a call during a meeting, it's 50 cents.

"They're the finest Monday Morning Quarterbacks in town," Mazzoleni brags. "When the Packers don't do well, they don't run them down.
* * *
Most NFL and college towns sport at least one person everyone knows as the team's biggest fan. In Green Bay, it's Paul Mazzoleni. In Gainesville, the University of Florida Gators have "Mr. Two-Bits" ("Two-bits, four-bits, six-bits a dollar! All for the Gators, stand up and holler!"). And in Detroit, the Lions, Tigers, Redwings, Pistons and Drive all share "The Brow."

When 30 years as a mathematics teacher didn't utterly exhaust Joe Diroff, he traded in his chalk and erasers to be Detroit's best-known sports fan.

"When I retired in 1980, I thought I'd hit the rocking chair, maybe play golf, go fishing," he says. "I tried it all; I wasn't good at any of 'em. I said to myself, two years after retiring, there's only one individual in the universe who has all the answers. I said, 'God, tell me what talent I have.'

"The next night, I was at Cobo Hall in Detroit. The Pistons were playing the Boston Celtics. The one talent God gave me was a big mouth. I can really yell. I was asked to come out on the main court and give a cheer. At the end of it, I jumped up in the air. Well, I always have a lot of stuff in my shirt pockets and it flew out. Two security guys grabbed me and tried to throw me out. They didn't know I had permission to be there. Well, I resisted. The crowd booed. They did usher me out, but that's how I got started."

It didn't take long for the former teacher and retired Navy man -- who was a cheerleader at his all-boys high school and college -- to become one of the most recognized men in Detroit sports. Because in addition to his vocal enthusiasm, Joe Diroff is endowed with memorable eyebrows. One eyebrow, actually, that goes all the way across his forehead. That's why they call Joe "The Brow."

Being a cheerleader is not always fun and games. Like when the Lions go to Chicago to challenge the Bears at Soldier Field.
{{en|Lambeau Field's main entrance also has a ...
"All I did was have a big sign that said, 'LIONS,' " Diroff says. Three guys came down and threw me over the top row of seats. Well, I landed in the laps these young girls, which wasn't bad."

As a result of that incident, Diroff no longer goes to Lions games in Chicago. But he does still drive 300 miles to Chicago (and as far as 700 miles to Green Bay) to see the team off from the hotel to the stadium. "It's sort of a routine. I do it for the Redwings, too," he says. "I go to the hotel with half a dozen signs and put them up until the management asks me to take them down. When it comes time for the players to leave the stadium, I hold up signs as they head for the bus and give them a bon voyage. Then I hop in my car and head back to Detroit. I always get there in time to meet them afterward, at the airport.

"Oh, sure, I miss the game," The Brow says. "But I figure there's no way I, as an individual, am going to put a dent in that Chicago crowd noise. I figure, I'll go back to the airport in Detroit and meet them there."

There are pitfalls to being The Brow, but there are bonuses, too. He gets free admission and parking to Detroit sports events, although only the Lions actual provide him with a seat and meal ticket. Not that he needs it: Joe Diroff doesn't sit down.
* * *
Doctors told Barry Bradley to lie down but he wasn't ready.

The St. Petersburg business writer and editor hasn't missed watching or taping a Miami Dolphins game since the mid-1970s "even during those lean years." That includes the first week in October 1979, when he learned he had cancer.

"It was on the previous Wednesday that I found out I had to have cancer surgery," he says. "It was a fist-sized malignant tumor of my left kidney. They'd have to take out the kidney, the spleen and the adrenal gland. The doctor said I had to have it out as quickly as possible.

"They scheduled surgery for Monday morning, which meant I had to check into the hospital on Sunday morning. I said no, I can't do that, because the Dolphins are playing at 4 o'clock. I had them postpone the surgery from Monday to Tuesday. I stayed home that afternoon, watched the game and packed. I checked in after the game.

"It really happened," Bradley says. "They were amazed. I don't remember who the Dolphins were playing. But they won the game."

Was it worth it?

* * *
Each of us selects a hero or heroes based on different criteria. Strength, intelligence, sexual prowess, natural gifts and other characteristics draw us in; charisma or envy seals the pact.

There's no predicting whom a man might choose to immortalize. Y.A. Tittle and Albert Einstein could be as logical for me as Dick Butkus and Al Capone would be for you.

Some grown men even buy posters, autographed 8x10s and trading cards of their favorites. They build tchotchke shrines to athletes they'll never meet. And maybe they don't want to, wouldn't chance it to burst their bubbles. They follow athletes with a dedication that is almost mystical, although others may consider such devotion more appropriate for young boys.

Why do some men leave these things behind and others hang on forever?

"I think they still hold a very close emotional attachment with the sport," says Dr. George H. Sage, a retired professor of kinesiology and sociology at the University of Northern Colorado. Sage is the author of Power and Ideology in American Sport (Human Kinetics) and co-author (with Dr. D. Stanley Eitzen) of Sociology of North American Sport (William C. Brown). "There is this somebody who can perform the skills at such an incredibly high level that there is an attachment and fascination."

A lot of it, unfortunately, is programmed and packaged, a direct result of the way Madison Avenue markets today's athletes. Few sports heroes develop naturally; they're prepped, styled and propagandized. Athletic superstars are sold just like any other commodity, through advertising. Sportscasters speak in well-modulated, admiring tones about how wonderful, how great, how incredible, how terrific an athlete is.

"I think all of that feeds into what is already there in the mind of somebody who admires a particular athlete," Sage says.

Dr. Gregory B. Collins advises men to pick their heroes wisely. "One of the best comments I ever heard about this," he says, "was from an athlete who cautioned young people about worshipping athletes. He said,'Your heroes really should be your parents and you shouldn't look to athletes to fill that need for you.' I think that is good advice."

Phoenix Suns basketball star Charles Barkley said it bluntly in a 1993 commercial for Nike: "I am not a role model. I don't get paid to be a role model."

There are personalities that attract attention by virtue of being good at their jobs, remaining humble about their talents and generally likeable. You can build loyalty to players who stick around like Walter Payton, who was with the Bears for 13 seasons.

"The Bears were always the team for me," Larry Mayer says. "I looked up to Payton. He joined the team when I was nine years old. You grow up to follow the players and know the team. I liked Larry Csonka -- maybe it was because he had the same first name as I did."

Nobody said this hero thing was scientific.

Sticking with Chicago icons, former Bears coach Mike Ditka won legions of fans because he comes across as such a common man, a kick-ass-and-take-names guy, even though he owns restaurants and appears in TV and print ads for myriad products. He still exudes a blue-collar, down-to-earth persona that people can relate to; they feel like they're a friend of his.

We revere people who can make $43-million in six years for throwing a football. Many men and boys would like to be like that.

Kids especially need heroes. If they latch on to a Lawrence Taylor or Phil Simms, when those guys perform well, the kid feels like a million bucks. It's a way of borrowing some identity from an athlete who is performing well. If a boy wears a jersey with Taylor's number on his back there is a part of the child that feels he is sharing in L.T.'s performance.

There's a downside to forming such attachments, too. Careers don't last forever. And winning streaks are usually followed by losing streaks.

"Our players are our heroes as long as they do well," Dr. Stanley H. Teitelbaum says, "but when they start to falter, when they decline, they hear it loud and clear from the fans. The fans are expressing the disappointment that their heroes are not playing up to par because not only does it affect what happens to the team but it affects how I feel about myself. If I'm identifying with you as a star player and I need to connect with you, I need to have you do well so I feel good about me."

Dr. Bruce C. Ogilvie helped with a 1984 Miller Lite study of fans in America. Some of the conclusions chilled him.

"I think it is scary when you think how important heroes can be," the San Jose State University professor of psychology says. "But when fans were asked for the most important role models for their children, boys and girls, they said athletic heroes. That, to me, as a clinical psychologist, makes an eloquent statement about our society and its values and the sort of noble heroes we reinforce. I was really saddened that these were the primary models for youth."

Ogilvie's own heroes represented a different era, external to sports -- Mahatma Gandhi and Eleanor Roosevelt, for example. Figures of great sociological significance.

"When I was young," he says, "I thought I might head toward medicine. I was astounded that sports fans had an entirely different orientation. I was genuinely saddened. I thought it made a statement about something that was going on in our society. But I said, 'Who in the hell am I to judge?' People find their heroes wherever they can. Perhaps I was being a little bit idealistic. I was hoping they would mention some figures out of history."

Is it better to have football heroes than no heroes at all?

"Yes, of course," Ogilvie says. "We all have to be standing on our toes reaching for something beyond ourselves or we don't achieve. We don't move forward and unfortunately we don't contribute in any way. I think you have to reach."
* * *
Hero worship is weird for the players, too. Some don't know how to deal with the adulation and attention. Many deflect the imposition of responsibility that society saddles them with as "role models" for our youth. We want our heroes to be perfect in every way, but we also want to know that they are human and that they have frailties and flaws like us. It's a crazy relationship.

"It bends the player's perception of reality," Dr. Gregory B. Collins says. "How important they are, how they fit into things and a total team organizational concept. It can really distort their perspective about relationships, money and self-importance. It can be so rewarding in the short run that they really don't look at anything beyond it. There is a lot of desire not to have the party end. People just don't plan for when it will."

It's not that these guys don't deserve our worship but that they are human beings just like we are. Earning a million bucks for smashing quarterbacks doesn't make a college junior into a sensitive and loving role model. But somehow we elevate them into positions that are difficult, if not impossible, for them to maintain. There's a terrific amount of pressure for high-profile, elite athletes to sustain their image in the public but the gods have clay feet. They are human beings and we forget that. Their troubles -- and it seems all runners eventually stumble -- satisfy some kind of desire that people have to see their heroes fail.

Men look for models, people they can hold in high esteem. A lot of us go to an extreme, putting our heroes in a box where they are doomed to fail. There are very few heroes who can live up to our extraordinary expectations.

"Even a person like Larry Bird," Dr. John M. Silva says. "Boston had as much of a love affair with him as anybody and he still got booed. The expectations are so high and people want them to be met. It's part of an opportunity to have something as close to perfection as possible, as if this person never makes mistakes. 'This person always hits the big shot for us. This is something I can depend on. There aren't many things in life I can depend on but I can depend on Larry.' "

It just doesn't last. Larry Byrd misses shots. Wade Boggs fools around. Art Schlichter gambles. Len Bias snorts coke. Dexter Manley tests positive for pot four times. Michael Jordan lays odds on his golf game.

Of course, we're no more reliable than our heroes. We fair-weather fans abandon our team if it looks like they won't make the playoffs and choose an alternative team. And when we turn on favorite players and teams, look out.

"The fans who keep their loyalties to the players the longest really turn with vindictiveness," Silva says. "We saw it in 1992 with the New Orleans Saints. The fans were 500 percent behind them during the season. Sellout, frenzied crowds that loved their team all the way up to the playoffs. Then the team lost for the second year in a row in the first game of the playoffs. The fans were ready to hang Bobby Ebert. He had a rough game and he made some decisions that contributed to the team's loss, but he was singled out and taken to task quite heavily. The talk shows there were relentless, lambasting Ebert."

Fans will stay loyal the longest to players, choosing to point the fickle finger of blame at officials, owners and coaches, in that order. Once we do turn on the players, we attack . It's a way of trying to resolve our dissidence. "I rooted so hard for this team! I told so many people how great they were and I bought all this stuff!" How do you reconcile that? How do you balance that psychic investment? Am I going to have to blame officiating or coaching? Am I going to blame the players?

I certainly am not going to take the blame.

Might as well knock yesterday's hero off his pedestal. He was precariously perched, anyhow.

"Fans scratch away at the clay feet to expose the ordinary man," Dr. Bruce C. Ogilvie says. "These people gain not security but an artificial form of self-assurance -- 'Oh, well, even the heroes are not that great,' and so on. These people shift their loyalties just as quickly as you can snap your finger."

Ogilvie says people who can transfer their allegiances so quickly, who won't hesitate to turn last week's hero into this week's goat, have some real problems of their own.

"There would have to be some serious inadequacies in people who derive their satisfaction out of seeing heroes fall," he says, "whether they are their own or other fans' heroes. It's like the people who seem to get a vicarious charge out of seeing someone hurt. The quarterback gets knocked out of the game and they are enraptured by this. It borders on sadism. A psychological sadism. They are tickled to death, shouting, 'Bring in the meat wagon!'" 

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