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Letter to the Editor - True Sports Heroes

Monday Sep 14, 2009 in Columns GoffonRugby

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I never wanted to be a professional athlete. This presumes, of course, that I was ever good enough to be a professional athlete. But my father was a professional athlete and my brothers and I were decent enough college athletes at major schools to quietly harbor the thought that someday it may be a career option. Still, I knew it would never be a goal. The reason was that sport figures were never my heroes. The first one to show me that was Paul Hornung, the Hall of Fame running back from Notre Dame and the Green Bay Packers, suspended from the league for gambling. As time passed there was never a lack of fallen “heroes:” Pete Rose (gambling); Ben Johnson (stripped of a gold medal in the1988 Olympics for drug use); Lawrence Taylor (four times suspended for cocaine use); Floyd Landis (stripped of his Tour de France title for drug use);Barry Bonds and an entire generation of Major League baseball fueled by steroids. These athletes disgraced themselves all the while excelling, even becoming stars in their chosen professions. I admire their skill and ability to do something I could never achieve, but sport icons will never be my heroes – at least not for their sporting accomplishments.


I found my heroes elsewhere. My father is one of my heroes, not because he was good enough to play football for money, but because he walked away from the money to serve his country. In doing so, he lost his arm and never played football again. Pat Tillman is one of my heroes for the same reason. He walked away from the professional football and gave his life for his country in Afghanistan. The commitment these two men demonstrated, commitment to family and country, to something that would not bring them recognition and fame, has had much more influence on me and the choices I've made.


All of this is probably why I play rugby. Rugby is not a professional sport in this country and probably never will be. The players I play with and against (yes, Mom! I still play rugby!) and the young men and women I coach will never play rugby for money. All of these people spend their days as doctors, lawyers, students, truck drivers, carpenters, and teachers and yes, even a college professor or two. These people are my heroes because they know what it means to be committed to something for which no recognition will come; they commit to sport and team and history and ideal; they serve.


This discussion of sports and heroes brings me to the picture below. Friday was the eighth anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center. On all three networks, the day was marked in passing for less than one minute and almost not at all by the major newspapers. On that day in 2001, almost 400 heroes ran into building that was crashing and burning to save the thousands that were running out.  Three thousand never got out. That day in 2001 sparked a war where over 5000 people to date have died. Who are they? These people who served and continue to serve since 9/11?


One lasting image from that day and the days that followed is shown here - Three New York City firemen atop a pile of rubble that buried those thousands. Two of the three guys in this now famous picture were rugby players from the Rockaway (NY) Fishheads Rugby Football Club. That's George "Rugby" Johnson on the left and Danny McWilliams is in the center, carrying the lessons, the ideals, of commitment and coming together from the rugby pitch to Ground Zero. Yeah, that's my idea of a “sports hero.”

- John Graham

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