What makes a hero?

Saturday, May 17, 2008

He was unremarkable in appearance, except for one thing. This young man who appeared to be in his 30s, waiting like me to get into a restaurant in Sikeston, Mo., last week, was wearing something that caught my eye. He had on shorts that had a logo stitched into the side. The logo read: "Steelers."

Seeing that logo sent an electrical impulse to my brain, I think. Two strangers suddenly transformed into something else. Not friends, not even acquaintances, but somehow connected by shared kinship to a football team. If you will glance at the short italicized bio at the bottom of this column, you will note my allegiance to a certain National Football League franchise. It's not the city the team represents that stirs my sporting blood. The Pittsburgh Penguins, for example, are about to play in the Stanley Cup finals and I could care less. The Pittsburgh Pirates have become perennial losers; even if the Bucs began to contend, they would never approach the esteem in which I hold the Steelers.

It's largely inexplicable and mainly irrational to have such feelings. Affection for a professional sports team is always unrequited. The team doesn't love you back; it doesn't even know you exist. Moreover, Steelers management is notoriously frugal. My sister was once offered a job in the team's administrative office for a salary laughable for someone of her skill and experience. Knowing this, however, changes nothing. If the Steelers are on television, church meetings are postponed or canceled. I sit in my sofa down in the basement, a team cap planted firmly on my head and waving the "Terrible Towel." My wife and children know this is not a time to disturb me.

My only explanations are these: Franco and the steel mills. In December 1972, with the game all but lost, Franco Harris caught a pass just before it hit the ground as time expired and the Steelers won their first-ever playoff game. We know it as the "Immaculate Reception." Mention of Franco's catch is nearly a religious event to team fans. Later in the 1970s, the Steelers racked up a series of Super Bowl victories as steelworkers lost thousands upon thousands of jobs as the industry collapsed and the work went to places like South Korea. The Steelers were a bright light to a region hit by the reality of sudden and (as it turned out) permanent unemployment for many.

I love the Steelers; that is clear. But they are not my heroes. They play football for princely sums of money. Good for them. They are great players, but they are not necessarily great people. You can love something or someone and not look up to them.

A better choice for a hero is the young man who waited with me in line for food last week. Our shared devotion for a sports franchise got us talking. The young man, Jamie, is a staff sergeant in the Army. He is about to leave for his third tour in Iraq. It was not a stop-loss situation. He volunteered to go. Jamie doesn't want to lose his life but understands it could happen. It has happened to 4,600 others in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Heroes are measured not by thrills generated but by sacrifices made. My young friend Jamie qualifies for the designation, in my opinion. So does a certain itinerant carpenter who traveled with 12 carefully chosen companions and who died between two thieves. His name is -- well, you know his name. Or you should.

If you want to hear more about this particular hero, Sunday morning you will hear him proclaimed at any church of your choice. Check this newspaper for places and times.

Jeff Long is pastor of Centenary United Methodist Church in Cape Girardeau. Married with two daughters, he is of Scots and Swedish descent, loves movies and is a lifelong fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

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