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Who's Your Hero?

A generic cartoon superhero standing in the middle of a city street with the sun setting behind him.
AI generated image of a generic superhero. Signifying the type of people we raise up as heroes and idols.

When I was a kid, I used to throw the football around in the yard and pretend I was playing for The Ohio State Buckeyes. I was usually alone and would play as the quarterback and wide receiver as well as any other position I deemed appropriate for the “game”.

I was often the star player, leading the team past their biggest rival (as I bleed Scarlet and Grey, I can’t in good conscience write their name here), and we would always win in a last second score of some kind. The crowd would be cheering my name and kids everywhere wanted to grow up to be me. But I was different from them in that respect.

See, I didn’t want to be any one player, I just wanted to be a Buckeye in general.

Other kids might’ve pretended to be in the NFL, especially kids in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. They might’ve role-played as Dan Marino, Joe Montana or John Elway. But I never saw myself as them, I was always just me.

And playing football wasn’t the only dream I had.

I had a love of music as well, though I wasn’t very gifted with any instrument or with good enough vocals to consider it a career possibility. That is, until I saw a concert on TV in the late ‘90s that would spark an even deeper love of music that persists, at least in my private mind, to this day.

See, my musical taste was very influenced by my mother, as is probably the case for most young kids. Our house was filled mostly with music from the ‘70s and ‘80s, with a Christian rock phase in there somewhere and a lot of hair bands. Then, one day I heard a song on her radio that drew me in.

There I was, sitting in my room as she did whatever mothers do in the shower, when a song called “When Cowboys Didn’t Dance” came on the radio that she used as background noise. That song, with its haunting melody and raw description of what life as a real cowboy was like, gave me the country music bug. I started listening to more country music, finding a ton of amazing songs, groups and solo artists that just sucked me in. But there was one that really pushed me over the edge.

I was watching The Family Channel one day when they played a concert from the prior year (that I thought at the time was live) involving what looked to be a couple hundred thousand people in Central Park, all tuned in to a man named Garth Brooks.

I was hooked in a way I’d never been.

From the opening, “A Heart in New York”, to the wild antics of the bands wild fiddle player Jimmy Mattingly during “Ain’t Going Down (Til the Sun Comes Up)” and the closing lines of “The Dance”, I was dancing and singing along in my living room. I’d loved Garth Brooks’ music before that concert, but the way he performed on stage, and the way the crowd reacted to every moment was amazing.

From the moment I watched it, I knew I wanted to be a country music star like Garth Brooks. I begged my mom for a guitar and started writing songs. It would take a few years of asking, but I finally got the guitar and even learned a few chords. I never really got very good, but my heart was in it. I was also a very shy kid in a lot of ways, and while the idea of singing in front of thousands seemed awesome, the thought of it scared me to death.

Part of that might’ve been due to being embarrassed one evening while singing in the shower. I was singing “Standing Outside the Fire”, apparently a little too loudly, and mom opened the door and told me to stop singing and finish my shower. That would have been bad enough on its own, but she was also on the phone with one of her friends and made fun of me about it when she thought I couldn’t hear as she walked out of the room.

Even though the dream of singing fell apart, I still held Garth Brooks in very high regard, and I wanted to emulate him in other ways. He was, in a big way, one of my early heroes.

And I don’t use that term lightly.

I was very selective and careful about who I looked up to. I always marched to the beat of my own drum, and I didn’t want to BE anyone else, I merely wanted to do what they did. Sing in front of thousands, throw a game-winning touchdown, that sort of thing.

Now, Garth Brooks wasn’t perfect as far as role models go. Like every other celebrity, he is only human and has made plenty of mistakes. But, making mistakes and being human doesn’t really disqualify someone from being a person you might want to be like. The traits I tended to pick up on were more in line with being giving, caring and treating others with respect.

Part of that was undoubtedly due to those being things my mom typically tried to instill in me. For all her faults (again, people we look up to are only human), she did want me to be a good person and treat others with kindness. I suppose I would find the things I thought she wanted me to copy and latched on to the people who showed positive traits.

As a young boy, though, music and football were only the start. In 2000, my best friend introduced me formally to NASCAR.

I’d been aware of the American version of motor-racing, but I’d never watched a race and I didn’t know many of the drivers’ names. There was one driver I did know, however, one that I’d picked as a favorite mainly due to the fact that he was the rival of my aforementioned friend’s favorite driver.

His name was Dale Earnhardt.

I watched bits and pieces of a few races in the new millennium, but I wouldn’t watch my first full race until the Daytona 500 in February 2001. For Christmas 2000 I’d gotten a model car based on Dale Earnhardt’s car and it was beside me as I watched the laps wind down in the race. It was one of the most exciting things I’d ever seen, and I couldn’t help but think of how cool it would be to race at 200 mph as close as those cars were the whole time.

With only a couple of laps remaining, I was excited to see Earnhardt near the front, but even more excited to see that he was blocking other cars to help the cars he owned (those of his son, Dale Earnhardt Jr.  and friend Michael Waltrip) as they looked to secure a 1-2-3 finish. The last lap was extremely exciting, and Michael Waltrip wound up winning, with Dale Jr finishing second. The only thing that marred the great finish was a crash in the final turn involving Dale Earnhardt.

I’d seen enough of other races to know that crashes were very common, and I assumed Earnhardt was alright. That assumption was very wrong. My friend called me later that night to ask if I’d heard the news, Dale Earnhardt was dead.

I was devastated. He’d become someone I looked up to, and he was just gone in the blink of an eye. But that wouldn’t be the end of it. I spent some time getting to know the man behind the legend, learning all I could about him. The more I learned, the more I looked up to who he was. He was another person who, despite many flaws, was worth trying to emulate.

And that brings me into what I really want to dig into in this post.

A lot of people, me included, look at the world today and ask, “what happened?”

People seem to be so nasty to each other, and it doesn’t seem to be getting better.

Now, the truth is a lot more nuanced, and things aren’t really as bad as they are made out to be in a lot of cases, but there are things I think deserve some attention.

For one thing, I think a lot more people are focused on themselves over everyone else than at other points in American history (I’m focusing on American culture because that’s what I know, but there may be other places this applies to as well).

Levels of anxiety are up as well, and younger people tend to be suffering the brunt of what has been deemed a mental health crisis. The causes for this are plentiful, and there isn’t one thing you can point to as the sole driver (no matter how much people who hate social media want it to be the lone reason).

Even if we can’t blame just one factor, I do think we can focus more on one thing in particular that would help shift where we are: heroes.

As a society, we tend to lift people up way beyond their station in life and make idols of them. Movie stars, great athletes, singers, politicians and many others are held up as people to mold ourselves after. This is a hit-or-miss thing, with some of those we hold up turning out to be not worth the accolades (think O.J. Simpson, Bill Cosby, Bill Clinton, Mel Gibson, Lance Armstrong and others that did things we wouldn’t want our kids to do).

Before the late 2000’s and early 2010’s, the issue of idols/heroes going off the rails and doing awful things was contained, more or less, because there was a barrier to entry into the ‘club’. To become famous enough to be known as a hero or idol, you had to spend years honing your craft and rising to the top. Only once you’d really gone the distance would you be held up by the powers that be and shown to the world. Even then, a good PR team could clean up most messes and those that couldn’t be cleaned up would usually derail a career.

But this dynamic changed with the introduction of platforms like YouTube, Vine, Instagram, TikTok and others that made it relatively easy to become famous overnight. All of a sudden, we were inundated with celebrities that weren’t ready for the spotlight, and they all stood in front of young audiences that didn’t know the difference between right and wrong.

These new stars were being held up as idols and heroes, but they hadn’t done the work to earn it, and most weren’t worthy of anyone’s admiration. They’d do anything to go viral, and the kids watching them thought the lifestyle on the small screen was something they would want. The spark grew into a flame, and things really started falling around 2017.

The #metoo movement brought to light a problem that many had been aware of, yet never addressed. Big name celebrities were being outed left and right for horrible things, and there seemed to be an equivocation between the “Hollywood” type celebrities and everyone else as far as scandals and horrible actions. This broke down the final wall.

If these big-name stars of yesteryear weren’t worth looking up to, then maybe having heroes at all was a bad thing. Or, maybe it didn’t matter who you had as a hero or someone to look up to, because in the end they are all flawed and they will all let you down.

There are still role models out there, and there are those who deserve the title of hero. The problem is, they are harder to find now because they are buried beneath the pile of crap that is the social media landscape. Even mainstream companies rely more on social media fame than anything else, and it’s costing us.

What used to be 15-minutes of fame is now less than 30 seconds, as “stars” come and go faster and faster. If you aren’t in viral videos or the most popular movies on a consistent basis, you are left behind in the dust of progress. The top stars today have to be on every screen, all the time, or they lose the following they have and fall into obscurity.

That’s not to say that no one will ever speak their name again, but they are lost in the mess of it all and don’t have the same sway as stars of their caliber would have 30, 40 or 50+ years ago. You could argue this is a good thing, as it isn’t really healthy to idolize people as a general rule, but I would say it has just as many negative effects as positive things.

Heroes and idols give society people to look up to and mimic. They demonstrate what is acceptable in society through their actions, and what we accept of them tends to signify what we will accept from ourselves and others in the future.

When your heroes are people like Dale Earnhardt or Garth Brooks, who tend to put others first and try to make positive change in the world, you try to be the best you can be.

When your heroes are those who put themselves first and above all else, you tend to be more like that.

The heroes that make us want to be better people, to treat others with kindness and respect and make the world a better place, aren’t gone yet, but they are fading more and more into the crowd. You can still find them, but it’s harder than it was even 10 years ago, and it’s only going to get harder.

So, who’s your hero?

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