Jimmy Tomlin: When athletes are real heroes...

Aug. 12, 2013 @ 01:00 AM

All of the talk last weekend was about steroids.
I mean, um, performance-enhancing drugs.
As a sports fan — well, OK, just as a human being — it was depressing. Major league baseball was handing down some major league suspensions to a bunch of players — enough to field their own team (“Gooooooooo, Druggies!!”) and even have a few subs — so it was a pretty dark weekend for those of us who still want to believe in sports stars as heroes.
You see, that was my childhood. Guys like Hank Aaron and Johnny Unitas — sports stars who also happened to be great role models — were my heroes. Forty years later, I still have great memories of them and still look up to them.
So when I see athletes making headlines for the wrong reasons, I can’t help but look at them through the eyes of the kids who worship them — just as I worshiped my sports heroes — and it breaks my heart.
I mean, can you imagine the kid who once adored Alex Rodriguez? The guy has had a phenomenal major league career, but now it looks as if much of that career — if not all of it — was tainted by the use of performance-enhancing drugs. Do you think that kid wants A-Rod’s autograph now?
“Excuse me, Mr. Rodriguez, can I have your autograph? Please, sir, if you’ll just sign this syringe for me...”
So anyway, I was pretty bummed about baseball and the sports world in general. Every day, it seems, we hear about some athlete getting arrested for something or another. Are there no heroes left?
Well, yes, there are. For one day, at least, the Carolina Panthers roster was full of heroes — and there are no drugs on in existence that could’ve enhanced their performance in this case.
Last weekend, the Panthers — in conjunction with the Make-A-Wish Foundation — made 8-year-old Jack Bolton their honorary head coach for a day. Jack, a huge Panthers fan who lives in Davidson, N.C., has spinal muscular atrophy, a motor neuron disease in which the muscles of the body waste away and eventually die.
Jack’s muscles may be wasting away — he requires a power wheelchair to get around — but the muscles he uses to smile were working just fine last weekend as he signed an official contract, sat in on a team meeting, oversaw the team’s practice drills, talked strategy with other coaches, and high-fived guys like Cam Newton, Steve Smith and Jon Beason.
You know, his heroes.
The team gave him a standing ovation at the team meeting, and players went out of their way to introduce themselves — as if Jack didn’t already know who they were — doing all they could to make him feel like the most important coach on the planet.
At the end of the day, Newton — who is Jack’s favorite player — knelt down beside Jack and asked him to autograph his shirt. Then the popular quarterback draped a pair of his shoes, which he had probably autographed, around Jack’s neck to take home.
The kid probably sleeps with those shoes.
“It’s a pretty special day,” Jack’s father, John, told a reporter last weekend. “The dimensions of this wish just go on and on. Just to be in the stadium was super-special, but this is unbelievable.”
Indeed, it was an unbelievable day.
Does that mean all of those guys on the Panthers roster are saints? No, I’m not that naive.
But for one day, at least, they showed just what an amazing, positive impact our sports heroes can have in this crazy world. They gave an 8-year-old boy a day he’ll never forget — and maybe a day they’ll never forget, either.
And in the process, they gave a sometimes-cynical journalist — well, OK, a sometimes-cynical human being — a glimmer of hope for tomorrow.
jtomlin@hpe.com | 888-3579

Want to watch?

To see a short, inspiring video about Jack Bolton’s experience as head coach for a day, visit www.panthers.com and type “Jack Bolton” in the search field.