Category Archives: Sports Heroes

Jackie Robinson: The Fearless and Determined Hero

Jackie_Robinson,_Brooklyn_Dodgers,_1954By Jackson Krase

It is hard to believe that the grandson of a slave and the son of a sharecropper would go on to become baseball’s civil rights legend and not only change the way we look at sports but also the way we look at race relations in the United States. Jackie Roosevelt Robinson was ambitious, determined, and fearless on his journey to break through the prevailing race barriers of his time.

Born in a cabin in Cairo, Georgia, on January 31, 1919 and one of four children in the Robinson family, Jackie grew up extremely poor. The Robinsons sharecropped for a white family called the Sassers, where they planted and grew crops in exchange for a place to live. Six months into Jackie’s life, his father deserted the family and soon after, Marlie Robinson, Jackie’s mother, decided to move to Pepper Street in Pasadena, California with the hope of giving her children a better life. Soon, Jackie realized his athletic ability, and the rest was history.

As a teen, Jackie joined a neighborhood gang, but was told by an older friend “that it didn’t take guts to follow the crowd, that courage and intelligence lay in being willing to be different.” Soon Jackie flipped his life around and at UCLA, Robinson was the first person to letter in baseball, football, basketball, and track in the school’s history. However, Jackie’s courage in standing for civil rights really showed itself during his time in the army. g210270_u57210_ip-111After being drafted in 1942, Robinson and boxer Joe Louis created an officer candidate school for African-American soldiers. While serving, he was threatened with court-martial, which he eventually beat, for not getting up to move to the back of a bus.

After his tour of duty, Jackie left the military with the rank of second lieutenant. Later on while playing baseball for the Monarchs of the Negro American Baseball League, Branch Rickey, manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, saw Jackie as the perfect candidate to fulfill his vision of bringing African-Americans in into league. In 1947, his first year with the Dodgers, Robinson earned rookie of the year and even though some people respected Robinson for his abilities and courage, others issued him death threats. During Robinson’s ten year career with the Brooklyn Dodgers, the team won a total of six national league titles, the World Series in 1955 and he personally won the title of most valuable player in the league in 1949. He retired with a .311 batting average and stole home 19 times.

The chronicler of myth, Joseph Campbell, believes that there are three stages in the hero’s journey. The first is departure, followed by initiation and return. In the eyes of Campbell, the hero reluctantly departs on a journey in which he faces the unknown. Jackie crossed 516c891f22417.preview-620the threshold of racial boundaries in the United States, thereby leaving the ordinary and familiar world for the unfamiliar and uncharted one. He learned through his suffering while facing an eclectic bunch of confrontations, even including the possibility of death.

After examining the actions and life of Jackie Robinson it becomes clear that he is both a highly moral individual, as well as highly competent. In the words of Rev. Jesse Jackson, “Jackie Robinson’s impact was greater than just that of baseball. He was a transforming agent and in the face of such hostility and such meanness and violence, he did it with such amazing dignity. He had to set the course for the country,” Robinson was strong, resilient, charismatic, and inspiring, many qualities that make up the great eight of characteristics for a hero.

However, these qualities were not just present during his years playing baseball. After he retired from the sport, he used his unique position and fame as a platform to call for an end to racial injustice. His work with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and with the Southern Christian Leadership Council helped create many new opportunities for african-americans as he spoke on the injustices of racial segregation.

It was in the year 1962, his first year of eligibility, that Robinson was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. Jackie Robinson’s actions both on and off the field served as a means of inspiration to a whole generation of minorities who were in desperate need of a hero of their own. His breaking of the baseball color line helped to also break various other color lines all across the United States. His unbending principles and control under this intense and demanding role was equally balanced against his passion for winning. Because of this, Jackie Robinson is a hero for both the sport of baseball and all African-Americans.

Shavarsh Karapetyan: The Underwater Battle of the Champion

By Sharon Novikov, Matt Rosenthal, & Russell Pine

Shavarsh Karapetyan is a retired Soviet Armenian finswimmer. He is an 11-time World Record holder, 17-time World Champion, 13-time European Champion and 7-time Soviet Champion.

Despite his prolific accomplishments in the water, Karapetyan is much more well- known in the former USSR for his heroic, self-sacrificing actions on September 16, 1976. Just as he finished a 12 mile training run with his brother alongside the Yerevan Lake in Yerevan, Armenia, a trolleybus veered out of control, fell from the dam wall, and crashed into the reservoir, 80 feet from shore and 33 feet deep into the water. Karapetyan swam to the bus, and despite almost zero visibility in the dirty water, broke the back window of the bus with his legs and began pulling people out.

The trolleybus was crowded with as many as 92 passengers and Karapetyan knew he had little time, spending approximately 30-35 seconds for each person he saved. Karapetyan managed to rescue 20 people (he picked up many more, but 20 of them survived), before the combined effects of the freezing water and wounds from broken glass rendered him unconscious, where he remained for 45 days. The damages sustained from his selfless, heroic act included subsequent sepsis (due to the presence of raw sewage in the lake water), and lung complications, ending his athletic career. Today’s experts agree that no one but Shavarsh could have been physically able to do what did, and the passengers on the bus are lucky that he was there when the crash happened.

Karapetyan’s feat was not immediately and widely recognized. The photos from the accident scene were censored and released to the public only two years later, and the first newspaper article about this accident and Shavarsh’s heroic rescue actions was published six long years after the incident. The publication revealed that he was the rescuer, making his name a household name in the USSR. Subsequently, he received about 60,000 letters and was awarded a medal “For the Rescue of the Drowning”, the Order of the Badge of Honor, and a UNESCO “Fair Play” award for his heroism.

To this day, Karapetyan doesn’t consider his act as heroic or extraordinary. When asked how he managed to do what he did, he humbly replied, “I was simply closer to the crash than anyone else.” He also admitted that he would have rather died than not jump into the water that day. That was his only choice. He simply did what he knew was right, what he was supposed to do in such situation, no matter how difficult and dangerous it was.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Karapetyan’s feat is that he wasn’t satisfied with the number of people he managed to save. Later describing the incident, he said, “I knew that I could only save so many lives, I was afraid to make a mistake. It was so dark down there that I could barely see anything. One of my dives, I accidentally grabbed a seat instead of a passenger… I could have saved a life instead. That seat still haunts me in my nightmares.” Karapetyan managed to save the lives of 20 strangers in the dark, toxic waters, and he’s still haunted by the 21st he could have saved instead of the seat cushion.

Incredibly, Karapetyan found himself in another heroic situation nine years later. On February 19, 1985, he happened to be near a burning building with many people trapped inside. Without a second of hesitation, he ran into the building and began pulling people out to safety. Again, he suffered serious personal injury, this time in the form of severe burns to his body, and spent many weeks recovering in the hospital.

When his wounds healed and he felt better, Shavarsh got back to practices and managed to set yet another world record swimming with a scuba set for a 0.25 mile distance in 3 minutes and 6.2 seconds. This was his eleventh and last world record. He couldn’t proceed with his athletic career, as his injuries severely impaired his health, and he was forced to leave his outstanding sports career behind.

Karapetyan made a great moral contribution that was only possible through his exceptional swimming ability. His heroic act was one of incredible personal sacrifice and valor. While he doesn’t follow the typical monomythic hero path, his courageous behavior, coupled with an admirable sense of humility, exemplifies the heroic definition of someone who makes great contributions that require both great morality and great ability.

Throughout his life, Shavarsh never sought recognition and never claimed any credit for his super-heroic acts. After leaving his sports career he has been living a simple life, working as a school principal and raising his three children. Today he owns and operates a small shoe repair shop in Moscow called “Second Breath.”

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Sharon Novikov, Matt Rosenthal, & Russell Pine are undergraduate students at the University of Richmond. They wrote this essay as part of their course requirement while enrolled in Dr. Scott Allison’s Social Psychology class.

Muhammad Ali: The Odyssey of a Heroic Champion

Oops!  We had to remove the hero profile you’re looking for because it will soon appear in our new book Heroic Leadership: An Influence Taxonomy of 100 Exceptional Individuals, to be published by Routledge in 2013.

Our contract at Routledge required us to remove many of our profiles on our blog at this time.  But we do have other hero profiles and information about heroes on the menu bar located on the right side of this page.  Check it out!

In the mean time, please accept our apologies.  Here is more information about our new book.

You can click here to return to our HERO home page.  And thanks for visiting!

— Scott Allison and George Goethals

Jeremy Lin: The Hero Who Came Out of Nowhere

By Scott T. Allison and George R. Goethals

There are times when real-life hero stories are so unlikely, and so inspiring, that they have the appearance of a fairy tale.  The story of New York Knick basketball player Jeremy Lin is one such tale.

Lin played college basketball at Harvard, a school known far more for its academics than for its athletics.  Lin was a star player at Harvard, but when he graduated in 2010, there were no professional basketball teams in the NBA interested in him.  He was judged to be a marginally skilled player who lacked athleticism.

Eventually the Golden State Warriors decided to take a chance with Lin, but they gave him little playing time and eventually cut him from the team.  The Houston Rockets then did the same.  Lin’s basketball future looked bleak.

But Lin never abandoned his dream to play professionally.  He began this current basketball season languishing at the end of the New York Knicks’ bench, still waiting for his chance.  There appeared to be little hope that Lin would ever be able to prove himself on the basketball court.

At this point, the magical part of the fairy tale kicks in.  On February 5, 2012, with the Knicks struggling to win games, coach Mike D’Antoni took a chance and decided to bring Lin into a game against the New Jersey Nets.   Lin proceeded to dazzle everyone by scoring 25 points and handing out 7 assists, leading the Knicks to victory.  His performance stunned everybody.

Was it a fluke?  There was only one way to find out.  Coach D’Antoni allowed Lin to start the next game against the Utah Jazz.  This time Lin scored 28 points and dished out 8 assists, again leading the Knicks to victory.  Next came the Washington Wizards.  The Knicks won again with Lin scoring 23 points and getting a career-high 10 assists.  Against the Los Angeles Lakers, Lin poured in 38 points and had 7 assists.  He out-played the Lakers’ future Hall of Famer Kobe Bryant, who muttered, “Players don’t come out of nowhere.”

In his first four games as a starter, Lin scored more points (109) than any player in NBA history.   That includes legends such as Michael Jordan and LeBron James.  “I have never seen this,” said Knicks coach D’Antoni. “What he’s doing is amazing.”  Lin is the first New York-based team athlete to appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated two weeks in a row since the magazine started in 1954.  Lin’s stunning rise to stardom has captivated New York Kick fans, who erupt into a Beatlemania-like frenzy whenever Lin touches the ball.  The phenomenon has been called Linsanity.

As if Lin’s storybook rise to fame isn’t enough, he has also shown remarkable humility and generosity off the basketball court.  When interviewed, Lin comes across as genuinely gracious, modest, and grateful for the opportunities given him.  He always gives credit to his teammates first.  One day he wants to become a pastor devoted to helping others and establishing non-profit organizations to assist those less fortunate than him.  Lin also plans to work in inner-city communities to help underprivileged children.

Every once in a while, a hero appears out of nowhere to accomplish goals that no one could ever have anticipated.  The story has a powerful, almost archetypal quality to it.  It reminds us of fables and childhood tales that mesmerize us at a young age.  No one expects Cinderella to become a princess or the ugly duckling to grow into a majestic swan.  These stories inspire and move us because they are so very rare and have such a great emotional payoff.  And when they do occur, as with Jeremy Lin, our views about the promise and hope of humankind are rekindled.

Below is clip showing some highlights of Jeremy Lin leading the Knicks to victory over the Lakers.

Joe Paterno: The Death of a Fallen Hero

Oops!  We had to remove the hero profile you’re looking for because it will soon appear in our new book Heroic Leadership: An Influence Taxonomy of 100 Exceptional Individuals, to be published by Routledge in 2013.

Our contract at Routledge required us to remove many of our profiles on our blog at this time.  But we do have other hero profiles and information about heroes on the menu bar located on the right side of this page.  Check it out!

In the mean time, please accept our apologies.  Here is more information about our new book.

You can click here to return to our HERO home page.  And thanks for visiting!

— Scott Allison and George Goethals

Tebow and Tiger: Two Trending-Up Sports Heroes

By Scott T. Allison and George R. Goethals

Heroes usually don’t appear or disappear instantly.  Like buildings in an inner city, heroes are either being constructed or torn down.  People who enjoy a rising trajectory of accomplishment and fame are said to be trending upward toward heroism.  Fading heroes are said to be trending downward.  In earlier blog posts, we noted that Lady Gaga and Woodrow Wilson are examples are individuals who are trending upward and downward, respectively.

In the sports world, a couple of athletes appear to be trending favorably toward heroism.  A fascinating story is that of Tim Tebow, quarterback of the Denver Broncos, who is emerging as one of the most unexpected heroes in the National Football League.  When this current football season began, Tebow’s slow unorthodox throwing motion and frequent erratic tosses reduced him to a near-laughingstock of the NFL.  Very few people believed that he could succeed as a professional quarterback.

Tebow is somehow defying the odds.  He sat on the Broncos’ bench to begin the season and it appeared unlikely he would see any playing time.  But with the Broncos struggling to win games, fans began to chant his name, imploring Denver’s coach to give Tebow a chance.  On October 9th, late in a game in which the Broncos were trailing badly, Denver’s coach sent in Tebow.  He fell just short of singlehandedly winning the game.  Since that time, Tebow has engineered a series of unlikely, come-from-behind wins.  His powerful running ability, coupled with improved accuracy in his throwing, has endeared him to fans and teammates.  He also demonstrates quiet, inspired leadership.  Only time will tell if Tebow’s ascendancy to near-heroism continues into the NFL post-season.

Tiger Woods is also a unique story.  Earlier we blogged about Tiger’s fall from grace.   Throughout 2009 and 2010, his widely-publicized extra-marital affairs and possible sex addiction led to severe condemnations about his character.  Tiger’s leg injuries compromised his golf game and compounded his miseries.  He went from being the most dominant player in golf history to a complete non-factor in the golf world.

But over the past several weeks, Tiger Woods has become a changed man both on and off the golf course.   His knee and achillees heel are finally healthy.  On the course, Tiger is once again making spectacular shots and holing crucial putts.  He secured the winning point in the recent President’s Cup and won a golf tournament after a 2-year dry spell.  Perhaps most tellingly, Tiger appears happy and centered as a person.  Once aloof, Tiger has warmed up to the media and to his fellow competitors on the golf tour.  He has shed his inner-demons.  The fallen hero is now rising again.

Heroism is often in a state of flux.  A hero today is a goat or villain tomorrow, particularly in the sports world.  Tiger and Tebow may continue to enjoy success and savor the taste of heroic status.  Or they may plummet back to earth.  Such are the vicissitudes of heroism.  But today, in December of 2011, these two individuals are trending upward toward heroism.  We look forward to following their future trajectories.