Category Archives: Sports Heroes

Jimmy Valvano: The Hero Who Taught Us How To Live

jim-valvano-07By Meghan Dillon

When James “Jimmy V” Valvano was seventeen years old, he wrote down his dreams on an index card. On that card, he wrote that he would play college basketball, become a head coach, win a game in Madison Square Garden and, finally, cut down the nets after winning a National Championship.

At age thirty-six, Jim Valvano could take that crumpled index card out of his pocket and cross off everything on the list. He had done it all.

Since I was little, Jimmy V has been my hero simply because his North Carolina State Wolfpack Men’s Basketball team is the greatest underdog story of all time. However, when delving deeper into the various taxonomies and exploring the definition of heroism, I have been able to identify that it is the classic come-from-behind story: someone who once walked among us, as an ordinary person, accomplishing what was deemed impossible.

Jimmy V can be identified as the classic, odds beater/underdog by three heroism scientists named Zeno Franco, Kathy Blau, and Phil Zimbardo. In 2011, these three scholars published a Situation-Based Taxonomy of Heroes. Jimmy V is a true underdog in the way his team won a championships it had no business winning, and in the way he fought cancer with bravery, dignity, and class.

Jimmy was born in Corona, Queens, New York to a middle class family. He would go on to marry his high school sweetheart, and be a loving father to three daughters. Despite his successful coaching career that would require him to be away from his family, his Italian upbringing provided the strong foundation from which jimmy-v-sports-illustrated-cover-315Jimmy V could live out his aspirations. One of the many reasons I see Jimmy V as a hero is that, along the way to accomplishing his dream of winning a national championship, he took on a personal ideology of living that would allow him, a seemingly ordinary man, accomplish things that we see as extraordinary. This ideology would help him to innumerable victories.

Sadly, Jimmy V would face an opponent that would be the most challenging of his life: cancer.

One of the features of the Joseph Campbell‘s hero’s journey is the return, in which the hero gives back and shares the knowledge learned from their transition from layperson to hero. Despite all of the incredible things he accomplished while healthy, it was all the things Jimmy V did while sick that solidified his heroism, in my eyes. During the final 10 months of his life, Jimmy V utilized his coaching platform, sharing personal anecdotes and vibrant insight into his life as a patient in hopes of spreading awareness of the disease that has taken so many.

Jimmy V did not shy away from the public eye, as showcased in his ten minute acceptance speech upon receiving the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage at the 1993 ESPY Awards. He was not afraid to show the world the truth about cancer: crying in interviews and struggling to walk. He knew he would lose his final battle in his life after winning so many, but his spirit, charisma, and genuine heart are things that will live on forever.

The best stories in sports are those that transcend the playing field or court. They are the stories of those who climb the latter of success, attaining achievement and, often times, in the most famed stories, coping with the agony of loss. The 1983 NC State Wolfpack has one of the most storied runs of all time. That run is nothing without my hero, Jim Valvano, who could be seen as falling shy of a hero because he lost his battle with cancer.

However, like Jimmy V said, “… That does not mean that you lose to cancer. You beat cancer by how you live, why you live, and in the manner in which you live”.

Below is a clip of Jimmy V’s inspired speech at the 1993 ESPY Awards.

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Meghan Dillon is an undergraduate enrolled in Scott Allison’s Heroes and Villains First-Year Seminar at the University of Richmond. She composed this essay as part of her course requirement. Meghan and her classmates are contributing authors to the forthcoming book, Heroes of Richmond, Virginia: Four Centuries of Courage, Dignity, and Virtue.

Muhammad Ali: The Odyssey of a Heroic Champion

dont-count-aliBy Scott T. Allison and George R. Goethals

Declaring oneself a hero doesn’t ordinarily do the trick. But former Heavyweight Champion Muhammad Ali was an international hero in the eyes of sports fans and ordinary citizens around the world. Ali began calling himself “The Greatest” early in his career, and clearly alienated many. Now people generally realize that his braggadocio was always part of the act, something that enabled him to perform at his best in the ring, and entertain and inspire millions.

His odyssey to heroism was complicated, but by the time of the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia, there was no question as to which American medal winner would light the torch at that year’s Games. Two years later, it was only a bit of a surprise when corporate America fully endorsed Ali by putting him on a box of Wheaties cereal, The Breakfast of Champions. The citation on the box credited Ali’s impact in sports and beyond: “he was a courageous man who fought for his beliefs” and “became an even larger force outside the ring with his humanitarian efforts.”

When Ali, then Cassius Clay, won the heavyweight championship from Sonny Liston in 1964, large portions of white America were uneasy. Although Liston was widely associated with organized crime, and seemed like something of a thug, rumors also circulated about Clay being associated with “Black Muslims.” Many people found this truly frightening. And although Ali’s wit and boxing skills were extremely entertaining, almost as many were turned off by the talking and bragging of “The Louisville Lip” or “Gaseous Cassius.”

In short order, some of people’s worst fears were confirmed. Clay turned to Islam and took the name Muhammad Ali. He became a vocal critic of the Vietnam War and was arrested for refusing to be inducted into the armed services. Ali’s resistance o-MUHAMMAD-ALI-facebookto the draft on the grounds that he was a Muslim minister struck many as ludicrous. But he fought in court for his deferment from the army and eventually won in a unanimous Supreme Court decision. However, his legal struggles kept him from boxing for three and a half years, costing him precious time at the peak of his career. But he had proved the depth and sincerity of his beliefs. At the same time, more and more people believed that he was correct to defend African American’s rights to their own values and self-respect, and in his opposition to the Vietnamese war.

Eventually Ali got the chance to win back the boxing title he had lost while he was banned from fighting, and that he failed to regain when he met Joe Frazier in 1971. The year was 1974, ten years after he first won the title from Sonny Liston. He fought a classic battle against George Foreman in the African nation of Zaire, now called Congo. That year he was named Sportsman of the Year by Sports Illustrated and it was clear that most Americans had come to embrace a talented and dedicated athlete who had both overcome racial and cultural barriers and had the courage to define himself and to help and encourage other black Americans to do the same.

After regaining the title from Foreman, Ali fought for several more years. But the numerous punches he had absorbed during his long career made him the victim of Parkinson’s syndrome, a neurological disorder which makes motor activity, including walking and talking, extremely difficult. During his lifetime, Ali fought outside the ring for those he regards as his people, and he is a hero to most of America. His skill, his struggle, his commitment, his charm and his charisma were inspirational. He was one of the most recognized and admired people in the world. Both he and the nation have come a long way since he burst on the scene as a sassy young fighter who perplexed or repelled much of the country.  For many, he will always remain an important hero.

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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.

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.

http://youtu.be/jASZKxSMhcM

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.

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— Scott Allison and George Goethals