What is a hero? During the last week of April 2004, an American soldier named Pat Tillman was killed in Afghanistan. And while hundreds of soldiers have been killed in the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, Pat Tillman put a face to the names of the many soldiers who have been serving their country in relative anonymity.
Pat Tillman was a former player in the National Football League (NFL). He was not a household name, even for most football fans. Perhaps because he played for a mediocre football team, the Arizona Cardinals. Perhaps because he was not a superstar player, he just quietly went about his business playing for his team. Perhaps because he wasn't grabbing headlines by breaking the law, or demanding more money like many of his contemporaries.
After the terrorist attack on America on September 11, he wrestled with his love of football and his love of freedom. And ultimately the pursuit of freedom won out over a kid's game he was lucky enough to still be playing as an adult. He walked away from millions of dollars and from his family and all the comforts of life to become a soldier. And not just any soldier, a member of the Army Rangers, the group elite of soldiers sent to serve in the most dangerous areas.
He never held a press conference, didn't make any big announcement, just quietly left to do something that most of us probably won't ever understand. He made a commitment to his country, and was willing to pay the ultimate price to serve and protect people of a foreign country. He gave his life for that commitment on April 22.
It's no secret that I'm a sports fan. And while I don't have a lot of time to watch sports on television, I keep up with teams and with standings in the newspaper and on the radio. I was struck by the news of the death of Pat Tillman. Not because I had ever heard of him before the news of his death. But because his story stands in contrast to the other stories we've read about our athletes in the paper this year: Allegations of rape of a female kicker at a university in the Midwest; the basketball player on trial for rape in Colorado (who at the very least is guilty of adultery and very poor judgment); the former basketball player on trial for manslaughter in New Jersey; the hockey player charged with trying to pay someone to murder his agent; The first player taken in the NFL draft who refused to sign with the team that fairly selected him; the player taken in the draft who won't sign with his team until they pay him enough "to show him the proper respect." He said, "I'm just not going to play football for $5 million a year, it's not enough;" and the jockeys for the Kentucky Derby who went to court so they could wear sponsorship ads on their uniforms, because everyone should be able "to make some money" (even though they get paid handsomely already to ride a horse around a track).
My message this month is neither an indictment of sports nor an endorsement of the war in Iraq. It is a pause for thought about what is a hero and who our real heroes are. A hero is someone we look up to, respect, and admire because of what he or she does or what he or she stands for. A hero is a role model, someone whom we aspire to be like. Heroes aren't self-made--you can't declare yourself to be a hero.
Rather, a hero is crowned a hero by his or her peers. A person is a hero because people around them think they are a hero. We are slowly becoming conditioned to think that our heroes are found in stadiums, on the ESPN SportsCenter Top 10, on the cover of a CD in the local music store, on the big screen in a theater or on the cover of a cereal box. We are anointing our athletes, our rock stars, and our actors to be our heroes. I couldn't disagree more.
Allow me to share who some of my heroes are: A hero is the mother who gets up at 5:00 a.m. every day so she can make lunch for her kids to take to school, who's waiting at the door when they get home and can't wait to hear how their day went, who's up with them late at night as they try to figure out their homework. A hero is the father who shuts off his favorite football game because his son wants to play catch in the yard, who turns down the night out with the guys so he can stay home and play board games with his family. A hero is the husband or wife who stays faithful to their spouse even when things aren't going smoothly at home.
A hero is the teacher who tries to bring order and learning to a room full of 30 teenagers who don't want to be in school. A hero is the firefighter who dashes into the burning building to save a stranger, who routinely risks his or her life to save others. A hero is the painter on top of a thirty-foot ladder, who won't come down from his perch until the house he is painting looks as good as the one he lives in. A hero is the college student who passes on the Friday night party because she realizes that her parents are paying for her to get an education in college, not just a social life. A hero is the doctor or nurse who sees their patient as a person, who takes the extra few minutes to be reassuring, and who cares for the person, not just the problem afflicting the person.
A hero is the person who sees their work not just as a job to make money, but as a ministry to others in the world. A hero is the person who can find a quiet corner in which to kneel and pray, because they realize that apart from God, we are nothing. All of these people are heroes because they don't require their picture to be in the paper, they aren't constantly demanding more money, and they aren't making headlines by breaking the law. They are going about their business quietly, and making their corner of the world a better place.
Our society is getting it all wrong when it comes to anointing our heroes. We glorify athletes and actors. We call them "icons." We adorn our rooms with posters of them. We raise our kids to think that dunking a basketball or dressing like a "gangsta" are among the highest of life's goals. No one wants their kid to be just a cog in the wheel, but to "be their own boss," have financial independence, be rich and successful.
And while there is nothing wrong with having financial success or owning one's own business, the "glue" that holds the world together is not what is found in newspaper headlines, or in the Fortune 500. It is the people who work in obscurity, who believe in something greater than themselves. It is the people who believe in those around them, those who take joy in service to others, and those who serve others because they see the Lord in others, and in rendering service to others, they offer service to God.
And while money is the due payment for services rendered, it shouldn't just be received with entitlement, but with thanksgiving. "Thank God that He has blessed me with a talent which allows me to work and to receive compensation for my work." It makes me sick to hear about the athlete who won't play until he gets "the proper respect." "I won't hit the ball with the stick until you pay me $5 million a year to do it." Our athletes are not our heroes. They are entertainers. And we pay to watch them entertain us, fair enough. But they are not our heroes.
The story of Pat Tillman brings a breath of fresh air to our world. Sadly, it took the loss of his life to bring that message to us. From all the news stories I have read about him, all the man wanted to do was serve his country and mankind anonymously. And I hope we can learn a lesson for ourselves, and pass it on to our children, that the heroes of the world are not the athletes who are thugs out raping people, or getting high, or cheating using steroids, or the ones who are holding out for more money, or the ones whose favorite word is "I" and who act like "it's all about me".
The heroes of the world are those who believe in something greater than themselves. The heroes of the world are those who live by the motto, "Duty, honor, service," rather than "money, fame and fortune." The real heroes are those who make it their life's work to serve others, and by serving others, they serve God. The real heroes of the world are people like Pat Tillman. And I hope and pray that his legacy will be to help us see and appreciate who the real heroes are in the world, and to strive to be like them in our own little corner of the world.
Fr. Stavros Akrotirianakis is the priest of St. John Greek Orthodox Church in Tampa, Florida.