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Published: Wednesday, 7/4/2012

COMMENTARY

A hero isn't found on the football field

BY DAVE HACKENBERG
BLADE SPORTS COLUMNIST

Our country is 236 years old today, and a lot of blood and tears have gone into that.

It is why I've always shied away from coach's quotes about heroic efforts and courageous performances. Too many Americans have paid the ultimate price to equate such a thing to something as frivolous as sports.

Can you imagine the nerve and daring of a novice Continental Army backed by ill-equipped militia, boys and old men, shopkeepers and farmers with ancient muskets and holes in the soles of their shoes, taking on the British Empire with little more than a dream and faith? And winning? You think the '69 Mets were a miracle?

As I've written from time to time, courage is a fireman running into the World Trade Center, and heroism is falling on top of a comrade in a foxhole. An 82-yard touchdown run or a bases-loaded save qualifies as neither.

Pat Tillman certainly qualifies on either count. His story is well known, walking away from a star career and a lucrative NFL contract to become an army ranger after 9/11 and serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, where he died.

Lesser-known, perhaps, were NFL players Al Blozis and Jack Lummus during World War II. Blozis was so big a lineman that he had to convince the Army to waive size limits and let him serve. He died at age 26 in the mountains of France. Lummus stepped on a land mine at Iwo Jima. Before he died, he supposedly said, "Well, doc, the New York Giants lost a mighty good end today."

Not to mention a mighty good American.

Bob Feller of the Indians was the first Major League Baseball player to enlist and volunteer for combat duty after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. He missed four full seasons serving as chief petty officer and gun captain on the USS Alabama.

By the time I got to know him, and only a little, he was pretty much a cranky old man hanging around the ballpark in Cleveland. I asked him once if he'd felt cheated, cheated that he didn't win 350 or 400 games, cheated that he didn't reach 3,000 strikeouts?

He scowled at me, pointed down at the field, and said, "Son, what the hell's so important about this?"

Ted Williams, perhaps a reluctant warrior at the dawn of WWII, was recalled to active duty at age 33 and piloted 39 combat missions over Korea. He was the recipient of about as many military awards as baseball honors. Maybe he would have agreed with Feller.

The United States of America is far from perfect, and we all can admit that, but it is as good a blueprint as exists on this planet. We disagree without hate, we help with compassion, we persevere through hard times with strength. We do it all, for the most part, peacefully and with respect for one another.

Love Obamacare? Hate Obama- care? Fine. Grab a sign and walk the line. Write a letter to the editor. There's an election in four months. It is how we settle things. It's the American way.

It's the way for which Tillman and Blozis and Lummus died, the way for which Tigers slugger Hank Greenberg put his $55,000 contract on hold for $21 a month in Army pay after Pearl Harbor, the way for which Feller and Williams, the greatest pitcher and hitter, respectively, of their era opted for a battleship in the Pacific and a bomber over Korea.

Yes, sport in many ways is frivolous, but it has had heroes in the truest sense who have left their indelible marks.

So, thanks to them and millions of other courageous Americans, happy birthday to us.

Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: dhack@theblade.com or 419-724-6398.



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