Thursday, June 28, 2012

a newspaper column about heroes you don't really know

This week's column from the St. Clair Times actually started out as a blog post several weeks ago. Seems all the more appropriate now. As always, feel free to argue, either here or on Twitter.
Heroes we don’t really know all that well

Two nights before the Auburn-Alabama game in 2010, I was in Opelika for a Thanksgiving function with members of my extended family. As with everything else that year, the discussion inevitably shifted over to the game and, of course, Auburn’s Cameron Newton.

We discussed everything we knew about the case — which I simply don’t have the heart to go into again — and whether we believed Auburn or Newton himself were aware of all the (apparently) nefarious things that were going on behind the scenes before he came to the Plains. One of my (female) cousins, who believes that God wakes up every morning and checks on Auburn before everyone else, held firm in her belief that the Auburn quarterback was and is pure as the driven snow.

“He couldn’t have known about any of this,” she said.

“And you know this ... how?” I asked incredulously.

“I just ... I don’t believe it. I know it in my heart.”

I bring that up not to pick on her*. OK, maybe I did bring that up to pick on her. Actually, I guess I said all that to make the following point: You don’t know these people. You think you do, but you do not.

* "Her," in this case, is my cousin Maggie, whose husband Jamie has been an occasional contributor to this site. You can read Jamie's thoughts from the entire saga in this site's archives.

Rolando McClain was and is one of the smartest football players I have ever seen. It’s really hard to explain that to someone, but I watched him up close for most of the 2008 and 2009 seasons at Alabama — not only did he call the defense pretty consistently, but he often told his young teammates specifically where to line up, depending on the alignment.

Mark Barron loves to tell the story of how he predicted prior to a play in the ‘09 South Carolina game that he was about to intercept a Stephen Garcia pass ... and then he did. Javier Arenas described Rolando as “Coach Saban if he was way bigger and allowed to play football.” He was unmatched.

That was what made his arrest last December (and subsequent conviction in May) so disorienting for me as a fan of his. It wasn’t so much that a player was arrested — obviously, that happens — but that it was something so stupid. How could someone that smart be so stupid? Didn’t we know this kid? Didn’t we watch him grow up before our eyes?

The answer is yes and no. We did watch the maturation of Rolando McClain ... as a football player. Maybe I think that gives me the right to call him by his nickname (“Ro,” given to him by his teammates) or address him as though he is my kin; but the truth is, if he saw me on the street, he would not know me or want to talk to me. I “know” him in a very narrow part of his life — which is to say, really, I don’t know him at all.

It’s not just with athletes, obviously. I feel like I “know” Mathew Fox because I watched him play Jack Shepard on “Lost” … and that sentence doesn’t even make any sense. There are millions of people who claim to “know” the representative or Congressman from their area, even if they’ve only met him for a few minutes*.

* I deleted a whole section about a former newspaper editor in this area who frequently wrote pieces that included the phrase "my good friend Bradley Byrne." Like Bradley Byrne would be able to pick that dude out of a police lineup. But I am digressing now, which is why I deleted the section in the first place.

The most tragic recent example, of course, is that of Jerry Sandusky, a former Penn State assistant coach who was accused, tried and convicted of doing unspeakable things over a period of many years. He got away with it, primarily, because the people who “know” him never believed it could be possible.

And the truth is, they never knew him. Maybe nobody ever did.

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