In our special Sports Issue Jennifer Egan, Jane Mayer, David Remnick, Bob Herbert and many others wrote about their childhood sports heroes. We asked you, our readers, to tell us who your first sports hero was, and why. Dozens of readers have responded with thoughtful, powerful pieces about the role athletes have played in their lives. This is our first installment of Nation Reader’s Childhood Sports Heroes. Watch this space for future editions coming soon.
Mike Blackford, Royal Oak, Michigan
On Gordie Howe
The elderly man wielded the shovel slowly but surely, removing the snow after a particularly heavy snowstorm. A passing car stopped and a tall fellow (not really a stranger) got out and asked "Got another shovel?" Sure enough, and between the two of them (mostly the passer-by) they cleared the snow. The senior said thanks to Gordie Howe, as Gordie went on his way. Apocryphal? Perhaps. But such stories were Gospel when I was growing up in the Detroit suburbs. Gordie was our hero—both on and off the ice. A "man’s man" and a good neighbor, he embodied what we wanted to become. Gordie will always be #9 on the ice and #1 in my eyes.
Brian Crawford, Cornelia, Georgia
On Hank Aaron
Hank Aaron was a Major League Baseball all-star for twenty straight seasons. He won the league MVP award in 1957, the year I was born. I grew up watching him hit home runs in Atlanta’s Fulton County Stadium and when I was 16 he broke Babe Ruth’s home run record that had stood for nearly half a century. As a young southern white kid growing up during the civil rights movement, Aaron transcended issues of race and stood out as a hero to us all. He always carried himself with humility and grace even when some chose to belittle his accomplishments because he had the audacity to break a white man’s record. He will be remembered as a true sportsman and one of the greatest baseball players of all time.
Boz Donovan, Jackson, Wyoming
On Muhammad Ali
No one made more of an impact on my life than Muhammad Ali. His incredible skill and courage in the ring were matched by his conviction and determination outside of the ring. I grew up in a small town in Wyoming that was 99% white. I had no idea what it meant when Ali denounced his “slave name,” but his words inspired me to learn more. I was young but I quickly became aware of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr, James Baldwin and the whole Civil Rights Movement. It changed how I looked at the world. When Ali refused to be drafted, even at the cost of imprisonment and the loss of his title, the nation was shocked and the battle lines were drawn. For me, it was the most important lesson of my life. I learned what it meant to stand true to your convictions. I learned what it meant to live a life of integrity. And I learned what it meant to do the right thing no matter what the consequences might be. I can’t think of any sports hero who has inspired me more.
Brian Hayes, Evanston, Illinois
On Ernie Banks
As a lifelong Chicago Cubs fan, it’s easy for me to choose Ernie Banks as the first sports figure I ever admired. Ernie was an outstanding shortstop, winning the National League’s MVP award with a last place team. But he was also gracious and modest with an optimism and dignity many professional athletes today would do well to imitate. He never criticized his teammates, opponents or umpires. However, what I remember most about Ernie is something he did after a game, outside the left field wall at Wrigley Field. Maybe the Cubs had won that day; chances are they didn’t. My friends and I were in a long line with a bunch of other kids, waiting for the players to emerge from the clubhouse in the hope of getting an autograph or two. Some of the Cubs breezed past us, barely nodding at our existence. But Ernie smiled when he saw us and stood there for 45 minutes signing everybody’s scorecard or slip of paper. He seemed to enjoy it as much as we did. Meeting him face to face that day, getting to shake his hand, means as much to me today as it did then.
Bob Meadows, Detroit, Michigan
On O.J. Simpson
He was so smooth, so poised, so polished, so virile, so eloquent, so handsome, the emblem to my 9-year-old eyes of a perfect Black man. I wanted to be him. And in 1976, his team came to town, the Lions’ opponent in the annual Thanksgiving game. I couldn’t sleep the night before. What would happen? What magic would he perform. The game started, and he was brilliant. Beyond brilliant, really. He dodged, he darted, he was untouchable. Befuddling our defense, he ran for 273 yards and smashed his own NFL record. I loved O.J. Simpson before that game, but from then on, he was my hero. And all was well for the next 18, 19 years.
Cindy Shirk, Farmington, Minnesota
On Harmon Killebrew
When I was growing up in the 1960’s, I was one of the few young girls I knew who really paid attention to sports (we didn’t yet have girls sports in school until Title IX). I loved our Minnesota Twins (still do) and I regularly watched televised games with my dad especially to see Harmon Killebrew. Back then, I watched him for his great athletic ability, and as I grew up I admired him also as a dad—his son played in sports and his school often played ours and Harmon would go to the games. As I became an adult, I respected Harmon not only for his great contribution to baseball and the Twins, but also as a humanitarian. He often worked to highlight the needs of children, especially those who were disabled, a cause that has awarded him many humanitarian awards. He was truly one of the best, and we really miss him.
Be sure to also read the contributions from our distinguished group of writers, thinkers and advocates on their sports heroes.