Rocky Marciano was considered a god in my childhood home. He was nicknamed the "Brockton Blockbuster" and was the only undefeated heavyweight fighter in the history of professional boxing. Rocky was born and raised in the city of Brockton, Mass. He was the son of immigrants, a 10th-grade drop-out, and before becoming a world champion, he worked blue-collar jobs like ditch digging and factory work.
Those of us from the Brockton area claimed Rocky as our own. It was a small enough community that many of our families had a personal connection to the world champion. Whatever relationship a particular clan had to the "Rock" was countlessly retold and embellished.
Both my parents were raised in Brockton and had some connection to Rocky; my uncle, Bill O'Malley, supposedly was a one-time sparring partner and my father reportedly worked loading trucks with him for a brief time. But again, anyone who had even the most distant connection to the champ hung that relationship like a family crest for all to see.
Family legends aside, what I do know for sure was that Rocky came to visit me when I was 12 years old in the Brockton hospital. I was there to have my appendix removed. Rocky came in my room unannounced, shook my hand, and gave me a boxing boot that he said he wore to beat Jersey Joe Walcott - I am looking at that boot as I type this. (In retrospect, though I'm sure it was in fact Rocky's boot, I doubt it was the one he wore when he beat Jersey Joe.)
Rocky was a hero in my house. I was too young to ever see him fight - other than grainy black-and-white videos many years later. But my parents watched him box many times, once travelling from Brockton to New York City to do so. My old man told of how Rock would take three punches to give one back, but how that one punch, though traveling only inches, could knock a man unconscious.
There was another story involving my mother when Rocky was fighting a guy named Phil Muscato in Providence, R.I. One of Muscato's fans, a huge working-class man, kept heckling the Rock in the early rounds with the taunt, "Hey Rocky, you're nothing but a banana." This annoyed my mother to no end. When Rocky TKO'd Muscato in the fifth, my Mum reportedly ran up to the heckler, all 5 feet 5 inches of her, poked him in the chest and said, "Who's the banana now, jack-ass?"
I don't know if any or all of these stories are true. I do know they were part of my family's legends and oral history.
I also don't know if Rocky was a good man. I know he was a great athlete and relatively personal the couple of times I met him. Truth is, only a select few could really speak firsthand of Rocky's kindness and character.
I would guess that he was just a guy, no better or worse than most guys, but one with more talent, drive and temptations. But like many who are blessed with physical gifts - both of nature and nurture - our athletes become our heroes.
History is rich with heroes, most athletes are not heroes.
The freedom riders, those who traveled to the turbulent South and risked their lives to fight for integration were heroes. The poor and oppressed black men, women and children who were undaunted nor intimidated by daily threats and abuse, they too were heroes. The fathers, sons, daughters and mothers who fought and died for our country were heroes. The countless relief workers who travel around the world to provide care and solace to the desperate are heroes. The struggling parents who willingly sacrifice, toil and stress to provide for their children ...
You don't have to look far to see examples of men and women worth admiring. Personally, I am in awe of some examples of bravery and sacrifice. And though I have always appreciated and respected the ability of gifted athletes, most fall far short of 'hero' status - at least in my mind.
I guess that is why I wasn't particularly shocked or even disappointed with the recent admission of Lance Armstrong that he used performance-enhancing drugs and lied about it for years. Lance was a talented jock that broke the rules and the law and lied about doing so. He is just a guy, no better or worse than most guys, but one with more talent, drive and temptations. He did a lot of good for cancer awareness, but his ego and bad judgment got the better of him. Though I am a huge cycling fan I don't feel betrayed by his deceit. I am disappointed that his frailties will greatly weaken his cause, but it wasn't as if Mother Teresa got busted for meth. Athletes and celebrities are certainly fun to look at but seldom deserve to be worshiped. That doesn't mean I'm going to part with Rocky's boxing boot.
Jeffrey Bergeron, under the alias of Biff America, can be seen on TV-8-Summit and read in several newspapers and magazines. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org