Monday, July 25, 2011

Standing Tall

Last week, I went to the “Captain America: The First Avenger” premier in Savannah with about 450 3rd Infantry Division Soldiers. I’m not doing a movie review, but I have to say I liked the film – a lot. I loved the action, I loved the 3D, I loved the actors chosen for the roles, and I enjoyed the story and what I saw as the heart of the film – that we shouldn’t jump to conclusions about people.

“Captain America: The First Avenger” is the story of Steven Rogers, a 90-pound asthmatic who is turned down from enlistment in the U.S. Army four times during World War II before being accepted into Operation: Rebirth, a project intended to enhance U.S. Soldiers to the height of physical perfection via “Super Soldier Serum.” Rogers was chosen, not for his physical attributes, but because he had a heart bigger than any of his counterparts. Once he is “reborn” a super-human, Rogers becomes known as “Captain America” and helps the U.S. fight off the Nazis.

Steven Rogers was a guy who people turned away without even giving him a chance, yet he possessed greatness that couldn’t be tested with a physical examination.

After the movie I talked to Sgt. Steven Melton, who is with the 3rd Combat Aviation Brigade here at Hunter Army Airfield. Sergeant Melton has been fan of Capt. America since he was a kid, and at 25 and standing about 5’3” he said he can really relate to Steven Rogers. He, like Rogers, doesn’t look like the prototypical Soldier, or what people “think of” as fitting the role or a Soldier, yet here he is.

Like in “Captain America,” the ideal physical specimens are revered in sports and the little guys are glanced over. Athletes like LeBron James, Terrell Owens or Zdeno Chara are what we expect – larger-than-life men who stand above us “normal” people.

But once in awhile a Steven Rogers comes around; a smaller guy who has the talent and the heart to figuratively stand nose-to-nose to those who physically tower above them; guys who were turned away again and again, told over and over that they couldn’t make it to the pros, and who had to work 10 times harder than those taller or more muscular than them to prove their worth.

When I was watching the NBA Finals, one player stood out to me and it wasn’t LeBron, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh or even Dirk Nowitzki – it was JJ Barea, the Dallas point guard.

Jose Juan Barea stands at 5’11” and weighs 175 pounds. In normal life that may be average or even slightly above average size; but in the basketball world it’s puny. Yet, as he went against LeBron, Wade, Bosh et al, he stood his own; against men 8, 10 or even 12 inches taller and probably 50 pounds of muscle heavier, Barea held his own.

Barea might be the Muggsy Bogues of the new generation. Bogues is the shortest player to ever to play in the NBA at 5’3” and 136 pounds. Yet, despite his diminutive size, Bogues was an NBA slam dunk champion. Both Barea and Bogues are significantly shorter than their NBA counterparts, yet both have significantly added to their teams, and have probably set a great example for all of the undersized kids who want to be more than what is expected.

But we all fall victim to making assumptions. When I saw Barea, I remembered a good player at Northeastern University in Boston while I attended Boston University; but I didn’t think it couldn’t be the same guy – Northeastern isn’t exactly an NBA feeding ground. Until one of the announcers said “Barea, who played college at Northeastern University in Boston…” and I realized I was guilty of jumping to a conclusion just like so many others; I assumed a guy from Northeastern couldn’t play in the NBA; others thinking a short guy can’t make it in the NBA.

Steven Rogers, Sgt. Steven Melton, JJ Barea and Muggsy Bogues – none of them “look the part.” People make assumptions when they see a shorter guy, and think he couldn’t possibly be a basketball player or a Soldier. But these men have proved through their heart and drive that they can stand with those who tower above them.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

A class act

Posting this a little late ...

Let me first say – I hate the New York Yankees. I am a Red Sox fan to the core, born and raised right outside of Boston. My reason for that disclaimer is to show how difficult it is for me to write the next few words: I am a Derek Jeter fan.

Jeter is the ideal New York Yankee. In fact, he’s the ideal face of any franchise. Every single game of his career, he has left his heart on the field and he has remained even-tempered on and off the field. In short, he is a class act. Despite despising the pin stripes, I truly admire their shortstop of the last 15 years.

On July 9, Jeter got his 3,000th hit when he homered against the Tampa Bay Rays. It was a long time coming – Jeter has certainly slowed in recent years – but he is just the 26th player to reach that batting plateau and the first player ever to reach it while wearing a New York Yankee uniform. 

As he rounded the bases, not only did the crowd at Yankee Stadium stand and cheer, but the Tampa Bay Rays came out of the dugout to applaud the impressive milestone. It was just the latest in a long list of examples that show to the universal respect that Jeter has commanded throughout his career.

Jeter is an athlete who transcends team loyalties; he’s one of those athletes – like Jerry Rice and Cal Ripken Jr. – who you can’t help by respect, even though you may not like their team. Even though the Yankees are such a polarizing team, Jeter is not a polarizing figure. Unlike his teammate Alex Rodriguez, or Barry Bonds, both of whom are great baseball players but are universally hated to the point that their achievements are not celebrated, but scorned.  

I think I’d have a hard time finding someone who doesn’t respect Derek Jeter. Throughout his career, the Yankee shortstop has remained respectable, both on and off the field; he isn’t one to talk trash and he doesn’t make negative headlines. He has remained the perfect model of how to be a superstar athlete – leaving his heart on the field each and every game and remaining a gentleman while doing so.