Biff America: Silent heroes |

Biff America: Silent heroes

Other than comic books and TV, Rocky Marciano was my first living idol.

He was the only undefeated heavyweight fighter in the history of professional boxing. Rocky was born and raised in the city of Brockton, Massachusetts, the son of immigrants.

Those of us from the Brockton area claimed Rocky as our own. It was a small enough community that many families had a personal connection to the world champion. 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 me, he was my first hero I met face to face.

Rocky came to visit me when I was 12 years old in the Brockton Hospital after having my appendix removed. He burst into my room unannounced. He shook my hand and said he was an old friend of my dad and uncle. I was so shocked, I was speechless (might have been the last time). The next day, he returned and gave me some photos, a small inflatable punching bag and a boxing boot that he said he wore to beat Jersey Joe Walcott.

That boot lived in a cedar trunk in my home for years. I would occasionally pull it out, but mostly, it went unenjoyed. A few years ago, I gave it to a buddy of mine who has a small boxing museum in his home. The boot now has a rightful place of honor once again.

I was too young to ever see Rocky fight — other than grainy black and white videos many years later. But my parents watched him box many times, once traveling to New York City to do so. My dad told of how Rocky would take three punches to give one back and how that one punch, though traveling only inches, could knock a man unconscious.

There was another story, told and retold, involving my mother when Rocky was fighting a guy named Phil Muscato in Providence, Rhode Island. 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 hot-tempered, red-headed mother. When Rocky knocked out Muscato in the fifth, my mum reportedly ran up to the heckler, all 5 feet and 5 inches of her, poked him in the chest and said, “Who’s the banana now, jackass?”

I don’t know for sure how many of these stories are true. I do know they were part of my family’s oral history. I also don’t know if Rocky was a good man. I know he was a great athlete and charismatic the two 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 and celebrities become our heroes. It is as if their genetic gifts make them admirable. They are certainly worth admiration but not necessarily worship.

Along with the Rock, my early heroes were various Red Sox and Celtics players. As I got older, my worship shifted to artists, writers and activists — Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassidy, Bob Dylan and various poets and writers. With the athletes, I was in awe of their skill. With the likes of Dylan and Kerouac, their words, to a degree, directed my life and behavior. All of them were gifted, though I have no idea if they were worth revering.

But there were others, then and now, who displayed quiet bravery. It just took some age perspective to understand that.

The Freedom Riders, those who traveled to the turbulent South and risked their lives to fight for integration, were heroes. As were the poor and oppressed Black men, women and children who, undaunted and not intimidated by daily threats and abuse, worked to integrate public schools. The fathers, sons, brothers and daughters who fought and died for our country were heroes. The relief workers who travel around the world to provide care and solace to the desperate are heroes. The parents who sacrifice, toil and worry to provide for their children are heroes.

Heroes are all around us. Mostly, they are not tough, attractive or otherwise a master of their crafts, but rather regular people doing remarkable things quietly everyday.

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