Willie Nelson works out 5 times a week. He rides his bike, likes to swim and even does some running. I’d put this bit of information in the Top Ten of the most surprising things I learned in 2012. I met Willie when I produced a segment with him on the TODAY Show. He had a book, Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die, he was plugging. In preparation for the segment, I had a long phone conversation with Willie, spent a good part of the morning with him and his family when he was at the show and, yeah, I read the book too.
I wouldn’t call myself a Willie Nelson expert but I really like his music and I’ve liked it for a long time. That he’s still cranking out quality well beyond his 70th birthday is impressive. Frankly, he’s a bit of a hero of mine.
Which is interesting. Tomorrow morning, there’s going to be a lot of talk of heroes from the Super Bowl. Someone’s going to step up and put on a performance that will excite minds, defy the odds and create a historic place in the pantheon of television’s biggest night. Because of what they do in that 60 minutes of game, some men will be remembered and revered for a very long time.
Heroes have been on my mind this month. One of my biggest heroes, Lance Armstrong, confessed on Oprah that he doped through all 7 Tour de Frances. The world reacted in horror. The man’s been pilloried like a child molester and hundreds of scribes and talking heads have sharpened their knives and sliced away any vestige of heroism Lance once had.
Lance is still my hero. I never thought he was a particularly good guy. I never thought he was clean. But I always thought he was the strongest man at the Tour de France and I always believed that what he meant and did for the cancer community far outweighs what any other athlete in the world has done for society since Ali.
Now, he’s known as a cheater, a liar, someone that destroys peoples lives.
On Sunday evening, Ray Lewis is taking the field for the Baltimore Ravens. Leading up to this game, purportedly the last of an impressive career, Lewis has been celebrated as a first ballot Hall of Famer, one of the most important and respected leaders in the game. A couple of weeks ago in Denver, NFL commissioner, Roger Goodell gave Lewis a big, warm pre-game hug like they were the closest of friends. In 2000, Ray Lewis was involved in the murder of two men outside an Atlanta nightclub. Initially charged with the crime, Lewis made a deal with the DA and agreed to testify against two of his friends: they got off. No one has ever done any time for these murders. Lewis has never explained what happened to the suit he wore that night. It disappeared.
This week, Lewis was accused of using antler spray to recover from a triceps tear he suffered earlier in the season. This kind of injury usually takes 6 months to recover from Lewis was back in just over two months. Antler spray contains one of the active ingredients in HGH, it’s a PED and verboten in the NFL.
There’s a good chance that Ray Lewis just might be the hero of the Super Bowl. The spotlight will certainly be on him. Next year, he’ll be an analyst on ESPN. They call him “Sugar Ray.”
When I was a kid, I never understood the scene in the Wizard of Oz where Dorothy discovers the man behind the curtain. Her realization that the Wizard was a fiction was lost on me. But I get it now. Like every hero I can think of, what they appear to be in a magazine article or a book or a Sunday football game isn’t the totality of what they are. But the Wizard was a fake, Lance and Ray are real.
Hanging out with Willie and his family, I was impressed by his young, incredibly talented son. Just 23 years old, the kid showed me some of his artwork. With his literal, Old Man, they were warm and tender.
I said to Willie in a quiet moment, “You’re quite a family man.”
He looked me dead in the eye and said, “I haven’t always been.”
Willie lost his first son to suicide. In his younger years, Willie drank a lot, ran with a tough crowd and made a lot of bad choices. By his own admission, he wasn’t a good guy.
But you know what? He’s still someone I look up to, someone I can learn from, someone that inspires me. Just like Lance. As for Ray Lewis, I can’t stand the guy but I can appreciate why people call him a “hero.” On the field, he was without equal. After his trouble with the law, by all accounts, Lewis turned his life around and became a pillar in the Baltimore community, one that desperately needs some foundation.
Honestly, all three of these men are better than me. They reached a level of success that I’ve only dreamt of. I can try and diminish their achievement by focusing on their flaws, their very bad behaviors but doing that doesn’t make me feel any better and it doesn’t really take away from what they’ve done.
My heroes are human and thank God, cause so am I.