How do you define a hero?
A caped crusader in a vibrantly colored costume who races to the rescue in comic books?
An athlete who defies the odds of what ought to be physically possible and wins the competition, carrying the hopes of his/her team and its legions of fans?
A military man or woman who enlists to stand up for freedom when his or her country calls?
A first responder who races to the scene of an auto accident, fire or fight to diffuse the situation when everyone else runs away?
A teacher who inspires children to reach for dreams that feel as unattainable as the stars for which pupils are encouraged to try to touch?
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary definition actually touches on them all. A hero may be a “mythological or legendary figure of divine descent endowed with great strength or ability;” an “illustrious warrior;” or “a person admired for achievements and noble qualities.”
My preferred definition is “one who shows great courage.”
As our nation marked the 17th anniversary Tuesday of the day our whole world seemed to stop turning, we all recalled moments when terror truly hit home. Even if we were nowhere near New York City, Washington, D.C., or Shanksville, Pa., we were all Americans, and we were all touched by the way it felt to learn that we were under attack by enemies we didn’t know existed while we slumbered Sept. 10.
That all changed when terrorists seized control of the first plane early Sept. 11 and crashed it into the first of the Twin Towers before 8 a.m. that fateful, beautiful Tuesday morning.
We all saw evil that day. We saw a bloodthirsty wrath that stole a naive innocence under which many of us had mistakenly believed such ugliness would never, could never touch us.
We were wrong.
But amid soul-searing pain and through tear-stained eyes, we also saw the best, strongest among us emerge as heroes we had never seen.
We saw the firefighters who rushed into burning buildings of mangled steel and collapsing concrete in hopes that there were living people they could carry out — just so those weary men and women who went to work and found war might make it home to families and dinners and birthdays in the future.
Outside, all around, there were people who leaped to their deaths from the gaping wounds the planes rent in the towers, because they couldn’t fathom their fate if they stayed inside.
There were 911 dispatchers who stayed on the lines to talk with people in those towers, who called for help, called for hope and called to have someone with them when they left this world and crossed into whatever met them on the other side.
Some called with messages for their loved ones, because they couldn’t get through a jammed communications system to deliver the love themselves.
And, there were the passengers of Flight 93, led by Todd Beamer and others who spearheaded the plan to stop the highjackers by charging the cockpit with a container of boiling water and a flight attendant’s cart. Evidence exists from phone calls and flight data recorders to indicate that the plane was headed either for the White House or the U.S. Capitol Building, when the passengers caught on. They decided their own fates.
A phone call involving Todd Beamer indicated he was calling the shots right before a scuffle was overheard when he rallied the passengers, asked if they were all ready, then declared, “Let’s Roll!”
After that, the plane made a dramatic shift in direction and crashed into a vacant field near Shanksville, Pa. All of the terrorists, passengers and crew perished, but the sacrifice likely saved many other lives in the process.
Over the last two weeks, much has been made of Nike’s deal to pay second-string NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick $40 million to serve as a spokesperson for the athletic apparel and shoe company, despite his polarizing personality as the athlete who refuses to stand for the national anthem.
Kaepernick has taken a knee during the anthem consistently since sometime during the 2016 football season. He alleges it’s because he sees racial and socioeconomic injustices in America and therefore, believes it would be disingenuous for him to stand and salute a flag that represents such an unjust nation.
On a personal level, I don’t agree with Kaepernick’s politics, the disrespect he shows a nation that allows him to make a handsome living playing a game and acting out because he doesn’t think life is fair. But, as someone who gets up and has a job every day thanks to the freedom of speech and press guaranteed by the First Amendment, I certainly do appreciate his right to take that knee if he believes it’s the right thing to do.
The contrast I saw this week that touched me, however, was that the ad featuring Kaepernick’s solemn, gray-toned photo of an over-serious face also included the lines: “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.”
An Internet meme created years after he died featured another gray-toned photo, this time of a smiling, happy, alive Todd Beamer. Typeface over the image carried the same words that appeared over Keapernick’s nose in the New York billboard: “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.”
Considering the contrasts and context, tears rose.
One man’s fans argues he lost a football contract; then he got a $40 million Nike deal as a consolation prize.
The other man sacrificed his life in hopes of leaving his nation’s government intact after a terrorist attack.
You decide which hero sacrificed “everything.”
— Contact Tammie Toler at firstname.lastname@example.org.