Childhood Heroes and the Disappointments of Adulthood

Most of us can remember a time when we weren’t so jaded and beaten down by life.  These were days of great possibility, when life was what you made of it.  The future was something greatly anticipated, with new things to experience and lessons to learn.

Essex JohnsonIn these halcyon days of youth, we always saw the best in things, and in people.  It was okay to have heroes—individuals to whom we could look with unwavering admiration and affection, without the slightest hint of cynicism or fear that they might not be exactly as they appear.  To return to those days would be return to a time when “The Juice” was a reference to O.J. Simpson (football player, actor, and spokesperson), and had nothing to do with blood doping or anabolic steroids.

Unfortunately, with adulthood comes a knowledge of good and evil, and the understanding that those we held in such high esteem might not have deserved all the love we were all too willing to shower upon them.  (One needn’t look back too far.  A recent purge of collected Sports Illustrated magazines revealed many cover stories dedicated to the likes of Lance Armstrong, Joe Paterno, and Tiger Woods.  A particularly amusing cover from 2000 announced, “With Sammy [Sosa], Junior [Griffey], and Mac [McGwire], the juice is in the National League Central.”  Yes. Yes it was.)

The ’70s were a great time to grow up as a sports-crazy boy in Ohio.  The “Big Red Machine” in Cincinnati was arguably the best baseball team in history that didn’t call Yankee Stadium home.  In college football, Ohio State and Michigan were in the midst of the “ten year war” between Woody Hayes and Bo Schembechler that would take an already heated rivalry off the charts in terms of intensity.  These teams boasted legendary names.  Bench.  Morgan.  Rose.  Griffin.  Tatum.  Gradishar.

While I loved all these guys, my first love was the expansion professional football team in Cincinnati.  And my favorite player was a slight tailback out of Grambling State University, all but forgotten for all but the most ardent of Bengal fans.

Essex Johnson was a good, but never great, running back for the Bengals.  He never reached the 1,000 yard plateau (missing that total by three yards his high-water year of 1973), and was never a part of a team that won a playoff game. His greatest season was the year that O.J. Simpson broke the legendary 2,000-yard barrier, reducing his numbers to a mere statistical footnote.

Other running backs got the bulk of the national attention.  Franco Harris had the “Immaculate Reception.”  Larry Czonka, Jim Kiick, and Mercury Morris were a phenomenon in Miami.  To me, however, Johnson was the greatest back to ever lace up a pair of cleats.  Every class writing assignment in school somehow related to number 19 for the Cincinnati Bengals.  I remember writing letters to Essex—we were on a first name basis—and doodling his image in the margins of other, non-Bengal related assignments.  I might have even written an ode or two about his football exploits, although my memory of such has faded.

The National Football League of the day was far from the all-encompassing, all-media, all-the-time colossus it has become.  Players of Essex’s stature were not being fawned over by the media the way some backups are today.  (Not mentioning any names.)  There were no Essex Johnson uniforms at the local Sears store, and no fantasy football leagues that now turn third-string players into household names.  Despite the lack of attention, I remained loyal to my favorite player, making outrageous arguments out of blind devotion to him.  (“No way I’d take Franco Harris over Essex!  Franco stinks!”)  And I hoped that one day, that devotion to him would pay off in some way.

Then came that fateful day in December.

After arriving home from school, mom informed me that I had received a letter in the mail.  Not being a regular recipient of correspondence via the U.S. Postal Service, I was intrigued.  It didn’t look like my Grandmother’s handwriting.  Who could have written to me?

My heart started beating as I opened the envelope, and saw the most glorious Christmas card I had ever seen.  On the cover was an image of Santa Claus in his sleigh.  The sleigh was being pulled by a poorly drawn tiger through a set of goalposts.

Inside the card was the printed message, “Best wishes for A Happy Holiday Season” (odd capitalization in original), with a small image of the old Bengal helmet below.  On the opposing page was this hand-written message:

Dear Steve,

A friend of yours mentioned to me that you were a good fan of the Bengals so I thought I would wish you and your brothers a Merry Christmas.

I hear that you are really a good boy – keep up the good work.

– Essex and the whole gang

To say that I was elated by the card would require a redefining of the concept of elation.  I remember running out of the house immediately to tell friends, casual acquaintances, and complete strangers in the neighborhood about my new treasure.  For the next month, I think I trotted out the card for every show-and-tell at school, convinced that I had the coolest artifact in the universe.  You got a new toy truck?  Puhlease!  A picture with the governor?  Did he finish in the top five rushers in the league last season?  Didn’t think so.

The fact that I still possess the card is a testament to the special place it has held in my life.  The corners are tattered, and the writing is smeared a bit, though still legible.  It sits in a box with treasured family mementos, pictures, newspapers, awards, and other Rempe memorabilia that no doubt has little value to anyone besides me.  Still, it’s my own little time capsule of what makes me me, and in that regard, the card remains incredibly valuable.

A few years ago I was chatting with my mom on the phone.  It was near Christmastime, as I recall, and we were reminiscing about days past.  The subject came up about our best Christmas gifts ever, and I mentioned the card.

“Oh, I can still remember how your face lit up when you opened that card.  It sure was nice of Mr. Ferguson to send that to you.”

(It should be noted at this point that “Mr. Ferguson” was a childhood friend of my dad’s.  He bore no resemblance to Essex Johnson, never played football for the Bengals in any capacity, and most certainly did not run for 997 yards in 1973.)

A long silence ensued.  When I finally was able to speak, the most I could utter was an uncertain, “Huh?”

Mom must have realized that she had just obliterated one of the most cherished childhood memories of her eldest son. She attempted to backtrack her story as fast as she could.  “Oh, I was never certain it was Joe, I just assumed it was him.  It could really have been that running back you loved. …”

It was a noble effort on mom’s part, but thoroughly unconvincing.

I’ve since been able to mend my broken psyche.  I hold no ill will toward my mother, nor any hard feelings about Mr. Ferguson’s role in the deception.  In both cases, I am sure their intent was good and noble.  I don’t even fault Essex Johnson for not responding to my letters.  I mean, I’m sure he was getting hundreds, or dozens … okay, it’s entirely possible that I was the only person writing fan letters to him at the time, but my handwriting at the time was atrocious, and he probably couldn’t make out the address.  (That’s my official rationalization.)

The point is, I’ve come to a point in my life where I have accepted reduced expectations for adult behavior (what, with my being one and all).  I understand that people are rarely what they seem.  Heroes are not without blemish, and those whom I abhorred are rarely as bad as I remember them being.  (I’ve been told Franco Harris has even done some good charity work.  Still wouldn’t trade him for Essex.)  Apart from a certain Nazarene, no one walks on water, and those that try can expect to get very wet.

It’s easy to long for those days when ignorance was bliss and reality was but a momentary interruption of the dreams of youth.  There comes a time, however, when the curtain is removed, and life is revealed to be the imperfect, sticky mess that it is.

And that, I believe, is as it should be.  As children need to be provided with a safe and secure environment (even if that environment is a bit of a facade obscuring the harsh realities of the world outside), adults need to be reminded that this world is not our home, and that there is only One truly worthy of our complete trust and devotion.

I’m not saying the answer is to become cynical or bitter.  To the contrary, I think I became more accepting of others when I finally realized that, like me, everyone has shortcomings and imperfections—that we are simultaneously fallen and failed human beings and yet created in God’s image and offered redemption through Him.  (Simul justus et peccator, as the Great Reformer once said.)  Such a realization should humble us and drive us to the Cross for forgiveness.  It should also instill in us a more divine love—one that doesn’t love in response to who someone is or what someone does, but a love that acknowledges the existence of sin in this world, yet is not self-seeking and keeps no record of wrongs.

There is something simple and sweet about childhood trust—something that naturally takes people at their word and gets great joy from the simple pleasures in life.  But those attitudes needn’t remain in the past.  “Older and wiser” needn’t translate into “grumpier and more cynical.”  If we are able to see imago Dei in those around us, we are more likely to focus on the good (God) in them.  The result is a much happier existence.

So I think I’ll hold on to the card.  While it might not actually be from my boyhood hero, it does remind me of a time when I was quick to assume the good in people.  And when people do end up disappointing, my hope is that the card will remind me to take joy that there is One who will is true and will never disappoint.

Oh, and Essex, if you are reading this, give me a call—we have a lot of catching up to do.

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Author: Steve Rempe

Christian. Husband. Dad. Bengal fan. (Pretty much in that order.)

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