• Aarik Danielsen

Picking Winners

My small right thumb covered every instance of “super,” leaving the word “heroes” to carry future freight.


Relatively early, I grew tired of caped crusader exploits and “more than meets the eye” Transformers. My story-seeking self pulled toward the real—or reality-adjacent—drama supplied by rock stars, athletes, and actors. And I never really outgrew the tendency. Once I preferred nonfiction to fiction; now, whether light or dark, the novels I read and films I watch take decisive turns into realism.


Sports clinched my attention from early grade school through my late teens. From my distant seat, I saw fields full of pedestals waiting to be claimed. I reserved the highest places for a pair of superstars who seemed to meet every moment: an NFL quarterback and a major-league left fielder.


 
Opening Super Bowl XXXI with a long spiral, the quarterback lived free. His helmet aloft, he raced downfield animated by something pure, something like joy unmixed. I wanted to know that sensation just once.
 

The quarterback’s two feet carried him out of perilous situations—and he moved more than himself away from present-tense dangers. Waving a finger, he directed blockers and receivers through traffic into safer, more prosperous positions.


I learned to talk myself out of trouble, but every well-timed word sapped a little soul. I longed to live cool under pressure, as a natural force respected by bullies and other bearers of bad news.


The left fielder’s eyes and hands moved as one; flicking his wrists, he set baseballs in motion to scrape the underside of the sky. Unable to do what eyes could see, my hands converted clear messages into clumsy murmurs, literally mishandling the assignment, causing me to give up.


Opening Super Bowl XXXI with a long spiral, the quarterback lived free. His helmet aloft, he raced downfield animated by something pure, something like joy unmixed. I wanted to know that sensation just once. But fear of the future, and heavy expectation, watered down even the best celebrations.


Even now, I look upon pictures taken at that moment—the quarterback’s mouth open, ready to sound out a sentiment he didn’t think through first—and wonder if I’ve ever felt like that.


Twenty-year-old footage catches the left fielder splitting the second just after another long home run. He leans back to admire his work like a painter who mixed and applied the perfect gold. Then he glides beyond the chalk of the batter’s box and toward first base, possessed of alien confidence.


 
We pick heroes, and perhaps the strongest criteria we apply is everything we’re not.
 

Even at my best, when a sentence breaks the blue, I squint at my screen hoping it says what I mean. Then I shuffle into the kitchen, ready to sigh into a glass of beer.

The quarterback turned the ball over some 363 times—even then, he earned praise. Lost gambles showed off a peerless daring, Hall of Fame broadcasters said. I fumble daily, and nobody offers me a word.


The left fielder’s cool command yielded a reward: his name and number spelled across my back. Black figures, outlined in orange: Bonds 25. Brett Favre, the quarterback, boasted by proxy every time I wore his Number 4 Green Bay Packers jersey.


We pick heroes, and perhaps the strongest criteria we apply is everything we’re not. Chasing a contact high, laying something of our identity down, we bet on an ability to read the room and pick a few winners.


Read enough reporting, and you can’t help but tell yourself the truth. Your heroes hit long flies, and snuck over the goal line, on feet of clay.


Suspicions of Barry Bonds’ steroid usage grew from whispers into a symphony playing at forte. Sadder still, Favre never learned how or when to quit, grasping for lesser pride on unfamiliar teams; many burned bridges and betrayals later, he moved like a stubbled shadow and fumbled away a deeper glory, sending gross texts to women who deserved to be left alone.


The price of real estate just below Olympus is steep, and even after paying double the rent, something in me misses the oblivion, the reckless acts of devotion dressed up in respectable clothes.


Only two choices ever seem to present themselves: box up your hopes along with your hero-worship or keep looking for a suitable savior. For a time, my heart replaced Favre with Aaron Rodgers, the quarterback who replaced him on the Packers.


Years later, I gave up football altogether—thanks largely to its inability to sift heroes, keeping domestic abusers, and losing the likes of Colin Kaepernick. Then Rodgers showed colors other than green and gold, feeling his way through the pandemic on bad information, proving my complete lack of hero sense.


Now I know why we should wait to name buildings after living people and never raise statues to anyone. Our chosen heroes cannot manifest every missing quality within the square footage of our private hearts and public squares. Maybe you know how to neatly separate the player and the person—history says I never could.


 
A third path quietly emerges. Don’t spend your time and hope on replacements for all that’s missing in you, but on people to grow alongside and grow into.
 

A third path quietly emerges. Don’t spend your time and hope on replacements for all that’s missing in you, but on people to grow alongside and grow into.


In artists and preachers, I notice qualities already within, just waiting on my two hands to tend them. The graceful aging of Donald Hall; long obedience of Eugene Peterson; unforced wonder of St. Mary Oliver; lyric theology of Scott Cairns; holy obstinance of Rich Mullins.

With these examples set before me, I see who I might become, given another 20 or 30 years. But I feel no need to wear their names and numbers across my back; these aren’t heroes made for pedestals, just pilgrims built to know perpetual life.


More than this, I crave a band of fellow stumblers to keep time with. I want to walk alongside Courtney, who carries on in the kindly way of an experienced truffle hunter—only she uproots joy. Let my heart grow two more sizes to match my friend John’s kindness, and my vision expand enough to accommodate the cosmic curiosity of my other friend John.


Give me Sam’s gentle wisdom, Lucy’s compass for justice, Lore’s sense of simple gifts, and Collin’s taste in sentences. Keep me honest in the company of Meg’s radical hospitality, Alina’s poetic daring, Savannah’s eagle eye, Marlena’s confidence in God. Taking parallel tracks, I envision my feet staying grounded, my gaze missing the high places in favor of the horizon line. This is how we live; not camping at the feet of heroes who may or may not disappoint, but carving a steady path toward real, abundant life. Together.




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