John F. Russell: Looking up to a Catfish
Steamboat Springs — As a child growing up in the Denver Metro area, I often looked to sports to find role models.
I used to dream of what it would be like to be a professional athlete, and since baseball was my game of choice, I found my heroes on the diamond. I didn’t pick Jim “Catfish” Hunter because he threw a perfect game, or because he won the Cy Young award — he did both in the 1970s.
I looked up to Hunter because he was a diabetic and a guy I could relate to my own life. I was diagnosed with diabetes as a young child, so I was thrilled to see a professional athlete who was dealing with diabetes and was at the top of his game at the same time.
When he wasn’t winning on the mound, Hunter stepped to the plate and became a spokesperson raising money and awareness to battle the disease. Hunter pitched for the Kansas City Athletics, the Oakland Athletics and the New York Yankees before problems with his arm and his diabetes forced him out of the game. He died in 1999 after a yearlong battle with Lou Gehrig’s disease.
That was more than 35 years ago, but I still have my “Catfish” Hunter baseball card stored safely inside of an old shoebox. The corners are worn, and the card has a slight bend where a rubber band used to hold the card next to the rest of his New York Yankee teammates, but I don’t care.
I don’t care that the card is not perfect anymore, I don’t care that “Catfish” was a made-up nickname given to him by a coach and I don’t care that diabetes was part of the reason Hunter left the game. When I was younger, his story inspired me to live my life to the fullest, and his efforts let me know that diabetics could play sports at the highest level.
The card still is as special to me as the day I purchased it at the 7-11 across the street from where I grew up. The only downside is that it no longer has the scent of the bubblegum it was wrapped with — but it’s still one of my favorites.
I feel sorry for children these days. There are times when I sit back and wonder who my children will look up to, who will inspire their dreams and who they will tell their own children about when they are my age.
My hope is that my daughter might find a great role model on the soccer field where she has found the game that she loves. Maybe it will be Solo, Wambach or Morgan. But it’s not my choice to make, and maybe she will not find her role model on the field at all, and that’s fine.
I don’t care whom my children pick to look up to in their life. It’s only important that they inspire them to be better and that the person inspires them to push their limits and reach their potential.
To reach John F. Russell, call 970-871-4209, email jrussell@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @Framp1966
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