As sports fans, many of us — maybe most of us — have had what we call our heroes. For varied reasons, they were our favourite athletes — home run hitters, goal scorers, three-point shooters.
For that, we plead guilty.
I certainly worshipped my fair share. In hockey, at various times, I considered Teeder Kennedy, Gordie Howe and Frank Mahovlich my so-called heroes. In baseball, there were Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris and Whitey Ford. In basketball, my guys were Bob Cousy, then Michael Jordan. I could add many more.
My first son, before he even started school, had his photo taken sitting on Bobby Orr’s knee. Guess who has been his number one ever since. My younger son was barely into hockey when he was photographed with Wayne Gretzky. Not hard to know who his childhood “hero” was. One of my hockey-playing granddaughters posed with Sidney Crosby. She’ll never forget that.
So it goes.
We all take pride in the star athletes we meet, the star athletes we cheer for season after season. Usually the word “hero” will be attached.
But is that what “hero” really means?
I went to school with a girl who became a teacher and taught Grade 2 children through her career in Rhode Island. She’s become a dear friend and, more than once, she’s told me the word “hero” is used much too often when talking about people who achieved star status in sports and other activities.
She’s probably right.
Thoughts like those came back to me recently when I read the obituary for Oliver Smith, an Antigonish youngster who died a day after his 12th birthday. In fact, I was so captured by his profile that I read the obit several times before putting it down.
I never met Oliver or his family, though I had read about him on earlier occasions. That’s likely the case with many Pictou County residents, particularly ones who follow minor hockey, or keep abreast of people in the neighbouring cathedral town.
Oliver, who didn’t live long enough to become a teenager, did more good things in a very short time than many of us do in a normal lifetime.
His obituary — clearly the memories of his parents, Shauna and Bryan Smith — was beautifully written. Though he was a stranger to me, I found my eyes watering several times as I read about Oliver’s interests and pursuits.
I discovered he was exactly the age I was when I began writing a family newspaper, the launching pad for my long career in journalism. I got to live my dream. Oliver never got a chance to fulfill his.
The Grade 6 student at St. Andrew Junior High School, the obit told us, “loved to participate in sports” and – what really caught my attention — “play with his friends.” Just a normal kid who already had his priorities in place.
Imagine how proud his parents must have been that their son “was a champion for those less fortunate than himself and always promoted fair play.”
What a wonderful description of a young boy.
Oliver was only 10 when he was diagnosed with what is called Ewing sarcoma, an aggressive and painful cancer.
He designed the OllieBots that are built of wood blocks and hockey laces. They became so popular that more than 2,000 were sold to raise money to help other youngsters who need medical attention like he did. That effort will continue to honour his legacy.
Think that ends his story?
That’s just the beginning. He played hockey, baseball and other games that young children play. In hockey, he played for teams in the Antigonish Bulldogs organization. Though his condition prevented him from playing with his teammates, he was a member of the 2018-19 Bulldogs AAA peewee team.
Hockey was his love, the Toronto Maple Leafs his favourite team, Mitch Marner his favourite player. And, thanks to the Children’s Wish Foundation, he lived one of his dreams – getting to Toronto for a Leafs game where he met Marner.
He was an honoured member of the St. Francis Xavier X-Men – both the men’s and women’s teams – and accompanied the local clubs to the national championships.
Back to the obituary.
It said Oliver proved “that hard work and determination always pays off, a motto he lived each day of his short life.”
It’s amazing how the whole Antigonish community supported him, his parents and older sisters Emma and Megan throughout the whole ordeal.
The several awards he received from the minor hockey association, the university and other organizations in the region are indicative of the way the community embraced him as their own.
The support didn’t encompass just the town and the county.
Among the numerous awards listed in the obituary, it was heart-warming how the love spread to other places.
He was “a special selection” by the Moncton Wildcats during this year’s Quebec Major Junior Hockey League draft — a recognition “for his actions on and off the ice demonstrating his courage, teamwork and passion for hockey.”
And, oh yes, I mustn’t forget that he was a young man whose interests didn’t start and end with hockey.
He was an all-round kid, too.
The obituary noted that he “loved to build LEGO, play softball, swim, bike, hike, canoe and camp with his family.” He was learning to play the drums, he loved animals, especially the family dog Spencer, and he was an altar server at St. Ninian’s Cathedral where he loved to participate in mass.
No wonder his parents, family, friends, a whole community are left “with precious memories of his short, but impactful life.”
Maybe, from all of this, you can understand why I read his final tribute several times.
For sure, Oliver Smith — affectionately known as Smitty — who lived for only 12 years and a day, showed us what a hero really is.