We've all had one: a childhood hero that captivates our imagination, inspires our being and enlivens our days, only to fall from our personal grace in a universal display of... humanity. Kerry Trotter relives the era of her own childhood crush, and finds that in the case of the Epiphany, the discovery of humanity can be anything but a disappointment.
I’ll never forget the first time I saw her.
That devious bombshell, clad in head-to-toe tight, black leather, strutted through the door, blonde bangs teased so high they threatened to scrape the plaster from the dingy Chicago Stadium restroom ceiling.
I started to shake with raw emotion, clinging to the edge of the sink while talking deep, cleansing breaths.
She — that harpy in my midst — stole him from me. My man. The love of my life. I never thought I would come face to face with her, and yet here she was, and I stood inert with rage.
Staring at my reflection in the cloudy mirror, I took care to keep her, now re-teasing her already gravity defying hair, locked in my peripheral view.
“What does she have that I don’t?” I thought, taking in my white turtleneck, pegged jeans, brown buck shoes and Providence Hockey sweatshirt. I looked good. Real good. I even had brand-spankin’-new red and black rubber bands put on my braces in solidarity to my man — the one this floozy stole.
As if it hasn’t become clear, this is a window into my sadly oblivious nature back in 1992. I was 14. The object of my affection was rising NHL star and Chicago Blackhawk center Jeremy Roenick. The woman in the bathroom was his wife, Tracy, his high school sweetheart, disinterestedly taking a cosmetic break from her husband’s game. She was the leather-wearing object of his affection. In the pre-Internet age in which most of us grew up, knowing what an athlete’s spouse looked like was only the purview of the deeply obsessed. You know, those like me. Ugh.
At a time when most young girls are beginning to assert their independence, experiment with makeup, and flirt with boys, I was holed up in our family room watching tape-recorded local news highlight reels of Roenick’s spectacular goals. I was falling asleep to Pat Foley and Dale Tallon calling Hawks games on sports radio (home games weren’t televised back then). I was sitting in a corner at a freshman year basement party holding some poor high school boy captive while I dissected which Original Six team had the coolest jersey.
I signed my homework “Kerry Roenick,” to the immense confusion of my teachers. I cried real tears during homeroom the morning after he tore his ACL. I even married him. Granted, this was during recess when I was in 8th grade, with a classmate standing in for Mr. Roenick. And actually, I was a stand-in for my classmate’s unrequited love, a preschool teacher at our school. I don’t recall who performed the marital rite, but I’m guessing he didn’t have the proper qualifications. And was likely holding a dodgeball.
When I was 12, my dad took me to one of my first Hawks games. Being a former Division 1 college player and a hockey fan himself, my dear father insisted on getting to the old Chicago Stadium early so we could catch warm-ups. It was there I first noticed the graceful, tough and lighting-fast Roenick dazzle during two-on-one drills. He was among the last players to retreat to the locker rooms before the start of the game and, as was his ritual, he grabbed a couple of pucks to toss to fans. The first puck he tossed left, into the hands of a jersey-wearing boy. The second went right, causing a scramble among middle-aged men. The third he aimed dead center, locking eyes with a buck-toothed, preteen Kerry. He smiled, gave a nod, and tossed it my way. I felt my heart swell and my palms sweat, I reach forward to pluck my love puck from midair when some old, out-of-shape dude two rows in front of us performed some unlikely acrobatics to snag it first. Roenick hesitated when he saw his young fan robbed, but out of pucks and out of time, he waved and retreated into the cavernous stadium to prepare for the game.
That’s how it started.
This obsession lasted years, only to be laid to rest by a real-life, actual boyfriend, and Roenick’s eventual retirement in 2009. But I still bear the scars of this love: old memorabilia I can’t bear to toss, the encyclopedic knowledge of Roenick trivia (he’ll be celebrating his 43rd birthday a week from today, by the way), and my very recent excitement over reading his memoir: “J.R.: My Life as the Most Outspoken, Fearless and Hard-Hitting Man in Hockey.”
Ridiculous title aside, my very thoughtful husband procured an autographed copy of the book for me for Christmas, and I tore into it with the abandon I wish I had for actual literature.
There were some funny stories in there, and reliving old memories of following this dazzling 500-plus goal scorer was great fun, but I kept thinking how crushed I would have been had I read this as a 14-year-old. The gambling, the partying, the near-admissions of marital infidelity, the ego — he’s not a bad guy, far from it, and I always respect a man or woman who can admit they were wrong, ask forgiveness and start again. But I can just see how little teenage me might have been heartbroken watching the bright star of his persona dimmed a bit by the foibles of humanity.
I found it fitting that I finished the book on Sunday, the Feast of the Epiphany, the day on which we celebrate the Magi’s visit to the Christ child, thus confirming both for them and the whole world that God had, in Christ, accepted a human nature and would experience a real human life.
Call it outrageously oversimplified, but the Magi are sort of the original superfans, traversing over “moor and mountain, following yonder star” on this uncanny hunch that they would discover something spectacular. But unlike the rest of us, whose earthly heroes delight and then ultimately disappoint, the Magi’s discovery of the infant Jesus left them feeling the opposite of our all-too-familiar disappointment: belief.
Maybe kids these days have developed a thicker skin regarding their heroes, given the overabundance of information and access to it in the digital age. If they want to know everything there is to know about Jay Cutler, they can Google his surly hide. If it’s all Kim Kardashian all the time they’re after, follow her downward spiral on Instagram. There’s little left to the imagination with kids now, and while celebrities have gotten better at self-branding and PR management, often their skeletons are out of the closet an on full display if we dig deep enough.
However, the more the Magi dug, the better it got. This baby, they discovered, was born to bring light into this world, to spread the law of love and the gospel of peace.
And he did. No lapses in judgment, no cop-outs, no shortcuts. And definitely no gambling problems.
He came for us, he died for us, he will always be here for us. He will save us.
As the Scriptures testify: God with us. The world’s true hero.
It’s as profound as it gets.
And for what it’s worth, his memoir was far better written.
Kerry Trotter is the content manager for Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.