Today's True Athletic Role Models

04/09/2013 06:37 pm ET | Updated Jun 09, 2013

Since its revolutionary inception, America has always been a nation in search of heroes. For more than a century, that role was filled by soldiers, frontiersmen, politicians and explorers. But mid-way through the 20th century, athletes began to usurp that role, as post-World War II affluence sent millions of newly minted middle-class Americans off in pursuit of leisure-time activities.

Sports stars like "Rocky," "Jackie," "Arnie," "The Mick" and "The Say Hey Kid" stoked our athletic fervor and our fantasies. If the devil came down and said that the price for being the hero and beating the "damn Yankees" was your family and, incidentally, your soul, the choice was a no-brainer. And when the real "Rocky" passed, Hollywood created a celluloid version -- and a city that once treasured our Founding Fathers built a monument to a sporting myth.

As big-media and even bigger corporations joined the fray, athletes were ratcheted up to the highest perches in the nation's pantheon. Americans bought into it emotionally and economically. We convinced ourselves that, while we couldn't emulate our heroes' performances, we could -- if only for a moment -- for maybe one shot "be like Mike," stalk the golf course like Tiger, or channel our inner Lance. And if not, we could, at the very least, wear their shirt or shoes.

But the model crashed. With increased media scrutiny on the rich and powerful, many athletes were exposed as less than the sum of their talents and hype. Character flaws and misdeeds were exposed, often more sordid than fans could have imagined. And some of falls from grace -- with deception, destruction and, sometimes, even death to rival Shakespearean tragedy -- has been precipitous.

So now where do we athletic wannabes and weekend warriors turn to find inspiration? The answer just might be found next door or across the street. In recent decades more and more Americans have challenged themselves athletically by biking, walking and running to name but the most popular physical vehicles to raise money for charity.

When the Pan-Massachusetts Challenge (PMC) was created in 1980, it was the nation's first fundraising bike-a-thon for charity, recruiting cyclists to ride 200 miles over two days, to raise money for cancer research and patient care at Boston's Dana-Farber Cancer Institute (DFCI). By 1995, we at the PMC had seized upon the phrase everyday heroes to recognize the thousands of cyclists who each summer accepted our challenge. Over 33 years now, PMC everyday heroes have raised $375 million -- including a record $37 million last year -- for DFCI, helping to keep it at the cutting edge in the war on cancer.

We are not alone. Thousands of athletic fundraising events now attract millions who put their bodies on the line to boost non-profit institutions. They make up an industry that today generates more than $2 billion annually for health and human service organizations. In dire economic times, these monies are desperately needed. American medical institutions, for example, are bracing for a 5.1 percent cut to the National Institutes of Health budget. As even more severe cuts are threatened, the athletic-a-thons are becoming the lifeblood of these organizations, the difference between tangible progress and a standstill or even retreat.

Maybe it is again time to shift our focus elsewhere when seeking inspiration and role models. Maybe these everyday heroes can fill the void. Heroism is not sinking a three-pointer to win the NCAA title or a 12-footer to win the Masters. Heroes and role models are forged less by triumph and medals than by courage and tenacity. Professional athletes may be the sizzle, but athletes for charity are truly the steak.

These athletes are already training for the 2013 PMC and other charitable endeavors. With the advent of spring weather, you will see them out riding, running and walking so that they can soon ride, run and walk distances they once thought unimaginable. Each has his or her reason. But all are raising money for organizations that serve us. So if you require some athletic inspiration, you could do far worse -- indeed you might not be able to do any better -- than to look to America's everyday heroes.