Column: Heroes find ways to overcome obstacles

I never have cared for the New York Yankees.

I guess I can thank my dad for that. He was a fan of the Brooklyn Dodgers or St. Louis Cardinals or some other team. I believe he resented the Yankees' success.

But even with this inherited prejudice, I always admired Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris.

I loved the game of baseball, but unfortunately, lacked the talent to play it well. I was always the "easy out," the kid who couldn't even hit the ball out of the infield. I didn't care: I still loved the game and played every chance I got.

I was usually accepted into those games, mainly because I was the only one with a bat and ball.

I had never developed a real interest in sports. Oh, I would watch the World Series and the Super Bowl, but beyond that, I had little interest. That is, until one day when I happened to tune in a game.

It was a regular-season game between the Yankees and I don't remember who else. I do remember rooting for the other team.

Derek Jeter was playing shortstop that day and muffed what should have been an easy play on a ground ball hit right to him. What surprised me was that he laughed! It was like he knew he should have made that play, but what the heck, stuff happens.

I began to watch more Yankee games and saw more of Jeter. I became very impressed. He played hard and was always giving 100 percent. He never seemed to complain.

If a close call went against him, he never argued. He would look at the umpire, and then walk away, shaking his head, but with a smile on his face.

I began to watch him more closely. Here was an everyday player who made spectacular plays seem routine.

His play on the field and at bat was overshadowed by the big-name pitchers or superstar home run hitters.

I consider him one of the finest baseball players in the game today, and I always tell my grandchildren that if you want to be like someone, be like Derek Jeter.

But then, I believe that I have a fondness for the other players on the team, too - the little guy who would make the play, who got things started.

My mother was a Utah Jazz fan. She loved John Stockton. Stockton was always in the shadow of Moses Malone, but his presence on the court made the game exciting.

I love watching Steve Nash of the Phoenix Suns, too, perhaps for the same reason my mother liked Stockton.

A very long time ago, I was listening to an interview, and the player was discussing his key to success.

"As a boy, I wasn't real athletic," he said. "Then I was told that the only person I had to compete with was myself. Not to think about the other kids, but just try to improve, to do better each day.

"At the time, I liked to run. I was always last in a race. Soon, I found that I could run faster, and one day I looked around and I was all alone leading the race. And that's the way I play. I just keep trying to do better than I did yesterday."

Sports is a strange business. If you make one bad play, miss a tackle, make an error, the fans are all over you. One day you're a hero, the next day a goat.

You're only as good as your next game. If a player has a bad day, like so many of us so often do, he could find himself packing a suitcase and catching the next Greyhound bus out of town.

The thrill of victory; the agony of defeat. I had heard that phrase repeatedly on ABC's "Wide World of Sports" but in truth had never thought much about it. That is, until I became a Denver Broncos fan, led by quarterback John Elway.

I agonized over their losses at the Super Bowl. I lamented that Elway was about to join Fran Tarkenton of the Minnesota Vikings as the guy who could never get it done.

His was a career of frustration. In 1986, Elway and the Broncos led the New York Giants 10-9 at half-time, but in the second half, the Giants scored 30 points and won 39-20.

Then, in 1987, the Broncos racked up a 10-0 lead in the first quarter. Up until that time, no team had ever come back from a 10-point deficit in a Super Bowl. But the Washington Redskins stormed back with a record 35 points in the second quarter and won Super Bowl XXIII 42-10.

Super Bowl XXIV was not a game Elway wanted to remember. The Broncos were blown out by the San Francisco 49ers 55-10 in what was the most lopsided score in Super Bowl history. Elway was now being compared to Fran Tarkenton and Dan Fouts, two other famous quarterbacks who had never won a championship.

I have often wondered what it must have been like for him. How many nights did Elway lay in bed replaying those games in his head and wondering if he could have done something different? The heartache of having a great season smashed. The lingering self-doubt and the constant battle to maintain confidence in himself.

It would be eight long years before Elway would again be given the chance to prove himself. In 1987, the Broncos would face the defending Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl XXXII.

It readily became apparent that Elway was not going to let this game slip away, when he took the ball and ran it in for a touchdown.

I have always believed it was this play that inspired the rest of the team, as the overmatched Broncos rose to the occasion and beat the Packers, 31-24.

What a thrill it must have been for him to have finally gotten the monkey off his back, to have finally won the big one.

I have often wondered how long it was before the realization finally set in and that he was now a champion.

These are my heroes - the men who go out day after day, game after game, doing their best, giving it all they've got. Not worrying. If the hits come their way, great. If not, well, there's always tomorrow.

They love the game and are mindful of the crowds that flock in to see them play. They are grown men getting paid to play a game, a game they love and would play for nothing.

They have shown that skill and determination are not enough, that if you reach down deep enough, you could find the strength to overcome any obstacle.

The men who do this are my heroes.