by Michael McHugh
A role model is a person who sets a good example for others. The way they act, the way they demonstrate their values or the way they play hard at their sport are all positive influences. Kids of all ages idolize sports figures from high school to the pros, and want to emulate those athletes.
These days, a lot of pro athletes make headlines for the wrong reasons. But there are plenty that get it right, and for those who do, they have a loyal following.
Just ask thirteen-year-old Sean McHugh, of Nashville, Tennessee. In 2004, Sean’s dad Dan, took him to Los Angeles to see the LA Lakers take on his favorite team, the San Antonio Spurs. It was his first in-person NBA experience, having only seen Tim Duncan and company on TV. It had him hooked, and last month, Sean’s parents gave him another surprise, a birthday trip to Houston, to see the Spurs take on the Houston Rockets.
In 1997, while watching the World Series between the Florida Marlins and the Cleveland Indians, by brother Zach, who was in second grade at the time, latched on to a young new player, Craig Counsell, the Marlins rookie second baseman. There was really no rhyme or reason. He just liked his scrappy play, and a hero was born. Zach wrote letters to Counsell after the series, but of course, it was the off-season, and the letters went unanswered, surely lost in the piles and piles of fan mail the team would get.
He wasn’t discouraged. When the 1998 season kicked off, the Marlins made their way to Houston. My mom took Zach to the game and he stood behind the dugout with other loyal fans, hoping to get an autograph, or a glimpse of his new found idol. He came prepared, armed with a Sports Illustrated World Series issue, a baseball, and a Sharpie. Counsell signed the magazine for Zach, and chatted briefly before the game began. That kind gesture was everything to my brother, who jumped on the Counsell bandwagon, hook, line and sinker.
A couple of months later, while watching the Marlins play Houston on TV , Zach watched in horror as Counsell was struck in the jaw by a fastball from Houston’s C. J. Nitkowski and sustained a compound fracture of the inner jaw, ending his season.
Zach wrote Counsell numerous letters offering his sympathy and support, sent him a gift, and a care package to help him through the rough times. Counsell didn’t forget his favorite fan in Houston and hand wrote Zach a note, on Marlins stationary, thanking him for his support and for being such a big fan. A friendship developed, and the two corresponded with each other during the off-season. Zach received an invitation to the Marlins spring training camp in Viera, Florida, in 1999 and the whole family made the trip. It was a memorable one for us all. It was also an experience Zach would never forget. Zach is now 17 and still makes his way to the ballpark to say hello to Craig when he comes to town. That one gesture made a liftetime memory for my brother, who will forever be Counsell’s biggest fan.
For Sean, an avid basketball and Duncan fan, his recent trip to Houston was one he won’t forget either. Besides having great seats in the middle of the action on the floor, he was also able to talk to his favorite Spurs, including Manu Ginobili, with whom he had is picture taken, and get some autographs on a basketball he brought along before the game.
“It was a phenomenal opportunity to come and see some of my favorite teams in the NBA play against one another,” said Sean, who just happens to love the three Texas NBA teams. “It was so exciting.”
Tim Duncan is a great role model for young fans. I love watching him use his sound fundamental skills.”
After the game, I talked with Duncan, and told him about his young fan who had flown to LA and now Houston from Nashville, just to watch them play. He stared at me as if in disbelief, and shook his head.
“That’s awesome, and unbelievable,” said Duncan. “I’ve never actually heard of that and that’s a cool thing to hear, that I’ve got fans all over the place. I can sure remember 14 years ago coming in here as a professional, not really knowing what to expect and people have really embraced me over the years. I think that’s awesome.”
Duncan seemed genuinely touched that someone held him in such high regard.
Asked if he had any advice for his young fan, who loves to play the game himself, Duncan replied, “Play a lot. There is nothing like experience. People talk about practice and everything and that’s great, but you can play a lot of pickup basketball and you need to find different people to play. That’s the only way to get good.”
Guys like Counsell and Duncan are great role models, for all the right reasons. Besides their tremendous abilities in their sport, both give of their time and money to charity work, and conduct themselves in a respectful manner, both in and out of the spotlight. They are also grateful for their fans, and appreciate their loyalty.
As for Sean, he left Houston happy and loaded with memories, and is already looking forward to another road trip, and his next NBA experience.
“It’s been a great experience and fantastic weekend,” he said. “I can’t wait to do it again.”
Craig Counsell Q&A
STAY TUNED TO MLB.com/Kids for the video interview!!!!
MM: Who influenced you most in life and why.
CC: My parents, for sure. They’re the ultimate role models, so my parents were the biggest influence.
MM:: What is one thing in your locker that would shock people to know?
CC: I don’t have anything crazy in there. Just the normal stuff.
MM: If you were stuck on an island, which of these things would you want with you. A good book, a good movie or a good CD?
CC: I’d probably have a good book. It would last longer.
MM: What book?
CC: I’d take a long one.
MM: Who would you consider to be your biggest fan?
CC: (laughs) That’s a loaded question. I can’t say one person, but I have a lot of great fans, and their support is great and I’m glad they enjoy watching me.
MM: Have things changed for you now that you’re a dad?
CC: It’s changed quite a bit. It’s a great thrill and it’s wonderful, and it changes your perspective in what things you consider important. I love it every day being a father.
MM: What do you consider as your greatest strength as a player?
MM: What would you have done for a job if you weren’t a baseball player?
I’m not sure. I haven’t had to find out yet. I went to college and have a degree in accounting, so maybe something like that.
MM: Do you feel there is a great responsibility being a role model?
CC: I think it is a responsibility, but if you are a good person and you try to live your life as a good person, then everybody’s a role model. That’s how I think of it.