Role models come from every level

Ask any athlete, while they were growing up, if they had a role model in that particular sport.

Many baseball players look up to Derek Jeter. Basketball players can say such names as LeBron James, Chris Paul or Kevin Durant as players they emulate. For girls, athletes like Mia Hamm in soccer or Cheryl Miller in basketball are names that stick out.

But athletes don’t have to be on the professional level to be looked up to as role models. Many times for children growing up, the role models come directly from their high school.

As a little girl growing up in Champion, I played softball – it’s what little girls in Champion did, and still do.

So, as a youth in the 1990s, by far my favorite athlete was pitcher Jackie Beavers – who was the most dominant pitcher of her time as she pitched 221 innings without giving up an earned run.

I remember going to an open gym for pitching lessons, and my idol was there. She took time out to talk to me and give me some tips. That meant more to 10-year old Dana Sulonen than anything in the world.

Though that encounter with Beavers happened 20 years ago, moments like that are still happening in sports today.

A prime example is this year’s run made by the Bristol Panthers’ boys basketball team. Talking to residents and people of the community, this team truly brought pride to the town of Bristolville.

Though the accomplishment of a 22-0 regular season is one that will always be recognized on paper, what the team did to inspire younger players might be more of an accomplishment.

Groups of young Panther basketball players could be found at any game soaking in every moment of watching the Panthers. After talking to school employees, Chad Oliver was a superstar at Bristol in the elementary hallways. Then there was the group of fifth-grade basketball players who shaved their heads to a mohawk to emulate senior Zak Dibell, who shaved his head in the mohawk style in front of the entire school prior to the Panthers’ tournament run.

Another instance, and one that could soften anyone’s heart, I witnessed at the LaBrae-Ursuline district final in Howland. As the cheerleaders were standing and cheering on the court, two of LaBrae’s littlest cheerleaders, no more than 4 years old, were on the sidelines mimicking every motion the girls made. Even when the National Anthem played, the two girls were standing proudly at attention, exactly like what the “big girls” were doing.

Actions like these just go to show how much an athlete can have a difference on someone’s life – no matter what level they play.

Professional athletes are judged all the time on everything they do. What they Tweet, what products they endorse, what they say to reporters after the game. Everything is judged because not only are they athletes, they are supposed to be role models to younger athletes.

That also is true for high school athletes. Even though they aren’t on ESPN, or have 1 million Twitter followers, these athletes are setting an example for their schools and communities. Just look into the stands every game and watch the eyes of the youth. It’s the eyes of the future, who will one day become the role models.