Unsung heroes

HEROES come in many shapes and sizes. There are national - even international - heroes whose valor has saved whole nations from disaster. Perhaps the greatest example of this in our times was Winston Churchill. As a young war correspondent in South Africa, he proved his personal heroism. But his greater contribution was his bulldog-like determination to warn of Hitler's menace, and his inspiration of the British people in World War II. There are many others: The civil rights leaders who led American blacks to the equality that society had denied them. The Sakharovs, who have held up the flame of freedom in the Soviet Union. The tattered Vietnamese refugees who put to sea in leaky boats. The Afghan freedom fighters.

There are individual heroes, like the Washingtonian who dived into the icy Potomac to rescue drowning passengers from an airline crash.

There are individual heroes of considerable complexity, such as Oliver North, late of the National Security Council staff. Colonel North was a hero in Vietnam, wounded, and bemedaled. But was his service to President Reagan heroic?

And then there are other individuals whose bearing in time of crisis, or whose contribution to society, has the mark of greatness but whose performance seems to get short shrift.

There were two such examples this week. One was Mike Caruso, 10 years old, from Sunrise, Fla. At the international airport in Dallas-Fort Worth this week, an apparently disturbed Syrian national seized the boy from his parents and held him hostage, at gunpoint, for eight hours. The gunman fired a shot at the ceiling, threatened to kill the child, and demanded a plane to Egypt. The boy was eventually released unharmed and the gunman apprehended.

Would that we all could exhibit the coolness of Mike Caruso - and his aplomb during his inevitable press conference. The 10-year-old brushed aside questions about lasting psychological damage. ``He [the gunman] was kind of a nice guy,'' he told reporters. ``I told him I wanted to go to Egypt, but not this way.''

It was Mike's fate to appear at the bottom of Page 20 of my New York Times after his ordeal. (Oliver North was on Page 1 again.) But he's a hero, nonetheless, and his heroism ought not to go unsung.

And then there is Joab Thomas, president of the University of Alabama. He has been campaigning on the national scene to put academics back into college athletics. It is a worthy goal. Many college teams ignore the intellectual development of their players. The result is that a few go on to short-lived careers in professional sports, a few are academically prepared for the real world, but most are ill prepared to contribute to society and earn a living.

Arguing for change, Mr. Thomas took the not unreasonable position that this ought to start at his own college. That is all very well, but the University of Alabama football team has a reputation for winning, and winning big.

When the time came to appoint a new head football coach, a university spokesman told me, President Thomas had three requirements: (1)character; (2)the ability to produce student athletes, ``not a group of gladiators,'' and (3)the ability to win. But the requirements came in that priority.

For his stand, Mr. Thomas has gotten abusive phone calls, a fair amount of offensive mail, and a couple of death threats. Some of the alumni have threatened to withdraw financial support. But the new head football coach, Bill Curry from Georgia Tech, is a religious man pledged to uphold the principles Thomas has laid down.

Assembling good students who play great football, rather than mindless gladiators, might seem a reasonable enough goal. But it takes courage at the University of Alabama.

Joab Thomas fared even worse than Mike Caruso in my New York Times. I could not find Thomas mentioned at all. But he gets my little tribute as one of the unsung heroes of our times.

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