"Someone would have done it for me"
On a late-April Saturday morning in 2006, eleven members of the Centralia High School varsity football team turned their thoughts to community betterment. As a service project, the players had volunteered to spend the day removing worn tires from local landfills and commercial establishments for recycling.
As the players went about their chores, a man ran breathlessly up to them and said that a mechanic nearby was pinned beneath a Ford F-150 pickup truck that was crushing him after it had slipped off a hydraulic lift. "We need all you guys to help us. There's a guy trapped." Fellow employees were already struggling to raise the multi-ton vehicle off of 33-year-old Ed Marsh, but they were not strong enough.
The football players raced to the scene, lifted the truck off Marsh and moved him to safety. An ambulance took the injured mechanic to the hospital, where a physician said that he would have died within minutes without the players' intervention. Marsh suffered multiple injuries to his arm, back, lungs, hip and pelvis but, after surgery in a medically-induced coma, he continued recovering at a rehabilitation facility.
The players "saved his life," said Marsh's sister, "They are definitely heroes." The cheering Illinois Legislature echoed the praise a week later, but 16-year-old Travis Patten dismissed notions that he and his teammates had done anything special. "If I was in that spot," he said matter-of-factly, "someone would have done it for me."
Ordinary people doing extraordinary tasks
"Heroes Are Hard to Find," sang British rock band Fleetwood Mac in their 1974 hit album. The group made great music, but missed the mark about heroism. Someone once said that "a hero is an ordinary person who performs an ordinary task in an extraordinary situation." If we pay attention to generous deeds large and small, heroes are not hard to find.
The Centralia football players were ordinary high school athletes anticipating an otherwise uneventful day of community service. Lifting a truck a few inches is a chore for 11 athletes, but otherwise an ordinary task that requires a sense of purpose but not death-defying bravery. The life-or-death emergency presented an extraordinary situation, and perhaps teamwork on the field had prepared the football players for dramatic teamwork off the field.
Why did Travis Patten deflect attention by saying that "If I was in that spot, someone would have done it for me"? Stanford University professor Philip Zimbardo, who studies the psychology of heroism, says that modesty characterizes many men and women who win praise as heroes for generosity, courage or both. "Most heroes are ordinary people," says Professor Zimbardo, "and they tell us, ‘I'm nothing special; how could I not do what I did?'"
Perhaps a hero's modesty is itself heroic.
Sources: Paul Hampel, "Those Boys Saved His Life - Centralia High School Football Players Help Free Mechanic Under Pickup, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Apr. 26, 2006; U.S. States News, Gov. Blagojevich Honors Illinois Heroes for Response in Emergency Situation, May 18, 2006.