Confessions of a Hero-Worshiper
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Confessions of a Hero-Worshiper

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by Stephen J. Dubner

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As a boy, Stephen J. Dubner's hero was Franco Harris, the famed and mysterious running back for the Pittsburgh Steelers. When Dubner's father died, he became obsessed—he dreamed of his hero every night; he signed his school papers "Franco Dubner." Though they never met, it was Franco Harris who shepherded Dubner through a fatherless boyhood. Years later,

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As a boy, Stephen J. Dubner's hero was Franco Harris, the famed and mysterious running back for the Pittsburgh Steelers. When Dubner's father died, he became obsessed—he dreamed of his hero every night; he signed his school papers "Franco Dubner." Though they never met, it was Franco Harris who shepherded Dubner through a fatherless boyhood. Years later, Dubner journeys to meet his hero, certain that Harris will embrace him. And he is . . . well, wrong.

Told with the grit of a journalist and the grace of a memoirist, Confessions of a Hero-Worshiper is a breathtaking, heartbreaking, and often humorous story of astonishing developments. It is also a sparkling meditation on the nature of hero worship—which, like religion and love, tells us as much about ourselves as about the object of our desire.

Editorial Reviews

Soon after his father died, a lonely 12-year-old boy named Stephen J. Dubner began searching for a paternal substitute. He found one, a man already worshipped by tens of thousands of Sunday faithful: NFL All-Star running back Franco Harris. Though the player and the little boy had never met, the Pittsburgh Steelers star shepherded vulnerable Stephen through a fatherless adolescence. Twenty years later, Dubner, now a journalist, decided to track down the weekend warrior who had served him as a father figure. The result was revelatory, though not totally reassuring. Confessions of a Hero Worshiper is an heterodox memoir about what growing up can teach us about heroes and about ourselves.
Publishers Weekly
In a candid yet somewhat disjointed account, Dubner (Turbulent Souls) explores the causes and effects of his devotion to a childhood hero. Dubner's father died when he was relatively young, and Dubner, growing up in rural New York, latched onto Pittsburgh Steeler great Franco Harris as a role model and a source of strength. While much of the book chronicles Dubner's efforts to catch up to Harris and investigate his former (and newly awakened) feelings of awe for him, it attempts to deal with much more. As Dubner explains to Harris at a Pittsburgh restaurant, "I'm also interested in the whole idea of the hero, of the role model. I'm interested in the relationship between a hero and a hero worshiper. I'm interested in how a hero lives through the spotlight and what he does with his life after the spotlight has been turned off." The problem, it turns out, is that Franco really isn't interested. He obviously prefers the relationship to be a distant one, and he'd much rather be tending to the affairs of his nutritional donut company than sharing insights with a starstruck writer. While Dubner's repeated, failed attempts to meet up with Harris are somewhat humorous, the book suffers from Harris's lack of cooperation. One can't help but wonder if a chapter on hero worship that includes the 19th-century historian Thomas Carlyle and the founder of the Lubavitcher sect of Hasidic Jews isn't the product of Dubner digging too deeply for material. While the book doesn't come together as a whole, Dubner's elegant, deeply honest writing will keep readers engaged. (Feb.) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
When his father died, Dubner, ten years old and feeling abandoned, vulnerable, and embarrassed, sought respite from his pain in his fierce loyalty to the Pittsburgh Steelers football team and especially to player Franco Harris, who became his hero. This memoir traces Dubner's attempt to make sense of this obsession from the perspective of adulthood. In his thirties, he contacted Harris, then retired for many years from the Steelers, and attempted to cultivate a relationship. When Harris responded with civility but resisted intrusions into his personal life, Dubner began to analyze his need for Harris to be his hero, even after all these years. His self-examination is intense as he delves into his childhood and the influence of his parents' conversion from Judaism to fervent Christianity, a subject dealt with in his earlier Turbulent Souls: A Catholic Son's Return to His Jewish Family. A former writer and editor at the New York Times Magazine, Dubner candidly reveals his struggles and shares the knowledge he unearthed from within. Though the subject is football, he speaks to anyone interested in the emotional and psychological need to idolize our public figures. Recommended for large public collections. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 10/15/02.]-Nancy R. Ives, SUNY at Geneseo Copyright 2003 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The search for a childhood hero comes to little, but the reasons behind it are illuminated. For Dubner (Turbulent Souls, 1998), there was something special about Franco Harris, the great running back for Penn State and the Pittsburgh Steelers, some special alchemy that stirred Dubner’s soul. What accounted for "the spell he’d cast" over his adolescence, Dubner wonders. What was the gap that Harris filled, or the ghosts of that past that an older Dubner still feels thrum through him at odd moments? Confessions . . . is primarily a psychological memoir, with Dubner unraveling his life and playing it off against Harris and all that the athlete represented to him. His father died when Dubner was 13, just when the man had emerged from a long depression and had shone brightly for a few years, his death stealing away the fatherly spark that Dubner still needed ("Take me, lead me, teach me, protect me, give me permission"). Harris seemed the perfect surrogate. He was "owned by no one" and "He thought for himself, upended expectations, bowed to no pressure other than those he generated." Further, he was humble and thoughtful, plus being a crackerjack running back, the one who pulled off the "Immaculate Reception" and led the champion Steelers. He also guarded his privacy, had a talent for making appointments and breaking them, and kept the obsessed Dubner at arm’s length. As a result, Dubner does a lot of soul-searching: Just why was he dogging poor Harris anyway? He concludes that it was in an attempt to know and understand his role model in a way he wishes he could have done with his father—to gather up some love and fill a few cracks in his life. Dubner’s search may yield what appear to becrumbs, but they’re crumbs with flecks of gold. Author tour.

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HarperCollins Publishers
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Confessions of a Hero-Worshiper

Chapter One

The House of Dreams

Yes, I should have known better than to go home again. This couldn't end well, wouldn't end well, and I knew it full well. But I was powerless to resist.

From New York City, my safe and distant metropolis -- this was a few years ago, before madmen had crashed airplanes into skyscrapers -- I drove in the back way, through the Catskills and up into the rolling lowlands. I passed a junk shop, a self-serve farm stand, a rotted-out covered bridge. Spring had just surrendered to summer. Far in the distance I could see the sweet, straight line where the cornfields, a mile wide, dead-ended at the base of steep woody hills. That line still excited me, just as other lines now excite me -- the curve of my new bride's bare arm, the sight of my own byline.

Along Route 30, memories pounced at me. In Middleburgh: the high-school ballfield where I broke up a no-hitter in the last inning. (We must have lost the game but my own sliver of glory is all that comes to mind.) In Schoharie: the ragged, shallow creek where my mother taught me to fish. (We never caught a thing and lost all our lures.) I saw a flat-faced man soaping up a flat-faced school bus and the thought of riding it -- the thought of childhood -- made my insides sag.

Gallupville Road, my road, dipped and snaked through hayfields and hillocks, pea-green in the muted June light. I had biked these hills a million times, a million years ago. I cursed their steepness and the dogs that sprang silently, teeth bared, from behind the forsythia. Now I only had to nudge the gas pedal and the hills fell away.

For twenty minutes I didn't pass another car. It was taking forever. I checked the speedometer: 23 mph, it said. This was a homecoming retarded by memories; Odysseus had made better time.

Up the steepest hill yet and finally, there below, lay my Eden.

Right away I saw that it was all wrong. The house still stood but the yard did not. The yard was gone. It was now a gravel lot, filled with a couple dozen cars.

The yard was the reason I had come home. The yard was a long, sloping spit of crabgrass where we staked our cow and played ball and recited the Rosary in summertime, the eight of us kneeling in a tight circle around our parents. And a momentous event had taken place in that yard. I had come home to stand in the tall grass at its edge and maybe close my eyes and commune with that momentous event.

The momentous event was in fact a dream -- a visitation, really -- that came to me every single night for a few years. The Dream featured a man I never met but who meant more to me than any man, dog, or deity. Jesus included. In my parents' home, Jesus was the only thing that truly mattered and although there was some mystery as to how the family had gotten that way, his dominion was never challenged. Our world revolved around the goings-on at Our Lady of Fátima, where my parents were pillars and where I, the baby of the family, became an altar boy when I was five.

The church, I had been instructed, was named for the Virgin Mary's appearances to three shepherd children in the Portuguese mountain village of Fátima. I had further been instructed that it would be an honor to receive such a visitation myself, and that I should keep my eyes open.

So when my own visitation arrived, I took it seriously. My hero came to me with a force, a grace, a reality that neither Jesus nor Mary could muster. He left me quivering in my sleep, astir with joy and longing. In my waking hours I thought of him always, and tried to walk in his light.

But my hero was a football player. This was plainly a heresy, and I therefore never as much as mentioned the Dream to anyone. Still, I depended on it. Every night I looked forward to bedtime -- which may say less about the Dream than about the unmoored, keening state of my childhood. It wasn't a miserable childhood, only one with a chunk blown out of its center, that chunk being my father. I had returned to the site of this visitation because I had come to believe that it was my hero who had kept me from crumbling into that hollow center.

Just as I pulled onto the muddy roadside, another car turned in. It was a pale green Honda. The man who got out wore khaki shorts, a long-sleeve Oxford shirt, wire-rimmed glasses, loafers with no socks. He walked with an uneasy, mincing gait, smoothing his hair, with no humility in his stride. He was obviously unaware that he was trampling my sacred ground. From the looks of him, he could have been a schoolteacher. It was late June: maybe, I thought, the man who bought the house from my mother was the principal and he threw a year-end party for his employees?

I rolled down my window. "Hello," I called out, friendly. "Something's happening here today, yeah?"

"Um, yes." He froze as he spoke, then started quickly toward the house.

"What ... what is it?" I asked.

He seemed to blanch. He froze again -- "I don't know" -- then unfroze, hurried up the front steps, gave two quick knocks and slipped inside.

What a jerk. Do you know who I am?

Or maybe I misheard him. Or he misheard me? Or -- I hadn't shaved in a few days -- he thought I was a hoodlum. Or perhaps there was a funeral going on? But he wasn't dressed for a funeral ...

For a few minutes I just sat and fumed. Then I drove toward town and stopped at Wolfe's Market, where I had stocked shelves as a kid. Mrs. Wolfe was working the counter ...

Confessions of a Hero-Worshiper. Copyright © by Stephen Dubner. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

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Meet the Author

Stephen J. Dubner is an award-winning author, journalist, and radio and TV personality. He quit his first career—as an almost rock star—to become a writer. He has since taught English at Columbia, worked for The New York Times, and published three non-Freakonomics books.

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Confessions of a Hero-Worshiper 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Stephen J. Dubner is the child of two first generation Brooklyn Jews, who had each converted to Catholicism during the second world war. They met, married, moved to Upstate New York and had eight children. Stephen was the youngest. When he was nine his father died, and Stephen began dreaming about a mysterious, black Italian, Pittsburgh Steelers football player named Franco Harris. Stephen signed his school papers Franco Dubner, and wore a Steelers Jersey. He fiercely followed Harris' life and career for all the years of his lonely childhood and adolescence. Twenty years later, a grown man, a published author, a New York Times magazine editor and writer, Dubner caught sight of his boyhood hero's picture on the cover of Black Enterprise magazine. He was seized by a strong desire to find his boyhood hero and try to understand the meaning of his long and passionate hero worship. Dubner's search is an extraordinary story of love, loss, and healing. The writing is beautiful and honest. I laughed and cried. Even the descriptions of Harris' football playing held my interest, and I am no sports fan. This is a tremendously moving, authentic story of how the human spirit can transcend the most terrible tragedy, with glorious grace.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This young boy who loved a man he didn't even know? Like most of us some time when we are young there is someone in your life that you look up to. Whither it is someone you know such as a mother or father even someone you don't know like a professional athlete. We tend to but that person up on a pedestal, even if we don't know them in a personal level we just assume they are good people; we also believe that that individual can do no wrong. But like Stephen most of us find out that this person that we think so highly of is really not that great, or I should not any greater than the average person. Yes they may be good looking or a great athlete but they too have their troubles. So don't always put your faith in one person because someday that person may not be what you expected and be a big let down. A very good book I enjoyed reading this book and I am not big reader so it was good for me. Anyone could read this book, good story for both men and women. Not many dislikes from me overall I really enjoyed the book, it got me hooked and at times I could put the book down.
Guest More than 1 year ago
After reading Turbulent Souls twice, and recommending it to our study group, as well as to others, I was eager to read this book. I thoroughly enjoyed Mr.Dubner's writing concise style and content. I found this book to be disjointed, rambling and repitious. It needed much editing and consolidation.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I don't watch football or know much about sports. But I started reading this and couldn't stop. It's a great story about one man's search for meaning. It's funny, smart, surprising, a little strange. I was really sad when it ended. A must-read.