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Heroes and Villains: From “Die Hard” to Jack Lambert and in between

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One fan’s journey from South New Jersey to the black-and-gold.

I usually take the space Jeff is kind enough to grant me at BTSC to talk X and Os. But I was thinking about something else today and figured I’d give it a go.

As some of you may know, my wife and I had a baby recently. This, of course, requires late night feedings and diaper changes, which my wife (God bless her) handles while she’s at home and I’m working. Unfortunately, she’s under the weather at the moment, which puts me in charge. This is how I found myself on the couch this morning at 2 am feeding my daughter and watching, for probably the 82nd time, the original Die Hard.

I remember something of a debate here a few months back about whether or not Die Hard deserves consideration as a Christmas movie. That’s irrelevant to me, because, personally, Die Hard is a villain movie. One of my favorite villain movies, actually, thanks to the masterful performance of the late, great Alan Rickman as the nefarious German uber-thief Hans Gruber. For forty-somethings like myself who grew up in the dying days of the Cold War, there are no greater villains than the eastern Europeans. Ivan Drago. Boris and Natasha. Those commie bastards in Red Dawn who invaded the Rocky Mountains. The Rocky Mountains for God’s sake! “Avenge me, boys! A-venge me!!!”

But I digress. Rickman’s Hans Gruber character is brilliant because he is at once deceitful, arrogant and deadly. He presents himself as one thing – an accomplished, well-dressed businessman worthy of society’s adoration and respect – when in reality he is something very different. He is a crook, a thug and a calculated killer. Slap a convincing eastern European accent on him and voila! A perfect villain.

I love the sequence near the end of the movie where Gruber meets his demise by falling from the Nakatomi Plaza high-rise. Kudos to director John McTiernan for filming the scene in slow motion so we can revel in the “Oh no!” moment when Gruber realizes it’s all gone horribly wrong. That’s the moment Gruber, the criminal mastermind, finally understands he’s been bested.

The man who has bested him, Bruce Willis’ John McClain, is a down-on-his-luck underdog, the blue-collar cop from back east who flies west to save a crumbling marriage and winds up facing off against a mini Evil Empire. He doesn’t have fancy tools at his disposal like Gruber’s gang. He simply has a big heart and a fierce loyalty to the woman he loves. He will protect her at all costs, no matter the consequences.

Which brings me to my origins as a Pittsburgh Steeler fan. I have relayed this story in part before, so I will do the short version. I was 7 years old, gathered with my family to watch Super Bowl X between the Steelers and “America’s Team,” the Dallas Cowboys. We lived in South Jersey, Eagles country, and so, in honor of their hatred of all things Cowboys, everyone was rooting for the Steelers. The Cowboys were the favorites, or so my family believed, and I remember my uncle saying, “We root for the underdogs.” I liked the cartoon Underdog, so that seemed like a good reason to cheer for the Steelers.

The moment that really made me a Steelers fan, and, if you’ll permit a moment of drama, altered the course of my life a bit, was the infamous Roy Gerela-Cliff Harris confrontation. With the Steelers trailing 10-7 in the 3rd quarter, Gerela shanked what would have been a game-tying field goal. Harris, being the obnoxious troll that he was, heckled Gerela after the kick. Jack Lambert, being the King of All Bad-Asses that he was, summarily yanked Harris away and threw him to the ground. The room erupted. Our family went nuts. My uncle screamed something vulgar about the Cowboys (I know this, because I remember my mother covering my ears with her hands). I stared at Jack Lambert like he was a superhero. Cliff Harris was a punk. And I was a Steelers fan for life.

The parallels between Die Hard and Super Bowl X are too great to ignore. It doesn’t take much imagination to see the glitzy Cowboys with their fraudulent “America’s Team” reputation as Hans Gruber’s gang and the blue-collar Steelers as the plucky John McClain, or Jack Lambert’s defense of Roy Gerela as the perfect complement to McClain getting bloody to save his wife.

Heroes vs. Villains.

It’s a great storyline. In movies and in football.

I have encountered other heroes and villains along the way. At various times, I would have counted Jack Kerouac, Teddy Roosevelt and a dude named Mark Andrews, who I met on a hiking trip through Montana and who mesmerized me with his story (and accompanying scars) about surviving a grizzly bear attack, as heroes. Villains have included various political figures, who for the sake of civility I will not reveal, as well as Gary, the local bully on our block growing up, who routinely interrupted our wiffle ball games by stealing the balls and throwing them into the gutter until my buddy Ed finally worked up the courage to punch Gary in the face. Gary bothered us no longer. Count Ed among my heroes.

And so, I put it to you, BTSC readers: who are the greatest heroes and villains in your life? Football or otherwise? Spill the beans and give us something to consider as we wait out the interminable days between now and the draft…