MARTIN SLAGTER: Searching for a sports hero

TO THE FINISH LINE: Martin Slagter Jr. (right) comes to the finish line during the Fifth Third Riverbank Run in May. (Pioneer photo/Martin Slagter)

Growing up, a lot of kids have sports heroes.

They seem like supermen with the physical ability to do anything — they’re on TV, they’re selling soft drinks in commercials.

I didn’t worship any particular athlete growing up, but I did have a couple of heroes — my mom and dad.

I catch some grief for it, but I think my parents are cool. They’re my biggest fans — maybe my only fans based on some of the phone calls I get at the office.

They’re hard-working people who have instilled those same values in me.

They are not famous. They didn’t win NBA titles. They weren’t selling soft drinks on commercials.

They were always there for me, though, which is more than a lot of people can say about their parents. That means something to me.

I never had a sports hero, though. At least until a couple of months ago.

My father, Martin Slagter Jr., played sports growing up. In fact he still holds the school record time for cross country at Grandville High School – a record that still stands, I’m told, since high school switched its distance from 2.5 to 3.1 miles.

You would never hear him talk about it. He’s a quiet man, quick to praise you for your accomplishments, but refusing to recognize his own.

It wasn’t until recently that I became interested in his running. Coincidentally, his interest in the sport also was renewed.

Out of the blue, my dad, who is now 58 years old, decided he wanted to make a comeback and competed in the Fifth Third River Bank Run.

Admittedly, my knowledge of running is limited, but I would assume dusting off your running shoes after 40 years isn’t a common occurrence.

But he did it. Over the months, I would get updates on his progress — 2 miles, 4 miles, 10 miles. Eventually he was close to approaching 15.5 miles — the distance he would need to run in the 25k.

As his training progressed, I found myself cheering for him more and more. Not in the way I maniacally cheered for Michigan’s football team or the Tigers as a kid.

I was rooting for him because, for the first time in the 28 years I had known him, he was doing something for himself, instead of the family or me.

I never got a chance to meet the high school sports star he was growing up. I only know the man who had constantly sacrificed everything — his time, money and energy — so he could raise his two children.

You could make the argument that his only mistake as a father was biological — not passing on his athletic genes to his son. His punishment would be having to endure sitting through endless sporting events where his son would sit the bench. But hey, nobody’s perfect.

As the day of the race approached, I began to anticipate it like it was the Super Bowl. However “routine” the race is for most people, its significance had grown for me.

My mom, sister and I anxiously waited for him. Hours passed. As I saw runners who looked to be in great shape collapse near the finish line, I began to worry.

Was he going to make it?

He did, crossing the finish line in 2 hours, 27 minutes.

The comeback was complete.

Meeting up with him after the race, I mentioned that I was proud of him. I don’t think I’ve ever told him that before.

The truth is, I always have been.

While I never had a sports hero growing up, I do now. I guess it’s never too late.

Happy Father’s Day, dad.

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