This is going to be a hard column to write. I’m often asked where I get ideas for this space. Somehow, something always comes up. This one jumped up and hit me in the heart, so I knew that I had to write it. I want to talk about heroes.

I can remember growing up that most of my heroes were sports stars. Johnny Unitas. Dick Butkus. Julius Erving. I grew up with the space program, and John Glenn was certainly one of my heroes.

I was a teenager during the Vietnam War — a controversial war at best. I can’t say that our country’s leaders at the time were heroic to me. My friends that went to southeast Asia were surely heroes, but when they came home — sometimes scarred and forever changed — we didn’t really think of them as such.

Growing up where I did, it never dawned on my that someone with a huge intellect could be a hero. Albert Eintstein and E=mc2 was just goofy professor-type stuff to me. My vocabulary certainly wasn’t sufficient to understand how smart some people could really be. And that those were the people most likely to change the world.

My heroes tended to run along the lines of those that escaped poverty and mere existence, through sports, adventure or business. The only politician that seemed heroic was John F. Kennedy.

But we are surrounded by heroes. A law enforcement officer that puts on that shield and carries that gun into the night — that person is a hero and worthy of our admiration. We have no idea what that is like, but it takes something beyond bravery. Maybe a strong desire to protect those that under certain circumstances cannot protect themselves.

I find it a bit ironic that growing up, a lot of little kids want to be a fireman or an astronaut or a sports star. Things change, and those kids grow up to be accountants and entrepreneurs — admirable, even necessary professions but they don’t sound as dashing.

I believe firemen are real heroes. Think back to 9/11. There’s a very clear visual of people running from the destructing twin towers of the World Trade Center. Yet running the other way into the face of trouble are the firemen.

It’s what they do. In situations where others find it best to flee, they head straight into the burning building or to the danger itself. If you ask, they’ll tell you that it is part of the job. If you keep asking, they will tell you that carrying a child out of a burning house is worth the risk.

Our military personnel are worthy of consideration as heroes. Especially those that have been in combat situations. Each and every one of them put themselves in the line of fire of somebody trying to kill them. And they do it because of their belief in our nation, our people. Because it is their duty.

But let me tell you about a different kind of hero. One that dwelled among us. Who was part of our community. A family man. A fellow that started a business to provide for his family and quietly went along to be a good man. The father of four daughters. Married for almost 28 years.

When two of those daughters were caught in a riptide in the Gulf of Mexico, he jumped in to try and save them. He saved the youngest then went back for the next one. After pushing her to safety with everything he had in him, a wave came along and sapped him of whatever strength he had left. Resuscitation efforts on the beach were unsuccessful.

I didn’t know this man well but we had met and chatted on several occasions. He lost his life on July 14, but he saved his daughters. In the words of his wife, “You did good, Freddie. You saved your family.”

Rest in Peace, Fred Pepperman. You are truly a hero.

Joe Black, PT, DPT, SCS, ATC is a physical therapist and athletic trainer at Total Rehabilitation and is Manager of Outpatient Rehabilitation for Blount Memorial Hospital. Email to write to him.

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