What is a hero?
A new book on parents, mentors and Franco Harris
By Todd Leopold
(CNN) -- When Stephen Dubner was growing up, Pittsburgh Steelers running back Franco Harris was everything.
Dubner, a boy growing up in rural upstate New York, devoured information about Harris. He signed his name "Franco Dubner." He took Harris' statements on life to heart.
And, almost every night until he came of age, he dreamt of Harris playing a football game in Dubner's yard, a rugged, heroic figure who -- weakened by a sudden injury -- would hand him the ball and tell him, "Kid, you're going to have to take it from here yourself."
Dubner needed Harris, needed a hero. He'd lost his father when he was 10. Harris was distant but real, a good, bright man in an often dirty, brutal game, and it wasn't until Dubner went away to college that the Harris worship faded from his life.
Twenty years later, Dubner -- now a successful writer for The New York Times Magazine -- was walking in Manhattan when he spotted his old hero on the cover of Black Enterprise magazine. The image "catapulted me back," he says in a phone interview from New York. He had in mind a book about heroes, particularly athletes, the impact they have and what they do when their time on the field is done.
And here was Franco Harris: successful athlete-turned-successful businessman, personification of the American Dream. Dubner was intrigued. "I wanted to write about this man, and see how he measured up against everything I knew," says Dubner.
So, for his new book, "Confessions of a Hero-Worshiper" (Morrow), he went in search of Franco Harris.
He got more than he bargained for. And so did Franco Harris.
'I don't think I was ever that far gone'
Dubner didn't intend to, he says now, but he pursued Harris relentlessly.
He called the football player and told him about his project. Harris, an affable but guarded man, met with the author -- but promises of future meetings were haphazard, postponed or forgotten. Harris would drop into Dubner's life and then vanish for a time.
That wasn't unusual, Dubner discovered. Harris is known as unpredictable even to his closest friends. To Dubner, the enthralled outsider, the experience of establishing a relationship with him was almost like an unrequited love affair.
So Dubner met with Harris' friends and fans, strolled through his old neighborhood, even sent him small gifts. The author was well aware of his behavior; one chapter in "Confessions" is entitled "I Am Not a Stalker." He still has mixed feelings about the experience.
"I don't think I was ever that far gone," he says. "It's funny about being a writer -- you let your curiosity run wild -- but I never felt like I was crossing a line." He pauses. "But maybe I called too much. ... He's such an accommodating person, he had a hard time saying no. So maybe I didn't take the hint, but then he'd invite me back."
Through his behavior, though, Dubner proved his own point: Heroes do make a difference. It's just that sometimes they aren't everything we believe they are. "It's a little disappointing when you're reading all these things into a person's life and -- well, they're not there," said one woman he spoke to, a fan of the pitcher Vida Blue.
'We want them to be great all the time'
Athletes can find the hero treatment particularly hard, especially after they retire, says Dubner. Their playing fields have no shades of gray: It's win or lose, succeed or fail. And until they hit their 30s, they live in a dream world of adulation and wealth.
Then, suddenly, their careers are done, and they're thrown into the complicated real world. As human beings, they may not come close to living up with their burnished public images, and once fans find out, the athletes come tumbling off their pedestals.
"As much as [the star athlete] is to blame, we as fans tend to absolve ourselves of responsibility," he says. "We want them to be great all the time, and we're very good at looking the other way."
Yet fans also feel betrayed when the truth is revealed. Dubner notes that Richard Ben Cramer's biography of Joe DiMaggio was ripped by some reviewers who took issue with Cramer's warts-and-all portrayal of the Yankee great. Dubner was wary of that happening to his own perceptions of Harris.
"His image is kind of perfect," he says. "Why trifle with that?"
Close to home
Dubner's determination may have been an offshoot of his own revelations. As an adult, he learned that his parents had been Jewish immigrants who reinvented themselves as devout Catholics. In his first book, "Turbulent Souls," Dubner described how he discovered his parents' past and how he returned to Judaism.
The love of Harris, he says, may have dovetailed with his childhood Catholicism.
"I treated Franco as a messiah figure -- it's a logical outgrowth," he says. As an adult, he realized what he did, and yet he was helpless to stop when he started pursuing Harris. "My zeal with Franco flew in the face of what I believe," he says.
But he does believe in heroes, he says. They're a natural part of the human condition: "I do think we're hard-wired for hero worship," he says.
He just believes that heroes are a little closer to home, such as our parents -- our first heroes -- and others who take an interest in our welfare. And then there are ourselves.
"To become our own hero -- that's where we need to be heading," he says.
It helps to be a parent, he adds. "The great revelation in the book [for me] was the neediness I had as a fatherless kid. ... Being a parent forced me to be needed," he says. "It's a daunting responsibility, and exhilarating. I feel like life is important, exciting and full of challenging possibilities."
He's still fond of Franco Harris, though. When "Confessions of a Hero-Worshiper" came out, he sent the running back a copy. Harris called back to thank him. A week later, they met at the Super Bowl.
"We talked for a half-hour," Dubner says. "It's not like closure, but it was a good, nice conversation."