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The Real Heroes : It takes more than star power to be a teen's idol. Today's young people revere deeds, not flash; trust, not trends.

November 09, 1990|ROBIN ABCARIAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Jason Weaver sleeps with a magical football, which might seem somewhat odd for a 17-year-old high school senior.

It's not, really. Weaver sleeps with the pigskin because it was given to him by a man he worships at a time when he needed inspiration.

The football was tossed to him by Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Randall Cunningham, who couldn't have possibly known the impact such an innocuous gesture would have on the slender young man.

Weaver had been having all kinds of trouble when he went to see his hero lead the Eagles against the Rams earlier this year. He'd hurt his shoulder and been forced to give up football and baseball at Antelope Valley High School in Lancaster. He was having problems at home and was even contemplating dropping out of school.

"Everything wasn't going well, with my parents, girlfriend, friends, everything," Weaver said. "I went to this game, and just seeing him out there gave me so much more life. I was out there watching the practice, and they were coming in off the field, and I said, 'Hi, Randall. Good luck. I hope you win and everything.' And he looked straight over to me and said, 'Hi.'

"I couldn't believe it! I was on such a high! After they won, I went down there and he was one of the last guys coming off the field, 'cause he was mobbed by the press, and I said, 'Great game, Randall!' And he looked up at me and threw me the ball. So after that, I sleep with that ball. I wake up every morning and look at that ball, and it gives me the strength to get through the day."

Each year, the World Almanac releases a list of people idolized by today's teen-agers. In the past few years, the top names have come from the worlds of sports and entertainment: Michael Jordan, Michael Jackson, Mary Lou Retton, Sylvester Stallone.

This year, 5,000 high school students were polled, and singer Paula Abdul nabbed first place on the Almanac's 1991 "Heroes of Young America" list. Mom came in second. Neither result is surprising; those who have queried teen-agers on the subject find that they admire icons of popular culture as well as their families.

For the past 30 years, Paul Cummins, headmaster of Santa Monica's Crossroads School, has asked students to write papers on their heroes. His current crop of students admire "rock stars and movie stars--media-generated synthetic heroes--but on their lists were a lot of their teachers, and a lot of people listed 'Mom, Dad, my older sister and other family members.' I think they are looking for heroes in their private relationships, too."

Cummins and others who study social history agree that a hero used to be a more easily agreed-upon entity: an astronaut, a president, a self-made person. We projected our values and aspirations onto our heroes. The less we really knew about them, the easier it was.

It's not so simple anymore. The barriers that once prevented reporters from writing about the dalliances of public figures are gone. And there have been such grand-scale disappointments: Pete Rose in jail, Martin Luther King Jr. reportedly cheated on his wife, Ronald Reagan tried to trade arms for hostages.

Nonetheless, when asked, teen-agers can readily name the people they admire. In recent conversations with seniors at five Los Angeles county high schools about their heroes, Abdul's name never came up. (Mom's did.) The students were somewhat star-struck, but generally their answers were thoughtful and well-reasoned.

Sure, the students spoke of rock stars and athletes. But despite the fact that they are bombarded by images of Michael Jordan selling shoes and Madonna flaunting herself on screens both big and small, these names didn't spark much response at all.

Instead, the heroes they chose were highly individualized--from Lucille Ball to Spike Lee; from people who protected Jews in World War II to their high school administrators. Many admire musical figures they associate with the '60s--Jimi Hendrix and the Grateful Dead. Many chose their parents or grandparents. Some say with confidence (and it should come as no surprise to those of us who were sentient through the self-involved '80s) that you can be your own hero.

What's more, when teen-agers do name heroes, they are frequently willing to accept them warts and all. Pete Rose? He may have fouled out on his tax returns, they say, but that's no reflection on his performance on the field.

In general, young women named women: Olympic gold-medalist Florence Griffith Joyner and Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. Black students chose blacks: Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Walter Payton and Prince. Aida Cardenas at Culver High admires the television newswoman Linda Alvarez. Sam Ou at Crossroads spoke highly of the cellist Yo-Yo Ma. (Heroes did cross race and gender lines. For instance, some white students chose King as a hero and some girls named men.)

"As recently as this month," said Cummins, "I have asked my own senior English class to give me a list of their heroes, and it is completely idiosyncratic."

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