Sports heroes few and far between

May 4, 2004 8:11 AM

It is difficult to convict celebrities in this country, whether they are accused of murder, like O. J. Simpson, or rape, like Kobe Bryant, or molesting children, like Michael Jackson.

It is difficult to find a jury that can overlook their celebrity, or ignore the hero worship they receive, or — as in the case of Jayson Williams last week — their big brown eyes.

That was what one juror said after Williams beat the rap on murder charges. "He didn’t have the look of a cold-blooded killer," the woman juror told reporters. "I didn’t see it in his eyes."

So Williams, a former star with the New Jersey Nets, left the dreary town of Somerville and headed back to his mammoth mansion a few miles away, in the heart of New Jersey’s gorgeous north central estate country. The home, if you have seen pictures, is not a home. It is a huge palatial estate, with its own golf course and skeet range and indoor pool and the other trappings of a baronial palace. It is worth what? — $10 million? $15 million? Much more?

Whatever it is worth, as Williams returned there to its splendor, I couldn’t help but think of another professional athlete, lying dead on the other side of the world.

I do not know if Jayson Williams knew or ever met Pat Tillman, for they lived in different worlds, literally and figuratively, and shared different concerns and values.

Williams was the ultimate playboy, with the beautiful wife and multitude of sycophantic friends and hangers-on and servants and chauffeurs, one of whom was killed in Williams’ house by one of Williams’ five 12-gauge shotguns.

A jury of his peers decided that Jayson didn’t do it, but that he lied and covered up for whoever did, or whatever happened. He will face sentencing for that, perhaps as much as five years, more likely one or two or three at the most.

While Williams was living sky high on what he earned because of his ability to play professional basketball, Pat Tillman was being offered $3.8 million to sign to play professional football for three years with the Arizona Cardinals.

He turned it down, and signed instead to serve three years in the U.S. Army. He wound up not in a stadium, but in a theater of war, and a dangerous one — Afghanistan — with "A" company of the 2nd battalion of the 75th Ranger Regiment.

Shortly before Jayson Williams walked out of the courthouse in Somerville and headed to his palace, Pat Tillman walked up a hill near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, one of the most treacherous places in the world.

He was big and he was tough, and he was in the front ranks of Rangers trying to extricate some buddies from a trap.

He also was a good target. Someone on the other side shot him dead.

While Jayson Williams was being offered a second chance, Pat Tillman was being awarded a Silver Star, and a promotion from private to corporal. Both posthumously.

The Silver Star is one of this nation’s highest military honors, and it is given only for gallantry in combat with this country’s enemies.

I remember, as a kid, having a sports hero named Al Blozis, also a professional football player, but better remembered by me as a champion shot putter. I marveled at him because of his size and physique. He was a giant of a man, 6-6 or more and built like a Greek god, massive and manly and downright imposing.

He was serving on mountain patrol while I was fighting in Europe, and when I picked up Stars and Stripes and read that he had been shot and killed by the Germans, I recall grieving for a man this majestic lying dead in the snow, wasted and gone forever.

I have the same feelings for Pat Tillman, like Blozis, a prize physical specimen as well as a prize human being, a man who gave up the fame and fortune of a Jayson Williams for the life of a dogface fighting for his country in a half-baked war.

Given the contrast, pardon me if I’m bitter.