Most kids’ heroes are their Dad, or Grandpa, or sometimes, Spiderman. But sometimes, the hero is an athlete. Today’s sports heroes with nationally recognizable names come mostly from team sports – the Steelers, the Bruins, the Lakers – you get the picture.
When I was in elementary school, most of our heroes were the movie cowboys we watched every Saturday afternoon. But I had another one – an idol that most 4th grade girls didn’t know much about. My hero was a nationally known athlete, born in Brockton, Mass., the next town over. The locals bragged about “their” Rocky Marciano, the “Rock from Brockton.”
Rocco Francis Marchegiano went from his impoverished hometown beginnings to become boxing’s Heavyweight Champion of the World. He was the son of Italian immigrants. Brockton, a hardscrabble town both then and now, had a large Italian section on the south side. When Rocky began his climb through the boxing ranks, the entire town went crazy for the local kid.
During an early fight in Rhode Island, the referee couldn’t pronounce Rocky’s last name. His manager wanted to change it to Rocky Mack, but Rocky insisted that his pronounceable last name be Italian. He was true to his roots, and his hometown adored him.
My infatuation began by accident. It all started when I began listening to weeknight boxing matches on our small kitchen radio. I began tuning in to the matches simply because it was the only station without static. Talk about backing into a new interest.
I loved listening to “fight night” as I lollygagged over washing the supper dishes. I listened to bouts with featherweights, welterweights, and heavyweights featuring Willie Pep, Sugar Ray Robinson, and the up and coming Rocky. That was when it became exciting – Rocky lived only live seven miles away. We were practically neighbors!
To me, Rocky Marciano was larger than life. I scoured the front page and sports pages of the Brockton Enterprise every day after school, always on the lookout for Rocky stories. As his fame grew, rough-and-tumble Brockton exercised bragging rights, while their fighter with the “greatest punch in history” climbed the ranks. The bars were mobbed, gangs of Rocky fans spilled into the streets.
In October 1951, the Big Fight happened to be on my birthday. Rocky fought the beloved Joe Louis, known as the “Brown Bomber.” Joe was 37 years old with a record of 68-2 with 54 knockouts. Rocky, who started pro boxing very late at age 23, had grown up idolizing Louis. By age 28, Rocky’s record was 37-0. He KO’d his hero in the 8th round. After the knockout, Rocky went to Joe’s dressing room and sobbed with him.
I couldn’t wait for that fight night to happen. My Aunt Rose had invited Mom and me to her house for my birthday supper and cake. I remember telling her about the big bout and how important it was to me. More than a little surprised, she agreed we could watch the match, and to this day, I’ll never forget it. Nine of us crowded into her tiny den to watch the fight on her black and white 10″ round television. I was thrilled because we didn’t have a TV set.
Watching that fight, I nervously chewing my fingernails. It was my first taste of fandom. I had never really rooted for anyone before, and I desperately wanted my local good guy to win. He had captivated me. I savored every line I read in the paper, clung to every sportscaster’s words on the radio. Rocky was my first hero.In Brockton, Marciano’s work ethic inspired many young men. He trained like a madman, never slacking off. Local men bet their savings accounts, their businesses, even their homes. Rocky hysteria ruled. I’ve often wondered who took those bets.
And the frenzy continued into 1952 when The Rock finally fought for the title. Rocky-mania had spread well beyond New England by September. Front page headlines screamed when Rocky knocked out the World Champion, Jersey Joe Wolcott, in the 13th round. Rocky went on to defend his title against Wolcott a year later, dropping him in the 1st round with his “wrecking ball” of a right punch. Brockton, “Home of Champions,” remained loud and proud. Rocky had a great run.
Marciano announced his retirement in 1956, at age 32 finishing his career at 49-0. Sixty-seven years later, he is still the ONLY undefeated World Heavyweight Champion.
Tragically, Rocky died in a small plane crash the night before his 46th birthday. I heard about it at work, and I was overcome.
After decades of delays, a 22-foot statue of the Son of Brockton was unveiled at Brockton High School. It’s the world’s largest statue of an athlete. The date, September 23, 2012, commemorated the 60th anniversary of Marciano winning the world heavyweight title.
Finally, our triumphant hero stands – never to be forgotten.
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