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6/30/2007

What does it mean for someone to have a hero be usurped, uncovered and disgraced? What does it mean to have an image of another human being tarnished?

Twice in the last month and change, I have caught people in the midst of a lie (that’s a subject for another post… literally, it’s on the chopping block), and I know the level of respect I have lost for them as human beings. But there are much graver offenses out there.

It is traumatizing, to say the least, when someone you revere or admire proves to be anything but a quality, decent human being. That said, it must be earth-shattering when they prove to be the complete antithesis of their projected self.

Earlier this week, pro wrestler Chris Benoit and his wife and 7-year-old son were found dead in Atlanta. WWE ran a full-scale 3-hour tribute to Benoit and his shimmering career through Japan, ECW, WCW and WWE. However, just before the program ended, word broke on the Internet that the primary suspect in the homicide investigation was the man being honored on TV.

Chris Benoit, respected man and role model for up and coming wrestlers, was called out as a murderer. And not just a murderer… perhaps the most heinous sort. He killed his own family.

I won’t go into the grisly details of his crimes. Frankly, there’s more than enough coverage already on the Internet and in the mainstream media. Moreover, given the nature of the deaths, the sinister aura behind them, and the seemingly endless list of oddities regarding Benoit’s behavior and his son’s condition, it’s difficult to even think straight. Seems just when the hauntingly bizarre nature of this story has piqued, another skeleton tumbles out of the closet and adds to the immense pile of bones on the floor.

Not to mention the fact that mainstream media coverage (read: TV news networks and sensationalist reporters) have essentially labeled this a case of ‘roid rage gone berserk. I think enough evidence has amassed to speak to the fragile mental state of this man. Not sayin’ drug abuse doesn’t play a role. I’m sure it does. But it’s only part of the puzzle, not the whole picture.

At the end of the day, the motives are practically secondary to the crime. I don’t think anyone can disagree that for anyone to do what he did is completely heartless and reprehensible. And the driver behind his actions will probably never be known in full.

The point of this post isn’t to analyze the case or come up with the grand solution to his erratic behavior and final act. The fact remains that a man who inspired many both in and outside the wrestling business practically stabbed those people in the back.

It wasn’t long after word first broke about the tragedy that a number of tribute pages and videos were strewn throughout the Internet and YouTube. This was no ordinary man to wrestling fans. He was notorious for his dedication to the business and to his craft. He wasn’t known to the scale of a Hulk Hogan or a Steve Austin. He wasn’t as big as those guys in name or in stature. But to longtime fans, to purist fans, he was by far one of the greatest names to ever lace up the boots.

I don’t want to give a glowing retrospective on the career of a murderer, but Benoit’s track record speaks for itself (and for the purposes of this post, is somewhat necessary). Here’s a guy who spent years honing his craft, working to make it look believable – a daunting task when everyone knows wrestling is “fake.” He’s not the biggest guy, not the best talker by a long shot. Doesn’t even have a character per se, and has spent 90 percent of his career working under his real name.

Simply put, he was different from the big names. But for hardcore fans, that was more than enough. He did his job and did it well. He allowed for us fans to suspend our belief for a while and appreciate something seemingly stupid and scripted like pro wrestling as something more; as an art form.

Once he made it to the big league, his hard work shone through, and his fan base increased rapidly. The so-called “vanilla midget” earned high praise from even mainstream fans and slowly but surely worked his way to the top of the food chain. And after nearly two decades, he earned his place by winning the big one: the world heavyweight championship.

Non-fans have to understand that the belt is a reward of sorts; an acknowledgement of trust and hard work. Think of it as a temporary promotion. You’re the spokesperson for the company.

And as a spokesperson, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone like Benoit. Soft-spoken, humble, determined and driven. All business in the ring, and a devoted family man outside the ring, always willing to shake a hand or sign an autograph from the sound of it.

And to people in the business who were young and training, he was the ideal role model.

And now two cruel, unforgivable acts of senseless violence have caused it all to come undone. The image of Benoit the man has been replaced with Benoit the monster. The fans who used to cheer him now squirm when reminded that his nickname was “The Canadian Crippler.” Memories of his earliest interviews where he methodically and coldly wrung his hands in anticipation of his next opponent, once fun and engaging, now seem chilling when we think of what he did with those hands just a few days ago.

Even his face seems different. It’s frankly unhandsome: rough and haggard, adorned with a stubbly beard, noticeably scarred forehead, and topped off with a thinning hairline and absent incisor. These features used to be regarded as representative of his tough, physically intense style. Aggressive, no nonsense, and to the grindstone. They were traits of pride and accomplishment, like Rocky’s sloped forehead and crooked mouth.

Now they seem perfectly appropriate for the face of a cold-blooded killer. Funny how the only thing that needs to change in this case is the frame of reference.

For the many Benoit inspired, it’s impossible to look at him in the same light now. Impossible not to feel for his wife and son, for their friends and families who have been permanently scarred by this atrocity. Forget the fact that this tragedy will forever change wrestling and its mandates. It has forever altered lives.

Even for me, it’s a hard thing to swallow. I’m no wrestler, nor do I aspire to be. I am a fan but do not watch WWE regularly. Honestly, Benoit was one of the few reasons for me to watch their programming at all. I admired his dedication, the dignity he carried himself with and his tenacity. Those are respectable qualities, and when they were learned, he was not known for being inhumanly violent in reality.

He was flawed. Horribly flawed at the end. Who is to say that he was infallible at all? Who is to know how long he was in this state of mind? Was it because of drugs? Did pressure and depression slowly unhinge him? Truthfully, this is anyone’s guess. There are only a few people who may know for sure, but they can’t tell that story anymore.

The sad thing is that Benoit’s final act will forever mark his name and reputation. It is the defining characteristic that he will always be remembered for in an otherwise exemplary career in the public eye. And given the nature of his crime, that’s not inappropriate.

It’s a shame when heroes let down those who love them. They go from being revered to reviled. All it takes is the loss of trust and character. This happens to be an extreme case. But not the first. OJ. Bill Clinton. Michael Jackson. Clearly there have been others. All flawed. All with legions of fans and followers. In fact, compared to those names, Benoit is not even a blip on the radar. But he was an inspirational entity nonetheless.

For those that loved the rusted hero, the final opinion is the matter of the individual at hand. Some will label him a ruthless sinner beyond forgiveness. Others will admit the horrifying nature of his final act while remembering what a great wrestler he was. Others still will struggle with dissecting the man behind the image for years to come.

What is important is to remember what was learned from him, what we learned about ourselves for those who did admire or respect him, and if a cause is ever determined, to learn from his mistakes. To avoid going down the path he did, whatever that entails.

It’s been a difficult week for me, because even though I have no connection to Benoit and never met him, I picked up some good characteristics from him over the course of following his career. I don’t know that I can ever look past what he did. His DVD is already stowed away in my trunk and away from the rack in my living room. I may never be able to watch his matches again. Certainly not in the same light… the thought of watching him manhandle opponents and making them submit is more frightening than exhilarating now.

However, despite the source, the values are essential. And how I apply them in my life is beneficial. I’m resentful that one who offered so much to me has disappointed me so wretchedly. It’s the worst kind of betrayal. And yet the life lessons are undeniable.

Heroes rise, inspire, fall, disenchant. It’s a harsh cycle. But we’re human. None are infallible. No matter how magnificent they appear.

We cope somehow.

Goodnight, and have a pleasant tomorrow.