Why You’re Never Too Old to Have Heroes
He was the greatest. He won five scoring titles, seven MVP awards and a dozen league championships. It wasn’t just the trophies though; I knew he played with style and flair. He was on billboards, commercials and even played a few cameo roles on sitcoms. He was loved by all. Naturally, as a boy with aspirations of becoming a professional soccer player, I looked up to Luis Sanchez. I wanted to win championships and score impeccable goals just like my hero.
I didn’t realize until years later, in my mid-20s, that Sanchez wasn’t actually real. This famed soccer player was nothing but a fable, an imaginary amalgam created by my father. Every time my dad wanted to teach me a lesson as a kid, he did it by using this made-up hall of fame soccer player as an example. If he wanted to talk to me about the dangers of alcohol, he told me about Sanchez’s drinking problems. If he wanted to tell me not to use drugs, he told me about how drugs almost ended Sanchez’s career and his life. To teach me the value of a strong work ethic, my dad told me about how Sanchez was always the first to arrive to practice and the last to leave.
These fictitious tales worked. Growing up I didn’t give my parents any problems. In high school, I was a straight-edge kid—perhaps even a nerd—who never drank, smoked or got into trouble and graduated in the top 10 percent of the class. (I did sneak onto the roof of the school a couple of times during a winter break—a true rebel, I know.) Point is: The lessons my dad taught me through this fake hero stuck with me and shaped me into who I am today.
Now my dreams of becoming a professional soccer player are long past. My new dreams are mostly about building a career in journalism, but I need life lessons more than thoughts on the Oxford comma. I realized that I needed a new hero. I needed someone else to look up to, someone real I could go to for advice.
In my time at SUCCESS, I’ve often read and reported on the value of having a mentor, but I’ve never looked around to find one for myself. So to find out how easy and how valuable mentorship really is, I came up with a list of five people I admire and I reached out to each of them. It turns out that if we are looking for them, heroes are all around us.
Ernie Quilantan is a people person. Everyone loves to work for him. He can strike up a conversation with anyone. He doesn’t take himself too seriously, and he makes people laugh. But above all, he sincerely cares for people. He’s the kind of guy who will take you to the hospital if you’re sick or hurt—he’s done it several times for his co-workers and friends.
During college, I was looking for a job as a server at an upscale, neighborhood restaurant in hopes of making more money. Despite my lack of experience, Quilantan gave me a chance. I worked hard to validate his decision, but after I had worked there for only a few months, he was gone. It turns out, he had been planning to open his own restaurant for a long time. He says his desire to work for himself developed at a young age. “I’ve always wanted to be an entrepreneur,” Quilantan recalls, “taking cookies to school and selling them to kids to make money.”
This summer Quilantan’s restaurant, E Bar Tex Mex, turns 5—a milestone many eateries never reach. An Ohio State University study revealed that 57 to 61 percent of restaurants fail within the first three to five years. Quilantan says the key to reaching this benchmark is having the ability to adapt. “You always have to keep an open mind,” he says. “You can never stop learning.” An open mind led Quilantan to start delivering food—a concept, he says, many thought couldn’t be done with Tex-Mex food. He and his team found ways to keep their dishes fresh during the delivery process, and today deliveries bring in a significant portion of his business.
Quilantan has to go pick up some produce before the dinner rush, but he leaves me with one last bit of advice: Don’t work so hard. Looking back on his career, he says he wishes he had taken time to travel more, enjoy life more and not just work. “I was so focused on wondering where I was going to be in 10 years that I think I forgot to enjoy some of that young life, “ Quilantan says. “I think there needs to be some life balance, but I kind of went in the other direction.”
Growing up in a middle-class family, I had almost no exposure to affluence before meeting Darrell W. Cook. He’s had season tickets to Texas Rangers baseball games—at one point he even had the name of his law firm on his seats about 20 rows behind home plate. He and his wife recently gave their spare Lexus to a friend in need of a car to get to work. On several occasions, he’s invited me to dine with him at the Tower Club, a private restaurant in downtown Dallas on the 48th floor of a skyscraper with one of the best views of the city. And he’s never let me pay.
Despite his success, though, Cook is a humble man who doesn’t flaunt the things he owns, and he certainly wouldn’t list them in a paragraph like the one above. He’s worked hard to get to where he is, and that’s why I admire him.
At the summer church camp I went to, Cook was responsible for editing funny videos as well as writing and directing skits to entertain and wake up groggy teenagers after breakfast. I have a background in video editing, so once I was old enough to be a camp counselor, I teamed up with Cook to help him edit videos for “Morning Madness.” Together, Cook and I made a formidable team. He wrote the scripts, we shot them together, and I edited the videos. For a week during the summer, we bonded over producing videos all day and editing until 3 or 4 a.m. every morning to ensure the videos were ready by breakfast.
Through working together, I developed a lot of respect for Cook. He’s quick-witted, articulate and I learn something new every time I visit with him.
I meet with Cook at his new office, 10 stories up with a view overlooking his alma mater, Southern Methodist University’s Dedman School of Law. When I arrive, he’s wearing sweatpants and a hoodie. It’s a Saturday, and after we talk, he has to continue preparing for a case. Save for one other lawyer, we’re the only two people in the building.
Sitting on his couch, Cook tells me about law school. For three years, he woke up, worked a day job as an accountant, attended classes, and then came home to study. On top of that, he was married with a daughter, living in a two-bedroom apartment. Cook says that during this time, he was doing something to support his family every minute of the day—working or studying to earn his law degree. His decision to pursue law came not out of political aspirations or a passion for justice but because he knew a law degree would create the opportunity to provide more for his family.
As we talk, I assume Cook’s advice for me will be about the value of hard work, but as we wrap up our conversation he leaves me with something I don’t expect. “There is nobody too small for you not to know their name,” Cook says. He cites examples of how every time he eats out, he asks the server for their name, and he addresses them by their name for the entire meal. He knows the name of the building’s security guard, the cleaning staff and all of the assistants. He even knows the names of people who don’t work for his firm but work in his building. “God made them special, too, and one thing you can do for them is to know their damn name. It’s a tiny thing, but people appreciate actual appreciation.” The lesson, he says, was shared to him by his uncle Darrell.
Cook says he wishes he had implemented this earlier in his career. “What good is the advice that you should put in the extra time to make sure you do your job really well? So is the guy in the cubicle next to you,” Cook adds. “The difference between you and him might just be that everyone values you because you value them. It’s not manipulation. Actually value them because they are worth valuing.”
During my days as a server and bartender, the entire staff was nervous when James Snell came into the restaurant. He wasn’t an intimidating person, but as the vice president and general counsel of the company that owned our store, we knew any mistake on our part could potentially get back to the corporate office.
The first time I waited on Snell, I didn’t want to. I counted steps from the kitchen to his table. But as I took his order and chatted with him during his meal, I realized there was nothing to worry about—Snell is an amiable guy. As I waited on him more often, I even memorized parts of his order, which he appreciated. He always drank a Herradura tequila frozen margarita with pomegranate puree. I started learning more about Snell, and I was most intrigued with what he did outside of work.
Snell has a goal to run 100 marathons by the time he turns 65. He didn’t start running until his 30s, and he didn’t start long-distance running until his mid-40s. He ran his first half marathon in 2003, which led to his first marathon in 2004. He’s finished 67 marathons already, and he averages about 10 per year. Snell tells me that at this rate he might actually reach his goal by 61. As a runner, I’m fascinated that Snell is able to run so much at his age. We both ran the Dallas Marathon in December. It was my first marathon, and Snell—33 years my senior—beat me by seven minutes. With a personal record of 4 hours, 8 minutes, he could have beaten me by more, but he was recovering from a previous marathon.
“I really derive more personal satisfaction from the things I do outside of work—like running,” Snell says. “You’re not going to lie on your deathbed and say, ‘I wish I had spent more time working.’ ” Snell says he encourages his three sons to find something they enjoy and to find a way to make a living out of it. He encourages me to continue to do the same but adds something else—something he wishes he had heard earlier in life.
“We are capable of so much more than we think we are,” Snell says. “I didn’t grow up athletic. If you had asked me when I was 40 if I could run a marathon, I would have laughed. I would have thought that was impossible. We don’t use a fraction of our capabilities—whether that’s physical, intellectual, emotional, spiritual—we don’t tap into our potential. Don’t be afraid to do something you’ve never done.”
One of my current life goals is to run 50 marathons by the time I turn 50—essentially two per year for the next 25 years of my life. Talking with Snell makes me rethink whether I can set a higher goal. If I add an extra marathon here and there, maybe I can run 100 by the time I turn 65, too.
Her father went only as far as the third grade—he had to help his parents on their farm. Her mother graduated from high school, but that’s all. Brenda Patterson was the first in her family to attend and graduate from college. She became an elementary school teacher because she was inspired by the teachers who valued her and made her feel appreciated. She carried that sense of value and appreciation into her own teaching career. And it’s one thing I’ve always remembered her for.
Mrs. Patterson was my third-grade teacher. She taught me and my grade school best friends Robb and Jay. She taught my younger brother. She taught Robb’s younger sister. And she taught Jay’s younger brother and younger sister, too. Mrs. Patterson is family. A product of public schools, I’ve had many teachers I respected but few made me feel as special as she did. Perhaps it’s her sense of compassion that made us feel that way, her patience, her kindness, or her authenticity and genuine passion for teaching. But more than anything, it was her smile. In her 28 years of teaching, I’m certain her smile has never faltered.
When we meet, Mrs. Patterson has my class’s yearbook in hand—she’s kept all of them. We catch up and go through the yearbook, and I update her on what we’re all up to. Robb is an auditor. Jay moved to Kenya with his wife to serve a college ministry. She reaches for a tissue as her eyes well up—pride for us, she says. One of her goals is to make a difference in the lives of her students, even if it’s just the tiniest impact. My eyes well up when I tell her that she has.
I ask her how she always remained optimistic and never once let us know that she was having a bad day.
“Thank heaven for recess,” Mrs. Patterson quips. But her tone becomes more solemn when she shares a story about a day when the parents of one of her students came to visit with her. They weren’t happy. Their son’s grades were low because he wasn’t turning in his assignments, but the parents blamed his teacher. Despite their criticism, Mrs. Patterson says she kept smiling. “You just have to keep smiling even though you feel like you might want to cry. You have to get away from whatever it is and don’t take it personally.”
Several years later, when the boy was in high school, Mrs. Patterson ran into him and his mother. After catching up, the mother apologized for how she behaved and admitted she was wrong. Mrs. Patterson says she and the mother cried and then hugged and then cried again. It had all come full circle—a moment she says she’ll never forget. It had all been worth it, she says, because she kept smiling.
Everyone at our office respects Hugh Murphy, the product marketing and development manager of SUCCESS. He’s one of the most polite and professional people you’ll ever meet. In my three years working for the magazine, I’ve never seen him angry, sad or upset. He’s worked for SUCCESS since October 2007, and in that time he’s had different general managers and seen several departmental changes. Through every change, though, Murphy remains unmoved. He says it’s something he learned from his mother. Murphy is the seventh of nine children. Growing up, he says he noticed his mother was always even-keeled, and it’s a characteristic that rubbed off on him.
Before his time at SUCCESS, Murphy says his career took several unexpected turns, but he just kept rolling with it. “I never questioned where I was going,” Murphy says. “I just had to keep moving forward, and it’s worked out.” Having this type of mentality—along with the ability to make his wife laugh—is something that has also led to a successful 35-year marriage, he says.
Murphy tells me he wishes he had taken the time to ask others for advice when he was my age. He says in his last semester of college, he won an award for being the male English major with the highest GPA. A professor suggested he meet with the woman the award was named after. Murphy didn’t take his professor’s advice, and he says he regrets not taking that opportunity to learn more and seek direction.
In my search for life lessons from those with greater life experience, much of what I heard was about things people wished they’d done earlier—value people more, push themselves more, enjoy life more, seek advice more, smile more. I’m sure I’ll have regrets later in life, but I can at least take these lessons with me to prevent other regrets.
I recently asked my dad about Sanchez, and he stuck to his story. The storied striker was real, my dad claimed, even citing that he played for the Mexican national team and once scored an iconic long-distance shot against Brazil in the World Cup. He insisted the soccer player was real. I fact-checked my dad’s claim. Mexico has never scored a goal against Brazil in a World Cup match.
Still, I’m glad my dad’s mind trick worked. He took the achievements and qualities of real soccer players and combined them into one super role model. If my dad had simply preached about not doing drugs or studying hard in school, perhaps I would have rebelled and done the opposite. Instead he identified something I was passionate about—going pro in soccer—and created a way for me to strive for my goal by emulating someone.
As we grow older, our goals change and as a result our heroes change, too. We stop looking up to fictional superheroes, and instead we admire concrete examples of success—everyday people who have worked hard to be where they are. We start to respect people less for achievements like trophies and popularity and more for practical qualities such as kindness and drive. Whether you’re 25 or 65, it’s never too late to ask for help, and you’re never too old to have a hero. It’s even easier when they’re real.
Illustrations by Richard Dominguez
This article originally appeared in the August 2017 issue of SUCCESS magazine.