America's heroes have always been cowboys. They've always been part of the American love story as they rode hard, worked hard, and dreamed big. And at the end of the day, they looked to the horizon and saw opportunity. It was always out there - it just took some sweat and imagination. You followed the rules, broke nothing but wild horses, and the promise of the West was there.
But something has changed here in America. Our heroes no longer ride tall in the saddle. Maybe it's because we see them a little closer to the ground.
Last year we lost a hero, maybe the last one we'll allow ourselves to have. He rode a dream, not a horse, and on the horizon he gazed at was a little blue marble - the Earth - as seen from where he stood, the first man on the Moon.
Neil Armstrong rode a rocket and he dreamed big. But he was a quiet hero. He followed the rules and shunned the glory - unlike another pretender to the title, also named Armstrong, who broke the rules and sought only the glory.
Over the course of the past month, a parade of American icons and heroes have been exposed as cheaters, frauds, and fakes. And we are left asking the question, 'what is a hero?' Why do we elevate the status of some to such stratospheric levels? And what message does it send to our children?
First there was Lance Armstrong's ignominious fall from grace, as the evidence finally piled up and crushed his denials of doping flatter than a spare bicycle tyre. Once golden, the yellow championship jersey of the Tour de France is now forever tarnished. Armstrong, a cheat.
Next we learnt the ugly truth behind the astonishing story of Manti T'eo, a finalist for the prestigious Heisman Trophy, awarded to the best college football player in the country, who "dated" a beautiful college co-ed for three years until she sadly died of leukaemia after surviving a terrible car wreck.
This tragic love story became a source of great inspiration to T'eo and his team mates as they went on to an undefeated regular season. Only one problem: she wasn't real, she had never existed. T'eo, a fraud.
Then the singer Beyonce shows up to perform for President Barack Obama's second inauguration ceremony, which she called "one of her proudest moments". And she lip synchs the national anthem. That performance by Beyonce, a fake.
Now, the human mascot of the Super Bowl-bound Baltimore Ravens, Ray Lewis, is embroiled in a steroid controversy involving hormone-rich "deer antler extract spray". And the latest news is that New York Yankee baseball star Alex Rodriguez is accused of receiving performance-enhancing drugs.
Whew. And that was just the past few weeks. A broader timeline of fallen heroes includes Tiger Woods, Kobe Bryant, John Edwards, Bill Clinton - and on, and on. What is going on here?
Lance Armstrong was the ultimate "hero", a cancer survivor who went on to win seven Tour de France titles. It seemed too good to be true. And, sadly, of course, we now know it was.
We all had our reasons for wanting to believe in Armstrong. My wife survived a very deadly form of cancer. I called her "Lance in a skirt". His story of triumph gave us hope and an "I refuse to give up" attitude. But in his pursuit of greatness - and glory, fame and money - Lance made a decision that breaking the rules was acceptable. He rationalised and justified his unethical behaviour by suggesting that it wasn't really cheating because everyone else was doing it.
I think we've got it all wrong. Athletes and entertainers aren't heroes. They are mere mortals with talent and ambition. In a hyper-competitive world, they are driven to almost always bend the rules in the pursuit of all that fame brings with it. And then when they achieve fame, they think they are no longer subject to the boundaries that apply to the rest of society.
The lesson we should pass along to our children is that the real measure of heroism should be the deeds we do when no one is watching. It's the things we do for others without any expectation of compensation, recognition, or reward. It's the small, footprints we leave behind.
My family doctor is a great example. Years ago, he was a brilliant, hard-working, serious student caught up in the academic ego-gamesmanship of a famous medical school. And like athletes, entertainers, politicians, and others, he was being driven to become a hot-shot specialist, to go into a field where he would be highly compensated and awarded hero-like status in the medical community and society in general.
But he is one of the few among us who had the depth to realise, as he says, "that a life of balanced mediocrity trumps chasing glory."
He is not famous or rich, but many of his patients who consider him a hero for the quiet, selfless, highly competent work he does, day in and day out, to serve his community and fellow man.
We've always looked up to heroes. And it's unlikely our need to worship will end any time soon. It is part of who we are as a people, as a nation of strivers. But we should not look up. It's time for Americans to look beside us for the quiet footsteps of the real heroes in our lives.