Mike O’Shea was a physically powerful and courageous man, but what made him a hero to his lifelong friend, Andrew Cotto, was his capacity for love.
Imagine my anguish. It was the first day of a recent college semester. I was standing in front of a large class of bright-eyed juniors and seniors. Normally, these are among my favorite days. I love teaching, and meeting new students always inspires my passion. But this day was different. The subject of the literature course was epic narratives, focusing on the heroic qualities displayed by the protagonists in such tales. After standard introductions, I led the class into a discussion about modern heroes and asked if anyone had any examples. A few told of the sacrifices parents made on their behalf. Those who responded to 9-11 came up; soldiers; cops; the guy who saved someone who fell on the subway tracks. A kid in a Yankees hat brought up Derek Jeter. Sadly, though, the class had a hard time coming up with any other examples of contemporary heroes. This is normally the time I step in to reinvigorate a stalled discussion, but I was unable to do my job that day. It wasn’t because I had nothing to say. In fact, I had a great example of a contemporary hero, who just happened to be my oldest friend. But I was incapable of telling his story that day, so I’m telling it now.
Mike O’Shea and I grew up together. We were born five days apart and lived five houses away. We were baptized together 44 summers ago. We spent our childhoods in a small town, in a small neighborhood sequestered on three sides, respectively, by train tracks, an electrical plant and an active gully that bordered a grammar school with vast fields and hills beyond. Our childhood was packed with enough adventures to fill a novel. We came of age together as adventurous adolescents and accompanied each other into manhood. As adults, we stood in each other’s wedding parties, vacationed with our spouses, and lived our lives to the fullest when we were together, which was often. Our children are friends. I’m not a religious man, but I believe I am blessed to have Mike O’Shea as my oldest friend for many reasons, not the least of which is that he is the most heroic figure I have ever known.
Mike O’Shea is physically tough. Even as a little kid, he had an impressive physique, defined muscles eager for development. Mike began lifting weights around puberty, and he’s possibly spent more time pumping iron than any other non-body-building-professional on the planet. By the time he finished high school, the guy was huge. His chest put barrels to shame; his triceps resembled fire hydrants. And even when his bench press would exceed 500 pounds, Mike could still crank out a 40-yard-dash in 4.5 seconds. He had blazing speed and massive strength. But this wasn’t enough for Mike, so he began studying martial arts. He earned his black belt, many times over, and soon began training others. I consider this heroic enough, but there’s more.
Mike O’Shea is mentally tough. It takes a lot of mental energy to be so dedicated to physical fitness. His relentless commitment to exercise and martial arts is alone enough to rank him among those I hold in the highest esteem for mental toughness, but Mike’s mental fortitude reaches the pinnacle of heroism when one considers what he was able to accomplish in the classroom. Mike’s severely dyslexic. When we were growing up, few school kids were diagnosed with any disorders. People just thought of Mike as dumb because he couldn’t read. He endured this stigma throughout grammar school (and in after school programs and summer school) without a hint of self-consciousness. That’s not to say he didn’t care. He cared deeply, but he maintained his dignity through what had to be the excruciating humiliation suffered at school each day. It wasn’t until he was in high school that an astute educator was able to diagnose Mike’s problem. Still, there wasn’t much with regard to special needs, so school continued to be an extraordinary challenge that he countered with extraordinary grace and grit. Mike didn’t bully or act out or respond with any adversity associated with affliction. He never asked for sympathy or special consideration. Mike graduated high school on time, went to community college and eventually earned a Bachelor’s degree in Criminal Justice. To me, this makes his physical accomplishments (almost) trivial.
All of Mike’s physical and mental endurance was for a reason. His dad was a New York City police officer who retired as a decorated captain. Mike idolized his father and had law enforcement in mind from a tender age. He made himself nearly invincible from a physical standpoint for reasons beyond self. He suffered through school and earned a degree because his dream was impossible without it. Mike wanted to be a cop. He wanted to be a cop for the purest reasons: to protect and serve. And serve he did. Mike joined the ranks of the Los Angeles Police Department and spent many years in LA’s worst neighborhoods. After a brief stint as part of our hometown police department, Mike became a DEA agent based in New York City, again finding himself in some of the most dangerous and difficult scenarios imaginable in all of law enforcement. On occasion, Mike shared stories of his adventures on the job, but he kept what happened at work to himself, not wanting to expose his family and friends to the horrifying reality he faced on a regular basis. I know enough about Mike to know his heroism on the job was nothing short of epic.
With all due respect to Mike’s traditional tough-guy attributes of heroism, his most heroic quality is his capacity for love. He believes in love as a conquering force, and he has conquered legions. I’ve never known a more universally adored figure than Mike O’Shea. His ability to connect with people from all backgrounds/ages/genders, his concern for those not included, his warmth and smile and comforting presence (not to mention his handsome good looks and love of good times) have made Mike a social titan. His benevolence is legendary. So many people look up to Mike in admiration, look to him when in need, and look for him when in trouble. To his beloved family and legions of close friends, he’s been our Atlas, holding up our earth for so many years.
Maybe the earth eventually grew too heavy for our dear Atlas. Mike was diagnosed with leukemia last spring. He passed away this winter. It was the first fight he ever lost.
I would have loved to have shared all of the heroic qualities of my oldest friend Mike O’Shea with my class of bright-eyed college students on a recent first day of school. But I just couldn’t. The day before had been Mike’s wake, which over 2,000 people attended. The next day would be his funeral service with both local and governmental law enforcement tributes. A police escort secured the route from the church to the burial ground as the official motorcade swung by, among other places, the little neighborhood in a little town where two kids, one hero and one witness, had spent their childhoods.
Image credit: stevendepolo/Flickr