I was four when I saw my first grown-up movie. Dad took me. We stood in line and got popcorn and a big Coke and he let me eat all the M&Ms I wanted so long as I promised to sit still and be quiet. It wasn’t easy.
Looking back now, I understand that I was only a body. My father isn’t the sort of guy who would ever go see a movie alone (nowadays, he’s not the sort of guy who’ll go see a movie at all). Mom wasn’t interested in coming along, my sister only a baby. That left me.
“I want to watch this,” he told me when the lights dimmed. “Okay? You won’t understand it, but that’s okay. Just eat.”
Dad was right—I didn’t understand that movie at all. Just people talking about things I couldn’t follow, punching and exercising and showing off muscles and cussing. The good guy? Boring. The bad guy? Not so bad, unless you count the fact that he had kind of a big mouth and thought he was pretty much the best person in the world.
I was the only one in the entire theater who spent much of the movie counting ceiling tiles and kicking the chair in front of me, though. Everybody else acted like this was the best thing they’d ever seen. The entire two hours came down to a fight between the good guy and the bad guy. They circled around and beat each other senseless. That’s when people started standing up in their seats. Started hollering for the good guy. Started cheering. I was a four-year-old boy whose entire life revolved around supper and baseball and the monster I knew lived under my bed, but even I understood the movie I was watching wasn’t real and the good guy on the screen had no idea people were cheering for him. But they all cheered anyway, standing up and waving their arms, and then I got into the act, too. Dad, he just sat there and looked at me.
I’ll never forget that. To this day, whenever I’m flipping around the channels and see Rocky on, I’ll stop and watch. I’ll remember all those people cheering in the theater and my dad sitting there stone still and silent, but I’ll also remember the way his eyes looked—wide and gleaming—and how I knew that on the inside, he was cheering Rocky on, too. Because Rocky was him. Rocky was all those people. Rocky was me and you and everybody.
I’ve seen the other movies, six of them total. Rocky beating Apollo and Rocky beating Mr. T and Rocky beating a big Russian, but none of them are as good as the first. It took me a while to figure out exactly why, but I have now. I sat down and watched that movie over the weekend, and it hit me in a tiny bit of dialogue between Rocky and his fiancee, the adorably awkward Adrian. Read this:
Rocky: I can’t beat him.
Rocky: Yeah. I been out there walkin’ around, thinkin’. I mean, who am I kiddin’? I ain’t even in the guy’s league.
Adrian: What are we gonna do?
Rocky: I don’t know.
Adrian: You worked so hard.
Rocky: Yeah, that don’t matter. ‘Cause I was nobody before.
Adrian: Don’t say that.
Rocky: Ah come on, Adrian, it’s true. I was nobody. But that don’t matter either, you know? ‘Cause I was thinkin’, it really don’t matter if I lose this fight. It really don’t matter if this guy opens my head, either. ‘Cause all I wanna do is go the distance. Nobody’s ever gone the distance with Creed, and if I can go that distance, you see, and that bell rings and I’m still standin’, I’m gonna know for the first time in my life, see, that I weren’t just another bum from the neighborhood.
There. Right there. That’s why people loved that movie, why they love it still. Because here’s a guy who knew he couldn’t win, but that was okay. All he wanted was to last, to go the distance with the champ, to hear that last bell and still be standing, because then he would finally knew he wasn’t just another bum. And we all have something like that in our lives, don’t we? We all have that one thing that could prove to us we’re not bums, we’re somebody. Living in that neighborhood or having that job or driving that car, and as long as we don’t have that, we’re nobody.
I know a lot of people who fall for that lie. I’ll raise my own hand and count myself first.
The truth is we all have something to prove, if not to others then at least to ourselves, and I spend a great deal of my time wondering if that’s such a bad thing or not. Sometimes I think it is. Other times, I think it isn’t. But I do know this: Rocky lasted those fifteen rounds. He went the distance with the champ. But I don’t think that happened because of luck. I think it more had to do with the fact that he wasn’t a nobody to begin with. He was somebody, and I think we all are.