By Jason Wirchin

They are the kings of sport, the heroes of our childhoods, and perennial back page superstars.  As kids, we would emulate their every move – their swings, their jump shots, their Hail Mary passes – aspiring to one day be the athletes we loved.

But once the spotlight fades, we see that all that glitters isn’t gold.  Before we can come to grips with the feats they have accomplished, our on-field idols become off-field fools.  Like clockwork, the most immaculate sportsmen deflate our expectations, destroy our trust and disenchant our dreams.  Call it the byproduct of money, naivety, and self-indulgence.

As our national pastime, baseball deserves first licks.  During the 1998 Home-Run Race between St. Louis Cardinals Mark McGwire and Chicago Cubs’ Sammy Sosa, fans nationwide forged a renewed interest in the game.  Throughout that summer, both sluggers slammed dinger after dinger until McGwire broke New York Yankee Roger Maris’ single-season record of 61 in early September.

With every swing, the duo drew us always closer to believing they were the real deal.  But it was a trap.  Both used steroids knowingly, but what did they care?  They were rich, they were on top of their games and they were the beating pulse of an American love affair.

When rumors surfaced that both men used performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) to shatter Maris’ mark, however, love turned to lamentation, and lamentation turned to lost hope.  Suddenly, Big Mac wasn’t so big and Slammin’ Sammy was far from slammin’.  And this was only the beginning.

In 2001, San Francisco Giants slugger Barry Bonds crushed McGwire’s three-year-old homer record of 70 with a season total of 73.  As if our icons’ images weren’t tarnished already, Bonds’ alleged steroid use would have had Maris rolling in his grave.

With the world watching six years later, Bonds shattered Hank Aaron’s all-time home run record of 754, his milestone accomplishment scarred by PED speculation and strong public distaste.  The disgraced left fielder was accused of perjuring himself after he told a grand jury that he never knowingly took steroids.

Perhaps the game’s darkest day came on December 13, 2007.  In former Senator George Mitchell’s report on steroids and other illegal substances in Major League Baseball, nearly 100 current and former players were implicated as having had some level of involvement in banned drug transactions.  Several names were expected, others came as a shock.  Even so, role models betrayed the fan base and giants became goats.

Moving onto the gridiron, the NFL has had its fair share of legends gone bust. As for Mr. Notorious, look no further than OJ Simpson.  A Heisman winner, No. 1 draft pick, five-time Pro Bowler, and four-time rushing champion, Simpson racked up over 14,000 career yards.  A stalwart with the Buffalo Bills and San Francisco 49ers, he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1985.  Then  his most famous dash was done behind the wheel of a white Bronco.

In June 1994, police accused Simpson of killing his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, Ron Goldman.  A low-speed car chase in Los Angeles followed before he surrendered to the police.  Over a year later, on October 3, 1995, despite substantial evidence denouncing Simpson’s innocence, the once-beloved star was found “not guilty” of double murder.

Here lies the bombshell of all bombshells.  That a man so envied and established could fall from football’s highest peaks is a testament to Simpson’s blunt idiocy.  With little regard for the opportunities provided by his career, he acted thoughtlessly and in line with the psyche of a madman.  If fans weren’t disillusioned by the charges against him, they were most certainly baffled by his acquittal.

Of similar disappointment is expelled New York Giant Plaxico Burress.  After making the game-winning catch in Super Bowl XLII last year, the wide receiver accidentally shot himself in the leg this past December.  Authorities hit Burress with criminal gun possession charges, and later seized ammunition and other weaponry from his New Jersey home.  Big Blue? Try Big Blew.

For whatever reason, violence is an all too common way for athletes to botch their legacies.  Take former Yankee Jim Leyritz, famous for his two series-defining home runs during the 1996 and 1999 Fall Classics.  The slugger now faces DUI manslaughter charges for striking a woman in December 2007.  If convicted, he could face up to 15 years behind bars.

As if this circus of clowns couldn’t be more disappointing, leading the pack is none other than merman Michael Phelps.  After shocking the world in Beijing this past summer, Phelps won a record eight gold medals, and surpassed Mark Spitz as the most decorated Olympic champion in a single games.  He hypnotized audiences around the globe with his last-second finishes and unparalleled endurance.  But when that fateful photo surfaced of Phelps, bong in hand, a god was made mortal and a swimmer drowned in his own ignorance.

Athletes are people, and as people, they make mistakes.  Perfection is nearly impossible to attain, even if trophy rooms prove otherwise.  But with great power comes great responsibility.  Celebrities are superheroes in the eyes of many, and their follies send a sour message to their fans.  A message, perhaps, that the champions on our Wheaties boxes are nothing more than a bunch of flakes.