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Sacramento’s ‘hometown heroes’ learn to navigate global fame

Before they became global celebrities, Spencer Stone, Alek Skarlatos and Anthony Sadler were three young men intensely focused in the moment.

Today the world knows how the three buddies from Sacramento reacted after a man with an AK-47, a pistol, a box cutter and multiple ammunition clips set upon that Amsterdam-to-Paris train Aug 21. It knows how they charged and subdued the would-be terrorist, how they saved the life of a wounded passenger and potentially hundreds of other people.

They were kissed by French President François Hollande at Elysee Palace in Paris. Their hometown threw them a parade ending with a tribute at the Capitol. President Barack Obama greeted them in the Oval Office, proclaiming, “They represent the very best of America, American character.”

Bathed in a brilliant media spotlight, these overnight superheroes now greet opportunities of instant fame few can imagine. The three pals who had joined together for a sightseeing trip through Europe are capitalizing on their international deeds of bravery – and more.

Soon-to-be-promoted Air Force Airman 1st Class Stone, 23, recently was given a Chevy Camaro on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” Sacramento State student Sadler, 23, felt the love on “The Tonight Show” with Jimmy Fallon. Army National Guard Spc. Alex Skarlatos, 22, turned out for “Good Morning America” in New York’s Times Square, where he announced his new gig on “Dancing with the Stars.”

Appearance requests stream in by the hundreds as a support network of public relations consultants and attorneys volunteering their services help the friends manage the deluge and evaluate options.

Media experts caution that the fanfare may bring challenges the friends never could have contemplated. Demands on their time may become overwhelming. Privacy could become a thing of the past, with strangers basking in their presence or dissecting their every move. Ultimately, fame could become draining or simply fleeting.

Then again, these young men may prevail in an altogether different test of the moment – by learning how to enjoy the wave of publicity and then to manage the positive attention in the long-term context of their lives and ambitions.

According to interviews with a personal-branding expert, a psychologist and a cultural scholar who specializes in impacts of celebrity, the young men are now valued as much for their heroism as the modesty and upbeat personalities they displayed since the incident.

“When you add in what’s called the likeability factor, these guys have it,” said Karen Leland, a branding and marketing strategist for the Sterling Marketing Group in San Francisco. “They’re good friends from childhood. They have this sort of ‘three amigos’ kind of thing. And they’re all good looking men, attractive and young. That equals a good story – and we love a really good narrative.”

Leo Braudy, a University of Southern California professor who researches fame and mass media, said the three men are beloved not just for taking down a gunman but for “making people feel great ... about being American at a time when so much of the news is a downer.”

The test now, Braudy says, is for the men to stay focused on their sense of self amid the cyclone of attention.

“People think fame is about freedom and it gives you all these opportunities,” Braudy said. “But fame is also a trap as well. You can be pressured to do things you don’t want to do. People can flood in. ... They want to be in your aura, and that can be a little difficult to handle.”

Donna Rockwell, a Michigan clinical psychologist and a former CNN producer who is working on a book on the repercussions of stardom, said the men can help themselves by acknowledging that their lives have changed – probably forever – and that fame can be a “stressor” akin to major life events such as marriage, divorce or a death in the family.

“When I saw all the accolades they were getting, being awarded the French Legion of Honor with the president of France kissing them on both cheeks, I felt some pause,” Rockwell said. “Now they are off: Now they are completely unprotected. They have lost the cloak of anonymity that their lives have afforded them.”

Picking their spots

Yet so far, they are getting plenty of support in navigating their new stature.

After his office was flooded with requests for tributes, interviews or appearances featuring the local heroes, Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson reached out to a renowned public affairs consultant and a major California law firm to help the trio face what was coming.

Aaron McLear, founding partner of Redwood Pacific Public Affairs in Sacramento and a former press secretary for former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, took on the assignment pro bono. So did the law firm of Weintraub Tobin, which has offices in Sacramento, San Francisco and other California cities.

When ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars” came calling for Skarlatos, Weintraub Tobin made available its Beverly Hills entertainment lawyer, Jessica Marlow, to handle the contract negotiations in time for him to learn dance steps for his appearance on the show’s season opener last week.

Before his fox trot with professional dancer Lindsay Arnold, Skarlatos dedicated the appearance to Stone and Sadler. He told the audience, before turning in one of the night’s top performances: “You probably have no idea who I am. I’ve never danced – like ever.”

McClear said the three men “know things have changed. ... They’re certainly having fun, as they should. But they’re smart enough to know the Fallons and the Kimmels won’t call forever.”

The friends have made careful decisions on how they want to tell their story and to whom. After appearing in individual interviews, they granted an hour-long group interview Sept. 11 to Megyn Kelly of Fox News. Meanwhile, they have sought their own audiences off-camera, including hobnobbing with Apple CEO Tim Cook and other technology executives in San Francisco.

“I think all of them are looking for ways to help their careers and perhaps help causes that they might be passionate about,” said McLear, who added: “Honestly, I still think they need to figure out what it is they want to do with this.”

During their interview on “The Kelly File,” after the host hailed their bravery and said “their actions changed history,” Skarlatos was asked about his decision to appear on “Dancing with the Stars.” “They asked me if I wanted to do it and, I was like, ‘I have to think about it,’ he said. “But I already knew (I did).”

The Oregon guardsman and Afghanistan veteran told Kelly he still wants to fulfill his career goal of becoming a police officer. But Skarlatos, who wrestled a pistol out of the gunman’s hands and then secured his AK-47, added: “We have no idea what’s in store for us – even now.”

Perhaps the last American who got such immediate acclaim was former US Airways pilot Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger. On Jan. 15, 2009, he saved the lives of 155 people by calmly ditching his plane into the Hudson River after its engines were disabled by Canada geese.

Sully became a national hero. HarperCollins published his memoir that same year. After retirement, he became a network aviation consultant and international speaker on airline safety. A movie about his life is in the works, with Variety reporting that Clint Eastwood is on board to direct the project for Warner Bros; Tom Hanks is being eyed for the starring role.

The three train heroes stand to be next in line.

Leland, the San Francisco branding strategist, said their actions have opened “up opportunities that they just would not have had. And whatever natural talents they have, they’re going to be able to find a pathway to use those talents much more quickly.”

Yet, she said, “their narrative is still being shaped by the media. They’re going to have to decide what they want to contribute to the world long term.”

Future goals

Sadler, who is wrapping up his kinesiology degree at Sacramento State, hopes to become an athletic trainer, McLear says. Meanwhile, for now, Sadler seems to be an earnest student of the spectacle swirling around him.

He looked on in wonder as Jimmy Fallon gushed over him on his “Tonight Show” appearance.

“I know you’ve probably told the story a thousand times,” Fallon said, prodding Sadler’s account of helping to thwart the would-be terrorist.

“Aw, I could probably tell it to you all day,” Sadler replied.

In the interview with Kelly, Stone recounted his moment of clarity about being cast as a superhero. It happened when a little girl asked him “if I could fly,” he said. “That really made me melt.”

The Air Force, which signs off on Stone’s media appearances, has found a soaring recruiting star as he appeared in his dress blue uniform in the Sacramento “Hometown Heroes” parade and in numerous television appearances.

Stone will be awarded an Air Force Purple Heart as well as the Airman’s Medal for saving lives on the train despite being badly slashed with a box cutter when taking down the gunman. He is due to be promoted two ranks to staff sergeant on Nov. 1.

“What the gunman didn’t expect was a confrontation with our very own Captain America,” Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said during a press conference at the Pentagon.

In fact, Captain America was Stone’s nickname at Travis Air Force Base. That’s where Master Sgt. Tanya Hubbard, superintendent of the family medicine and pediatric clinic at the David Grant Air Force Medical Center, also knew him as the loveable “big guy” who worked with kids in the pediatric unit.

Hubbard said Stone also studied jiujitsu at the base, learning the “rear naked choke” that he used to subdue the gunman. He was also trained as an emergency medical technician, unaware that he would use those skills to plunge his fingers into the neck wound of a fallen train passenger, Mark Moogalian, to save him from bleeding to death from a gunshot.

“I’m not really surprised with what he did,” said Hubbard, who was among the cheering service members who welcomed the plane carrying Stone when it touched down at Travis on Sept. 3, following his release from a hospital at Ramstein Air Base in Germany.

Hubbard added: “He is very humble about this thing – and a little overwhelmed everyone is making such a fuss.”

Rockwell, the Michigan clinical psychologist, suggested that Stone, Skarlatos and Sadler can best handle the challenges of fame by staying focused on how – and why – they acted in the moment on that train.

“I think the best way to prep oneself for all the fame is stay humble and remember why it is important that you took those steps during the attack and what it was about: the lives saved and not yourself,” she said. “But I don’t think they can go back to their lives as they knew them before.”

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