By day he’s a member of the Illinois gymnastics team. By night he is a …

ME Online

ME Online

By Jeff LaBelle

Let’s call him a sidekick.

It’s an honorary title, of course, but one Kyle Padera, an avid comic book reader and two-year member of the men’s gymnastics team, wouldn’t mind.

When you think about it, he’s not far from such a title. Padera has spent the last two seasons out of the spotlight. A self-proclaimed “utility guy,” the sophomore is proud of his roles on the gymnastics team: inspiring guys in practice and working hard.

“If someone goes down, I’m ready to jump in,” Padera said. “That’s the role I’ve assumed and I like that. If I’m not competing, I’m ready.”

A modest collector of comic books and graphic novels, Padera has read about masked men who work in the shadows, ensuring the good of humanity. The Green Hornet, Batman and the Flash all have sidekicks. Padera is The Hornet’s “Kato” or Batman’s “Robin.” Rocky’s “Bullwinkle” even … except this storyline is happening on a real-life stage.

“I enjoy seeing other people do well and being a part of that,” he said. “I like helping guys with papers and things they’re doing. I don’t really compete that much, but knowing that I’m there, cheering them on and doing my sets to push the other guys, I can say I’m a part of the team.”

Much like his favorite superhero, Batman, Padera doesn’t make a lot of headlines; he’s content seeing his buddies succeed. That’s one reason the Wheaton North High School graduate sides with the “grunge, hard-boiled detective,” not the “goody two-shoes, Boy Scout” Superman. He can identify with the masked menace.

“There’s just something about (Batman),” Padera said. “He’s so dark, and he knows that he can’t really have anything for himself because he’s got that secret identity. Superman is flaunted in the media, but Batman, people wonder if he’s a menace.”

Padera says he’s no superhero. He points to former teammate Adam Pummer and assistant coach Justin Spring as better examples.

However, Padera’s story is borderline worthy of a comic book. The comparisons are there: he’s got the suit, an enemy and a mission. All that’s left is a weakness, and he’s got one of those too.

His Suit

The NCAA doesn’t allow masks or capes, but Padera has his own sense of style. In afternoon practice, his high, striped socks pulled almost to his knees set him apart from his teammates and the batty hero he loves. It’s not “dark” or “grunge,” but it’s his suit, and he’s comfortable in it. Padera enjoys being different.

“Even though I don’t know what ‘different’ means anymore, yeah, I pride myself in it,” he said. “I wear high socks. I have my armbands too, but they’re more of a superstition – I just do it everyday. If I don’t, it feels weird. I just really like high, striped socks.”

He reaches into his closet, tucks his arms behind a few jerseys and superhero T-shirts, and pulls out a Superman costume. The ensemble is further evidence that if a top-tier superhero is lost in action, Padera is ready to fill in. It’s a costume he says was purchased for a Halloween party. He tries it on. It fits him well.

“I really don’t like (Superman), but the costume is sweet,” Padera said. “There’s really no good way to have a Batman costume unless you’ve got pointy ears and a mask.”

His enemy

A superhero needs a nemesis. Padera stops short of calling any of his detractors by such a name but hints a sour relationship exists between him and bad teachers. “Psycho” is the word he used, comparing bad instructors to “The Joker,” one of Batman’s most well-known enemies. “Two-Face,” another villain, was his second choice.

“You could also go with Superman’s enemy Lex Luthor,” Padera said. “He’s super smart, but super evil.”

Some conflicts are more sinister than others.

At gymnastics practice, Padera wages a much more innocent war with assistant coach Jon Valdez.

“Whenever I wear my socks to practice, I’ll get up on the still rings and Jon will pull them down,” he said, laughing. “It’s probably the most frustrating thing in the world.”

His weakness

In the dark alleys of his mind, behind his tight-cheeked smile, Padera hides a secret. On rare occasions, when he meets people that share in his addiction, a close whisper may disclose the information. Whether he likes to tell people or not, Padera loves to read. It’s his Kryptonite, you might say.

Shelves in his room are lined with them. Comic books, graphic novels and literary classics are everywhere.

“I don’t always like reading, like when it’s forced,” Padera said, pretending to care that his secret is out. “But when people say to me, ‘I haven’t read a book in my life,’ I wonder, ‘Man, does that mean I’m weird because I’ve read however many I have?’ Usually I don’t flaunt that I read a lot. I think some people think it’s strange.”

To distract Padera, one only needs to ask him about Ernest Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea,” or Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road.”

“I’m in the middle of ‘Ulysses’ by James Joyce right now,” he said. “Sometimes I have to read the same thing like 30 times, but it’s alright. I enjoy it.”

His story

Padera was raised in a modest home along with two sisters, one of them his twin, and a younger brother. He loved playing catch and spending time outdoors. His mom, a teacher and his dad, a carpenter, helped shape Padera into the fun-loving, Merriam-Webster “word of the day” subscriber he’s become.

“Nothing really tragic sparked anything in my life,” he said, contrasting his childhood with that of Batman, who, at the age of 12, saw his parents shot to death. “I don’t really have that terrible start where I had to take vengeance on people. I don’t know. I guess when I was a junior in high school I just figured out who I was, what my interests were.”

As a history major, Padera has become absorbed in the political and cultural phenomena that have shaped the world. He despises Christopher Columbus, he says, for enslaving Native Americans. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was “too much of a dictator.” But foreign policy issues with South American countries are his biggest passions. If he had the power, he’d change the policies that he says have exploited those countries for years.

“We’ve always been screwing them over so our business could flourish,” he said. “It’s extremely overlooked.”

A hip sense of Kyle

For now, it’s hard to peg Kyle Padera as anything other than an interesting man capable of extraordinary thoughts, friendships and kindness. Even though the comparisons are there and a strong case can be made, he’s no superhero. The mysteries of Kyle Padera aren’t hidden behind masks or in Batmobiles. The wonder here is why a person like Padera, so worthy of attention, lives largely in the shadows.

“I’ll probably never have anything like this written about me again,” he said. “I’m flattered by it, really.”

When the armbands and socks are off, he’s still the same guy, smiling, talking. Padera’s righteous set of values and his happy, infectious personality are always there. Dressing up as comic book characters and quizzing photographers on their music knowledge makes him who he is. It’s how Padera lives his life.

Padera, when he isn’t posing for photos, is one of a few people that defy gravity on a daily basis. He knows what it feels like to be superhuman for a moment.

“When you’re flying through the air, I mean, you know you’re coming down,” Padera said, “but for a second you can get lost and forget the floor is coming. Sometimes, it feels like flying, but gravity always kicks in.”

Padera may be more than a few steps away from saving the world. When he isn’t with the team, he spends most of his time studying, listening to music and, sometimes, doing laundry. But if it’s up to him, Padera will defy the odds sooner or later. “Sidekick” may be on his business card someday.

“I want to be the man behind the curtains, the guy with all the answers,” he said. “It would be cool to point people in the right direction. I don’t want to take credit or be in the spotlight. I want to be a sidekick more than anything.”