This past weekend, I had the opportunity to go to the LHSAA State wrestling tournament. I haven’t been to a the state tournament since my older brother finished his wrestling career in 1995…. So a very long time ago. It was a fitting time to return as my brother is now the assistant coach at Tuerlings Catholic and they were set to win another state championship title. Even more fitting as I awoke to find an article in the local paper featuring my brother. The story was a great reminder of the journey that was my brother’s wrestling career and the impact it had on those around him and the impact it is still having today.
My brother was born with club feet, a birth defect in which the foot is twisted out of shape or position. He had to endure 5 very painful surgeries before he was 5 years old and the doctors told my parents that he would never play sports, never run, and might never be able to walk. My parents, being the brave and wise souls that they are, never told my brother that. They never discouraged him in any of the things he attempted, instead they watched carefully as he and his will to work hard and overcome obstacles far outpaced the doctors predictions about his abilities. He played a variety of sports during his youth and had a scrappy hustle to him that was hard to miss. This scrappy hustle eventually lead him to wrestling, where he found his true home as an athlete.
Wrestling is the ideal sport for people who are both mentally and physically strong. It’s a sport where brute force strength combined with a solid strategy and technique, some good flexibility and the sheer will to win defines the athlete. A wrestling match is 3 periods, each of which last only 2 minutes. A winner is declared by either having the most points or pinning your opponent to the mat. It the most intense sport I’ve ever witnessed and those 6 minutes on the mat are gut-wrenching and exhausting both mentally and physically.
My brother ended up winning the state title in his weight class all 4 years in high school and went 40-0, his senior year. The last match he wrestled that year was the most nerve-wracking 6 minutes of my life. His victories were incredible to watch and were inspiring. However, it was the speech my brother gave me my junior year in high school that really had the biggest impact both on my life then and in my life now, 20+ years later.
Growing up, I was fairly athletic. I played several sports and was pretty good at them. And because being pretty good came natural, I took that for granted. I was the athlete who had a lot of talent but no real drive to get better, work harder and step up and be a leader. I sort of took it all for granted. My older brother noticed this and picked up my lackadaisical approach to being an athlete. One evening, he barged into my room and gave me a good talking to. He told me that he had worked incredibly hard to establish himself as a hardworking, dedicated athlete and that my current approach to being an athlete was disrespectful to my coaches, my teammates, and myself. He told me that taking for granted my natural abilities and not working hard was a disgrace to our family, and to the abilities I was born with.
The 16 year old version of myself was FURIOUS by this. How dare he tell me how to live my life and criticize me. What did he know anyway… right… And then the next morning, it all sounded different. I realized he was right. I was wasting my time and talent and being disrespectful of all those trying to push me to be the best I could be. I owed it to my coaches, my teammates and myself to work harder and push myself to get better and to step up and be a better team leader. So that afternoon, I made a decision to give it my all and be the person that my older brother thought I could be. And it was the decision that defined the character that has carried me through life thus far. Since that moment, I’ve give my all to everything I’ve done – school, sports, college, career, family, etc. I’m grateful every day that my brother held me accountable all those years ago and challenged me to be the best version of myself I could be. And I’m grateful that all these years later, my brother is a high school wrestling coach and continuing to motivate and challenge kids to be the best they can be. Because those lessons learned are about so much more than a sport, they are about overcoming obstacles, rising to the challenge and doing the hard work when nobody is watching. They are the lessons that define who you become not only as an athlete but as a person, and that is one of the many benefits that sports can bring to one’s life.