Call me “Marty”…

24 Aug

 A few years back I was in Brooklyn, NY, with one of my fighters. It was a Friday evening and we were fighting the next day at an event in the city. Waiting is often the hardest part of the process for many fighters and many times the night before a big fight it’s hard for them to relax and get the rest they need.  Often times, when they are really tense, I’ll take them to a local gym to “shake-out” and to work off some of their nervous energy.

 The promoter put us up in a hotel in Jamaica, Queens, and on this particular night the promoter sent a car to our hotel and the driver took us to a local gym to get an easy workout. Typically, we’ll do some shadow boxing and light aerobic activity just to allow the fighter to take the edge off things.  As he works I like to stay close constantly whispering in his ear and filling his head with strategy, affirming our game plan, building his confidence and drawing a clear vision for the fight the next day.  It’s a communion between coach and fighter and when I’m done pouring myself into these kids they are ready to walk through fire, if need be.

 Anyway, on this particular night we went to a local gym/club near our hotel where we were staying. It was about 10 PM and the gym was still alive with activity. It was perfect! It was small, cramped, and had the smell of sweat and stale clothes. Everything in the gym was old, weathered and tattered. In the back was a fighter hitting the speed-bag pounding out his endless rhythm while he honed his craft.  At one end of the gym was the ring and at the other was a small area for jumping rope and a row of heavy bags that were losing their stuffing and being held together by duck tape. It was dark and cramped. Old fight posters covered the walls and the one bathroom they had didn’t work. The lights were dim and in one corner they flickered on-and-off in an unpredictable manner and each time they did you could hear the buzz of the electricity in the fixture above. It was the perfect gym.

 As we worked I looked around the gym and on the back wall, by the bathroom, I noticed there was a set of words printed on the wall. I could not read it from where I was so I went back to take a look. The wall had been painted dark blue and it was peeling. On the wall were letters painted in yellow that were fading but still clearly visible.  The words read. ..

Send me your worst. Send me the lost, the beaten and the broken ones. Send me your tired and desperate ones. Send me the ones life has forgotten and who others have abandoned. Send me the one with no more chances. Send him to me… for in him I see what you do not.  In him I see the champion he has yet to become. Tell him I am here. Tell him I am waiting for him.

As I read the words tears filled my eyes and I was overcome with emotion. It was as if I had written the words myself and I understood exactly what the author was saying. I wrote what was on the wall down in the little notebook I carry with me most of the time.  When I was done writing it down I went to the front desk to ask them who had written it. 

 When I got to the front there was a man sitting at the front desk. His face was flattened and his nose pushed against his face. He had scar tissue about his one eye and his skin was weathered and his face bore witness to the fact he had been a fighter in his youth.  “Excuse me, but I was wondering who wrote that quote on the back wall?” The old man leaned forward to look back to where I was pointing and said “Oh that…the original owner Marty wrote that there when he opened the gym nearly thirty years ago.” “Is he still around” I asked. “No” the man said “Marty passed away about six years ago but we leave it up there to honor him.” “How did he die” I asked …”Heart attack… unexpected, it was a big shock…he was like a father to me” the man said. “Were you the one” I asked?  Puzzled the man looked back at me and said “the one…what do you mean?” “Are you the one Marty was waiting for and wrote about on the wall?” I said.  The man’s face slumped and he pushed out a sigh and a slight smile came to his face and it was clear my question had touched his heart. He sat there for a second longer and then looked deep into my eyes and said “I don’t know if I was the one Marty was waiting for, but I can tell you this, he was the one I was waiting for… Marty saved my life and this will always be his gym.” When he was done we shared a smile and then I nodded and it was done.

 Today a friend of mine on Facebook sent me a link to a video she said reminded her of me. As I watched the video it reminded me of this story and I wanted to share it with you.

 Please watch the video link below and be inspired…. and by-the-way …you can call me Marty.

The power of the narrative

18 Jul

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“A boy comes to me with a spark of interest, I feed that spark and it becomes a flame, I feed the flame and it becomes a fire, I fed the fire and it becomes a roaring blaze.”

– Cus D’Amato–All time great boxing trainer AND Mike Tyson’s first trainer.

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They brought her to me seeking my help. When she arrived at my gym she walked over to where I was standing, smiled and reached out her hand to greet me. I grabbed her hand, held it tightly, and I asked her “are you the loser they say you are?” She was stunned that these were the first words out of my mouth. She was puzzled and she looked around to check the eyes of the fighter who had brought her to me to see if maybe he might have an explanation for my seemingly strange behavior. Again I asked her “are you the loser they say you are”’…this time she quickly withdrew her hand from mine, her face hardened and I could see my question made her upset… and angry. “Well…are you” I said louder. It was a brutal assault on her sensibilities; she was stunned, standing alone in front of the entire gym that had, by now, stopped to listen to our interaction. Tears immediately began to fill her eyes and she must have thought to herself “surly they did not bring me here for this.”Again I asked, this time with an even harsher colder tone “young lady, are you the loser they say you are?!” By this time she was seething and I could see the wheels turning behind her tears as her anger began to build …but still she said nothing. “We’ll…since you’re not going to answer that question let me ask you this one….what are you doing here …what do you want form me?” Now she was totally confused. She was under the impression she was coming there to interview me to see if she wanted me to train her and before she could get out even a single word I was hitting her with this. She stood there…speechless. “Well…I’m waiting” I said. “Waiting for what” she said finally? “Why are you saying these things to me” she asked. I did not respond to her question and instead I asked her again …”What do you want from me?” “Nothing I guess” she said and she grabbed her jacket and quickly turned to walk away.

So it is true” I said. Hearing my words she froze in her tracks and slowly turned back to look at me glaring…had her eyes been a gun she would have shot me dead. “What’s true” she said…as the tears nowbegan to flow freely down her face as her anger boiled over. “Why do you keep asking me that…who the hell are you to say that to me…you don’t know me…why don’t you just go screw yourself old man” she yelled. “What did they tell you about me before they brought you here” I asked. “Lawrence (one of my fighters and the one who brought her to me) told me that you were a great coach and that you could make me a champion… but I guess he was wrong… and besides he forgot to tell me what a total asshole you are” she said. “Well…don’t you want to know” I said. “Know what” she said. “Whether I can make you a champion or not” I said. “We’ll… can you” she asked. “I don’t know…that all depends on you…are you the loser they say you are” I asked again. “I’M NOT A LOSER….STOP SAYING THAT TO ME!” she yelled. “Do you want to be a champion” I asked. “Of course” she said. “Are you willing to pay the price” I asked. “That depends” she said. “Then the answer is no…I can’t make you a champion” I said. “Why not” she asked. “Because you’re not willing to pay the price” I replied.“I said it depends” she retorted. “I know what you said …but the price is always too high for those who need to know how much” I answered. “Then YES, I’m willing to pay whatever price you ask” she said. “Then the answer is yes, I can make you a champion…now… come and sit by me and let me tell what it will take.”

In less than a year we were fighting for her first championship.

No price too high…whatever it takes! That’s a very powerful narrative(belief system). That’s the belief system we teach in the gym. For those in the earlystages of their careers that’s a very powerful narrative for them to adopt.

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“We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skill, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win…”

– John F. Kennedy-1962

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What is a narrative? A narrative is a belief system about what’s possible. As I have observed in both business and in sports a key to being a powerful leader is getting other people to replace their belief system with your own. The really great leadersI have known can do this while also making sure that the narrative is also morale and serves both the individual’s goal as well as those of the entire team or organization.Think about it.

As a coach or leader of any team or organization I believe that creating a compelling narrative for your people and around the mission of your organizations is “THE” single most significant thing you can do as a leader to affect the outcome and results. When I have seen the great leaders do it, the power of the narrative allows them to attract the best and brightest to their team or organization, It permeatesthe organization at every level and galvanizes and focuses everyone’s efforts in a single purpose. It helps them to overcome almost any obstacle placed before them, to endure the hardships that destroy their competition and to achieve what others felt previously impossible. It all starts with the narrative you create around yourself, your team and your goals.

A few years back I heard a great story about Steve Jobs, founder of APPLE Computer. At that time Jobs was interviewing potential CEO candidates to work with him (Jobs was Chairman at the time) at APPLE. Apple and Jobs had big plans…very big plans. After a long executive search and many interviews Jobs had settled on John Scully who was, at that time, the then current CEO of PepsiCo. After a series of meetings Jobs and Scully were discussing the opportunity when Scully told Jobs that while he was very flattered to be considered he was just not sure that it was the right move for him at the time. Upon hearing Scully’s comments Jobs paused for a moment then looked at Scully and said… “Do you want to sell sugar water for the rest of your life…or do you want to come with me and change the world.” To which Scully replied “I’m in.” This narrative of “changing the world” was the one Jobs had for himself, his team and for APPLE and it remains the narrative of their entire organization even today…is there any doubt that APPLE has changed the world?

What do you think Scully would have said if Jobs had had a less powerful or inspiring narrative…such as…”come with me and let’s build a really good computer together?” That sounds very different doesn’t it? What inner dialogue springs to mind when you hear it? Not very compelling is it…at least not if you’re looking for a strong CEO. But, “come with me and let’s change the world”…now that’s powerful. My point is that Jobs set out to change the world, not just build computers, and he created such an authentic and compelling narrative for himself that, when he shared it with others, it allowed him to attract the right people to make APPLE possible…it was not Steve himself…it was the power of his narrative.

Once you have established your credentials and your program getting people to adopt your narrative can be contagious and occur almost instantly. However, when you are new to the role of leader or just establishing your program, team or organization it can be a process and a struggle that will take time.

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I am the greatest; I said that even before I knew I was.”

– Muhammad Ali

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Part #3 of Perfect Math: “Let me see it…”

22 Jun

Dear friends; This is the third  and final installment of “Perfect Math.” If you have not had the chance to read this story from the beginning I encourage you to do so. Just go back to Monday’s post and follow along. Read and enjoy…

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So there we were. One out, top of the last inning and just two outs away from making the tournament….and Dave at first. 

The next batter up for the other team strolled to the plate with a type of confidence that made me very uneasy. He was a big man and had a smirk on his face I wanted to knock off. As he took his practice swings I called out to the infield “play deep…keep the ball in front of you” and then looked over at Dave and yelled “move back”.  I motioned him back towards the outfield grass to make sure he would have as much room and as much time as he would need to field any ball hit his way. By this time in the game our pitcher, Drew, was beginning to struggle and I knew his fastball had lost its steam and that we would have to rely on his “junk” pitches if we were to get out of the inning alive. I set up behind the plate and called for a curveball and set the target low and away. Drew went into his stretch and as he released the ball he made a grunting noise that sounded like a mix of both effort and agony. The pitch seemed to hang over the hitting surface of the plate and when the batter swung he crushed a line-drive into right-center field and slid into second base for an easy double….with that smirk still on his face.

Immediately I jogged out to the pitcher’s mound to calm Drew down.  As we talked I said, “I know you’re tired so let us help you. Whatever you do just keep the ball down… make them hit it on the ground… make them put it in play…don’t give them anything easy…we’re with you out here…we’ve got your back.” He nodded and I went back behind the plate for the next batter. This time I called another curve and the pitch broke low and away and the batter reached for it …”strike one” yelled the umpire.  I immediately called for the next pitch and again I set up low and away. This time Drew went into his stretch and when he let the ball go…I could see the batter honing in on it and he swung but didn’t get a good bat on it and popped it up towards center field. As we watched, it seemed as if the ball “had eyes” and it landed just between where our centerfield and shortstop could not reach it.  The runner on second had to hold up in case we caught the ball but easily was able to make it to third and the batter who just hit the blooper was easily able to make it to first without being challenged.

So here we were… they had runners on first and third with just one out. All they needed now was for the next batter to hit the ball in play virtually anywhere and the runner on third should score. In just three pitches we had lost our advantage.

 The next batter strolled to the plate and he also had that same confident look the first batter had…plus the smirk…”what’s with these guys” I thought to myself. This time I moved Dave and the rest of the infield  way up so they would have a shot at making a play at the plate on a grounder.  I moved everyone in the outfield back so no balls would get over their head and to make sure no matter what happened the runner on first didn’t make it home on a hit. The next batter was number three in their line-up…a spot usually reserved for the best hitter on the team. I called the pitch and set up again…low and away. This time Drew went into his stretch and this time he let a fastball fly. The batter gripped his bat and things seemed to begin to move in slow motion…the next thing I remember was the sound of a “crack” of the bat on the ball and I watched as the ball rocketed towards the left field fence… back…back..back it went until it cleared the fence by a mile …”foul ball” yelled the umpire on the third base line…we all took a collective sigh of relief. Immediately I looked at Drew and we locked eyes and we both nodded and tilted our heads in recognition of the bullet we had just dodged.  The umpire handed me a new ball and I threw it out to Drew and as I was walking back behind the plate I prayed to God again…”please God just two more outs…please ”…but I knew God doesn’t answer prayers about baseball.

Again, the batter took his stance and, again, I called the pitch and set-up putting  the target low and away and again Drew went into his stretch, let out a loud grunt and let the pitch fly…what happens next is exactly how I remember it.

This time the ball was on target and the batter seemed overly excited and had decided to swing before the pitch was thrown. Because the pitch was low and away the batter had to reach out for it and as he swung he pulled himself off balance and when he made contact the ball popped up towards the first base line. Immediately the batter took off for first and I watched as the ball now seemed to start drifting and floating up, up and up…and… out…out and out. I began doing “the math” and I quickly determined that the only person who would have a chance at it would be our first basemen…Dave. I watched as Dave seemed to “lumber out“ after the ball, taking wide, uneven and unsteady steps and I saw our right fielder, John Massey, sprinting for it as hard as he could and seeing the veins in his neck bulging with every stride he took…but I knew he would not be able to get there and that it would all come down to Dave.

If Dave did catch the ball the runner on third would need to “tag up.”  That means he had to wait to see if the ball was caught and then, and only then, could he make his run for home plate. So I watched as the ball drifted up and the runner on third went back to the bag and positioned himself in a sprinter’s stance looking directly at me and home plate. His coach moved close to the baseline and kept one eye on the ball and another on his man and leaned forward ready to yell “GO” the second the ball was caught.

My head was on a swivel as I kept looking at the ball, then back to third, then back to the ball, then back to third… all the time “doing the math” and soon realizing that even if Dave could reach the ball, which was highly doubtful, he would have to make a miraculous throw of the type even the best of players would not likely be able to achieve.  Images of Dave’s weak throws in practice kept popping into my mind and I realized there was little hope. Not only did Dave have a very weak arm but he was also running full speed away from the plate, so even if he could make the catch he’d have to stop, turn and make a throw that was simply well beyond his capabilities. A feeling of dread fell over me.

Realizing all of this, I decided I would put it out of my mind and I positioned myself between the runner and the plate and told myself that if he was going to score he’d have to run over me to do it. I steeled my body, locked my legs, dipped my shoulder and put my glove in the ONLY place where the ball could go if we were to have any chance. I had decided that no matter what happened I would not move myself or my glove….if we were to go down then… it would be with a fight.

Out…out… out Dave ran and as the ball began its decent I realized Dave might have a chance if he dove for it. Again, I looked towards third and then back at the ball and steeled myself for the impact I knew was coming. Then at the very last possible moment Dave stumbled and as he was falling forward and, in total desperation, he reeeeched for the ball ….”he got it”… yelled our pitcher and then in one loud simultaneous scream the entire team yelled “throw it, throw it.” Somehow Dave was bale to remain on his feet and then suddenly his body became ridged as he planted his right foot and pivoted on it allowing him to fling his body around like a slingshot with his throwing arm following from behind. As Dave swung around and began to make his throw he let out a yell that seemed to contain all of the humiliation, doubt, frustration, sacrifice and DESIRE he possessed and the ball flew from his hand in a way I had never seen from him before…like a rocket… on its way towards me and the play. I will never forget that sound as long as I live.

The second Dave caught the ball I heard the base coach for the other team yell “GO” and the runner on third broke for the plate like a racehorse jumping out of the starting gate. His head was down, his eyes clear and focused and he could see I had blocked the plate and I saw him lower his shoulder and knew he had committed to the collision that was sure to follow.

I steeled my body again and DID NOT MOVE MY GLOVE ONE INCH. Again my head was on a swivel as I looked at the ball, then back at the runner, then the ball and then the runner… near the end I focused only on the ball but I could hear the runner now…he was close and I knew that with every footstep the collision was getting closer and that he was bearing down on me. Again I started “doing the math” and suddenly realized that the throw was perfect… incredible… unbelievable… and that we actually had a shot… if I could only hold on to the ball.

Now the runner’s steps grew loud and then things went silent. I steeled my body one last time and held my glove strong…and then it happened, I watched as the ball flew directly into my glove where I had held it the entire time and the ball and the runner arrived at the same time. I felt a tremendous crush on my body as the runner plowed over me and suddenly I was on my back. Dust flew up everywhere and for a second I was unsure exactly where I was in relation to the plate. My teammates rushed towards me …waiting to see the outcome. I did not hear the umpire say anything and then suddenly I began to panic because I could not feel the ball in my glove…”O’ my God…don’t do this to him…please God let it be there”.  I was on my back with the runner was lying next to me and suddenly the umpire moved himself directly over us and I heard him yell out ...”let me see it…let me see it.”

I remembered the next second feeling like an eternity as all eyes moved to my glove. I could not feel the ball….I could not feel the ball and for a millisecond I refused to open my glove for fear I would reveal the truth. By this time everyone on both teams were standing waiting to hear the umpire’s call. A panic overtook my body and then slowly I opened my glove to reveal our destiny. As I opened my glove for some reason a calm came over me and suddenly I heard it…”OUT” yelled the umpire and a number of my teammates fell to their knees and the place went crazy!

He had done it…it was…miraculous…unbelievable….unreal. For a second I just could not believe it. Dave’s catch and throw were simply beyond his capability and I could not understand what had happened. It was impossible and if given the chance to make the same play 1000 times he could not reproduce those results…under any circumstances.  The second the umpire called the runner out I sat up and looked out towards first base and towards Dave. It all felt surreal and I watched as Dave jumped up for joy in the way a child might when they are still innocent and uninhibited. I saw my teammates run out to Dave and begin lifting him, cheering him and hugging him and I will NEVER forget the look of sheer joy on his face.  As the celebration continued, I remained sitting …just wanting to take it all in… trying to come to grips with the reality of what had just happened.   It was the single best moment I had ever experienced in my entire baseball career …and the moment belonged to Dave. 

After a few more moments I got up and headed back to the dugout where the team was still celebrating and where Dave was getting pats on the back. He seemed a little uneasy with his new found heroism but the smile on his face was as big as any I’d ever seen. I changed out of my catchers gear and as the excitement of the moment began to fade, I noticed Dave and I were the two last guys in the dugout.“That was one hell of a throw” I said to him but he just kept his head down as he took off his spikes. I got the feeling he wanted to stay in the dugout for as long as he could and that he knew the moment we stepped out of there his moment would be over….so after we had changed our spokes we just sat there….staring out onto the field and saying nothing.

At some point we both knew we had to head into the field house and so we walked along together in silence.  We decided to take the long way home that day and headed out towards the right field gate past the place where Dave had made his big play. When we arrived at the very spot where Dave had made the play, we stopped and I looked back at the plate. It was then that I realized just how impossible the play really was and that what I had witnessed was a small sort of miracle… and that sometimes God answers prayers about baseball.  Just as we were about to go, I looked over at Dave and said “do you think you could do that again in a million years”…he stopped, looked back at the plate then over at me and said, “I don’t think I’ll ever get the chance to find out” and it was done.  

We went on to play in the NCAA tournament…but lost in the semi-final round. Dave was with us…but he never played in another game. I did not return to baseball the next season…

Epilogue 

Not a week goes by when I don’t think about Dave and his story. So often we think our dreams have to be of big things to be worthy of notice or effort.  We dream of fame, fortune and glory but maybe all of our big dreams are made up of someone else’s little dreams.  Blessed are the dreamers. 

One last thing- I have had the very good fortune to have played for a number of great coaches in my life. Whatever success I have in my life it is due, in large part, to the lessons they taught me and the examples they set for me. Thank you Coach Deshon and God Bless all of THE BRIDGE BUILDERS.

All the best!

Perfect Math – Part #2: “The numbers don’t add up”

21 Jun

Dear friends: This is Part-2 of the story “Perfect Math.”  I posted Part-1 yesterday and will post the 3rd and final part tomorrow. If you have not read Part-1 I encourage you to do so before reading today’s post so you can better enjoy the entire account. Read and enjoy…

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After I had finished dressing for practice I walked out onto the field where Dave was working. As I approached he looked up and gave me the biggest smile I’d ever seen…but I was still not exactly sure what Dave was doing there or if he knew I had spoken to Coach.

What happened” I said, “what’s going on…are you back on the team or what” I asked. Dave continued to work as if he was afraid to stop and he talked to me as he went about his duties. He told me that Coach had called him into the office that afternoon to talk. When he arrived Coach said that after considering it longer he felt he’d made a mistake and that he thought the team could really benefit from his presence on the squad. As I listened I was not sure if I should tell Dave I went to Coach or not, so I said nothing. Then Dave stopped working and looked at me…tears filled his eyes and he said “can you believe…I prayed last night for this…God is good.” Immediately I was overcome with my own emotions and so I quickly patted Dave on the back and began to jog towards the outfield where the other catchers were running sprints. Was it God…I knew God doesn’t answer prayers about baseball….but whatever it was, it sure felt good…and right to me.

Later, after practice that day, I made it a point to walk with Dave back to the field house so we could chat and I could find out what really had happened. It was then I learned what I found most fascinating about Dave’s sudden reappearance on the team. You see, when Coach told Dave he could come back on the team it was under three very specific conditions. These conditions were: 1) that Dave not complain about his role on the team; 2) that he would have to do all the “dirty work” that no one else on the team wanted to do and; 3) he should never expect to play in a game or ask to go into a game. When I heard the conditions I was confused. I knew I would personally never have agreed to those terms and I just could not understand why Dave…or anyone, would for that matter. Secondly, I was not sure if Coach was helping Dave or allowing him to humiliate himself. That night as I lay in bed thinking about it I was not sure I had done Dave any favors and I worried that maybe I had made a big mistake. What was Coach doing? This wasn’t working out the way I had planned and I hoped Dave was happy just to be on the team. At that point I was not sure if I was trying to make Dave feel better or myself.

And so, that’s how it went. Each practice Dave would arrive early and work on the field with the grounds crew. During practice Dave would pitch or catch batting practice, shag fly balls, chase foul balls hit out of the stadium and do all of the other stuff the rest of us felt we were too good to do. Occasionally, Dale would get a chance to take infield practice or to take a few swings during batting practice but even that was limited. The thing was that even with the limited opportunities he was given, Dave always did it all the way. He ran hard, threw hard, was serious about his work and was always asking questions…it was as if Dave was preparing for an opportunity we all knew would never come. After practice Dave would make sure the dugout was cleaned and he would bag all of the equipment and make sure it was stowed away in the field house for the next day. Every day..every single day.

As the season wore on some of the players developed some unflattering nicknames for Dave like “gofer” because each time a ball was hit out of the stadium someone would yell “why doesn’t someone ‘gofer’ that ball” …and each time Dave would instantly jump to his feet and sprint after it. And almost every time Dave would arrive back in the dugout with the ball he’d chased down smiling. I just could not understand why he would subject himself to this abuse every day…and for what? A few swings at batting practice…I just didn’t get it. Young men can be hard on the weak and sometimes even I would join in on the razzing of Dave. I was just a boy and I wanted to “fit in” and while I knew better, I sometimes just could not resist taking a good hearted shot at Dave…even though I knew it wasn’t right. Deep in my heart I knew that each time I would join in with the other fellas I was hurting my friend…betraying him in some way…some friend I am! I was weak.

Yep, you could say that ole Dave lived up to his end of the bargain and I cannot remember a single time hearing him complain no matter what he was asked to do or how hard the boys would get on him. I knew in my heart it had to hurt his feelings at some level but I also knew Dave was happy to be there participating in the game he loved. Every day Dave would just do his job, day in and day out and never complain. Looking back on it now it was truly humbling to see a person so dedicated to something and ask so little in return.

As the season wore on we were playing well but not as well as was expected. There were three games left on the regular schedule and while we were still in the running for a seat in the national tournament, we would have to win our last three games if we were even to be considered for selection by the NCAA selection committee.

We were able to win the first two of the last three games but there was still one left to play. The bad news was that our final game would be against a school that was a Division 1-AA program in a similar position and they, too, needed the win to make the tournament. The stage was set and it would all come down to one game on the last day of the scheduled season.

The week prior to the last game things were not going our way. We had a few injuries, the pitching staff was wearing thin for the long season and on that Thursday, the day before the game, the team was hit with the flu and almost all of us were suffering from it in some way. It was a bad flu; you know, the kind that gives you “the quick step.” Those of us who had caught the bug felt weak and struggled all week during practice but by game day the adrenaline seemed to kick in a little and most of us rose to the occasion.

On the day of the last game four of our teammates could not dress out and a number of others were there “in spirit only”…if you know what I mean. Basically, we were pretty “banged” up and we knew we were going to have to struggle to win this last one. Before the game Coach gathered us together and told the seniors that if we were to lose this would likely be the last game they would ever play in their lives and as for the rest of us this would maybe be the last time we might have a shot at the national tournament. As we took the field the excitement of the moment seemed to energize us and early on we were doing well… but as the game wore on we started wearing down. Still, at the end of the fourth inning we were ahead by two runs. However, it was then that things began to take a turn for the worse. One of our outfielders went down with a torn hamstring, our third baseman hurt his elbow and was taken out and most of us were feeling dehydration from the flu…it wasn’t pretty. Coach was scrambling to shuffle us around and since the NCAA rules stipulate that you can only dress out a limited number of players each game, we were in a make-shift lineup with many of the guys having to play positions they had not played all year. Pitchers were being used as outfielders, catchers as third-basemen, and all the while we had to hold it together and protect our lead. Miraculously, we were able to keep it together and going into the last inning we still held a one run lead.

All we had to do now was get three outs and we would be going to the tournament. I remembered looking out at my team from behind the plate and realizing that we were out of players and down to the last man….My heart began to beat faster as the consequences of the moment finally sunk in.

Under my breath I prayed …”please God just three more outs…just three more outs,” but I knew God did not answer prayers about baseball.

The first batter got up in the last inning, hit a grounder to our shortstop, and he fielded the ball cleanly but his throw was a little off and our first baseman had to really streeetched for it …but…the throw arrived just a heartbeat before the runner…and the ump yelled “out”! One down..two to go….just two more outs and we would be on our way…

As I turned away from the play to head back behind the plate I noticed that Billy, our first baseman, was still on the ground after making the play at first. Immediately I turned back to take a closer look and when I did I could see he was holding the back of his leg and was in obvious pain. Instantly, the trainers jumped from their seats in the dugout and sprinted out across the infield to assist him. As they arrived we, the rest of us on the field, began to walk towards first base and as we did we were all thinking the same thing….if Billy goes down we were out of players…what would we do?

Yet we had forgotten that something special happened that day. Since it was the last day of the season, Coach had told Dave that he could dress out for the game and sit on the bench with the rest of the team. And since we had a number of our regular players who did not dress out because they were sick we were still within the NCAA rules…Dave was actually the last eligible man on the bench that day….his chance had come!

I remember looking over at Coach as he began to calmly walk towards the dugout where Dave was sitting alone. I saw Dave sitting on the bench nervously rocking back-and-forth as he started to realize that he was the last man on the bench…Dave had “done the math” and the numbers all pointed to him. As Coach walked towards him Dave continued to rock back-and-forth as the size and reality of the moment seemed to wash over him. As Coach got near the beach he called out “Grable…its time boy. ..grab your mitt….you’re going in at first.” Immediately, Dave jumped to his feet. He fumbled for his mitt that was under the bench in his equipment bag and then headed out to first base. The good news was that Dave had played some first base during many of our practices…the bad news was that he didn’t play that position very well, either.

So as the trainers helped Billy off the field Dave took his position at first base and the rest of us drifted back to our positions…each of us wondering and worrying how we would get through the next two outs. When I arrived back behind the plate I looked over at Dave and we locked eyes but he made no attempt to acknowledge me and the expression on his face was a mix of both exhilaration and sheer terror. The moment that Dave had seemed to be preparing for all those practices had arrived and it was clear he felt the pressure. I watched as Coach gave Dave a few last words. Then, just as he was ready to turn to walk back to the dugout, Coach stopped again, looked back at Dave, smiled and said “relax son… you are exactly where you deserve to be…this is your time now… don’t forget to enjoy it”…and off the field he went.

There were just two outs left…just two outs….I prayed “please God don’t let them hit it to Dave”…but I knew God didn’t answer prayers about baseball….

PLEASE READ ON: Third and final post coming tomorrow.

Perfect Math

20 Jun

Dear friends: Over the years I have shared this powerful story with many of my friends, colleagues, clients and athletes. It‘s a little long but well worth the read. I have broken the story into three easily readable sections with the first part posted below. Parts 2 and 3 will be posted tomorrow and Wednesday respectively. I encourage each of you to take a few moments, read it and share it with your own children or, if you’re a coach or leader, with your team. It’s a wonderful example of the power of persistence and humility.

The following is based on a TRUE STORY. I’ve changed the names out of respect but what follows is how I remember it.

Part-1 – Meet me on the Astroturf

I had played baseball since I was a young boy and I was pretty good. Growing up I was almost always on the all-star teams at every level. I was the captain of my high school team and destined to play at college. In my senior year of high school I received two invitations to participate in the Orioles’ and Brewers’ instructional tryout camps. It was there that I learned I was good…but not great. I was scouted by a number of colleges and the national scouting bureau and started as a freshman on my college team that played in the small college NCAA national tournament nearly every year. Yet, despite this, I didn’t love the game and never really cared much about it. I continued to play primarily because I had been playing since I was a boy and it just seemed “expected” of me and it felt like the thing to do each spring….but my heart was never really in it.

In my sophomore year at college, we had just come off a year where we went to the small college NCAA national tournament again for the third straight time and we were expected to vie for a national title. Each spring our coach would hold open tryouts where some 30-40 new players (freshman) would try out for the team and each year the coach would keep about four or five new players to add to the roster ….mostly to fill out our (JV) practice squad.

This particular year seven new catchers tried out during the open tryouts. I was the starting catcher and we already had three catchers on the roster, however, I had a friend, Dave Grable, who was trying out as a catcher that day and I was hoping he might at least make the practice squad. At the end of the final day of tryouts Coach would tell everyone to “meet me on the Astroturf by the pitcher’s mound…I want to have a ‘talk’ with you all.” As they gathered you could feel the tension as he asked them to take a seat. He would then tell them that he was going to call out a list of names…”if you hear your name called, immediately gather your gear and go directly to the team room…I’ll be in to speak with you later…if you do not hear your name called, then please stay here with me…I want to talk with you…you have been cut.” Coach was hard but fair and he took no pleasure in cutting anyone. He was from the old school and it was clear he was teaching us a lot more than just baseball out there.

So the new boys would gather on the Astroturf by the pitcher’s mound and await their fate. As Coach began calling out the names you could see the anxiety on the faces of each player as the names were called one-by-one. I had gone to watch that day because I was hoping my friend might make the team. One by one Coach called out the names and each time he did the tension among the boys grew and by the end they all just wanted it to be over. As Coach read the last few names there was an awkward pause before and then he said “that’s it…if you haven’t heard your name called stay here…the rest of you go” and he motioned them off the field. My friend’s name was not called…Dave had been cut. Immediately I looked over at Dave and his head dropped as he took in a deep breath of despair. My heart broke and I felt bad and waited for Coach to finish his “talk” with the boys before he sent them on their way. For most, they would never play baseball again. Coach always tried to soften the blow in his comments but, to be honest; I don’t think it helped much. When Coach had finished, Dave got up, turned towards me and when he did I could see the pain and disappointment in his face. As he got closer he began to cry and it broke my heart to see my friend like that.

When Dave made it over to where I was standing I told him how sorry I was but he didn’t really respond. We then turned in silence and walked towards the field-house without saying a word. About half way there Dave suddenly stopped and looked over at me. For a few seconds he didn’t say anything and then tears filled his eyes and he said, “I hate you BAB.”…BAB was my nickname in college…short for Babashan, of course. For a second I was shocked and wondered why he would say this, but I knew he didn’t really mean it…not in the way it sounded, anyway. “Why, Dave, what did I do?” He said “because you don’t really love the game like I do. You don’t really even care about the sport the way I do and it’s just not fair…God wasted my talent on you…. it should be me out there, not you.” As I listened, I remember feeling terrible and, for a second, I wanted to defend myself but I realized that was not my place at that moment. My job at that moment was to be his friend, so I said nothing.

That night I lay in bed thinking about Dave and all he had said. He was right, I didn’t love the game…in fact, I was really tired of it. I didn’t care anymore and I was on auto-pilot. I loved my coach though and that was really the only reason I was playing at that point. As I thought through the night I began to wonder why it was this way. A part of me felt guilty and ashamed and I knew I needed to do something…but what, I had no idea.

The next morning I awoke and decided that I would simply go talk to Coach and tell him he needed to reconsider his decision about Dave. I was feeling very brave and safe in my dorm room but as soon as I set out across campus to the coach’s office, I began to shrink with each step I took. By the time I had made it to the coach’s office, I was standing in a pool of my own nervous sweat and I felt like I was two feet tall standing in the doorway just trying to summon up the courage to make my entrance. So much for being a hero… I couldn’t even knock on the coach’s door for God’s sake. At one point I looked around as if searching for the guy who had put me up to this madness, but then I gathered myself closed my eyes and knocked.

Immediately I began the chant to myself… “Please don’t be in, please don’t be in, please don’t be in”… I began to rethink the brilliant strategy I had come up with and after a few seconds I heard nothing and breathed a huge sigh of joyful relief …then just as I was ready to turn and walk…run away actually…I heard his voice from behind the door….”come in”…I almost fainted.

Now, before I go on, it is important for me to paint a picture of my coach. His name was Dean Deshon and he looked as though he was straight out of central casting. His nickname among the upper classmen was ‘”Digger” ….and God only knows why they called him that. I just assumed it was because when you looked at him you wanted to die and fall into your own grave…as in “grave digger” …or because he had buried the hopes and dreams of so many young players along the way…but I was never sure and I was too scared to ask. He was old-school, hard, and in perfect physical shape for a man nearly sixty years old. He had a bald head and that menacing look that can sometimes accompany a man with no hair. His voice was gruff, he was prone to short answers and when he looked at you, you felt weak, small and powerless. His face was hard and chiseled and looked like a cross between Popeye and Frank Purdue…the old chicken guy. Frankly, I was scared to death by the man and when he yelled “come in” my entire life flashed in front of my eyes.

Still, somehow I summoned the courage and I opened the door and walked in and saw ‘Digger” sitting behind his desk working on some paperwork. For what seemed like a few minutes I just stood there…frozen…and Coach didn’t even acknowledge the fact that I had entered the room. Then he slowly tilted his head up from the work he was doing, looked me in the eyes, and made a facial expression…you know, the one that’s says “well?”

At first I forgot why I was even there as random thoughts suddenly raced through my head….”who invented liquid soap and why, are paper towels really better than the cloth towels and I wonder if I could learn to surf” …. after a few seconds I gathered myself and I could see Coach waiting for me to say something but this time as I went to speak I began to stutter and stammer….”Oh, ah, ah, we’ll Coach” I said, “I’ve come to talk to you about Da, Da, Dave, sir.” “Dave?…Dave who?” he said. I immediately knew I was in for a tough ride. “Ah, Da, Da Dave Grable sir…you know the big kid who tried out for the JV team.” “Ah Dave….he’s a good boy” Coach said. “What’s wrong with him, is he alright” Coach asked, “Yes sir, he’s fine…but I wanted to talk to you about maybe ah, ah, re,re,re reconsidering cutting him…?”

Suddenly, the coach’s face lost all its expression and right then I knew I had made a very big mistake. I began to panic and I wondered what would happen if I just turned and ran out of his office. “So you think I made a mistake” he said. “No sir…I don’t think you made a mistake, but I think that you might want to think about making a place for Dave because he has a lot to offer.” “A lot to offer,” the coach said. “You know we are trying to make it to the Nationals again this year, don’t you?” He went on, “Dave is a nice boy but he’s slow, clumsy, and awkward… he can’t hit or throw …I mean we are a baseball team after all. What do you suggest we do with him…make him team mascot?” ….Mascot…hum….for a second I considered the idea but then quickly came to my senses. “Well coach, Dave just loves the game and he told me he was willing to do anything to be on the team. Maybe he could come to practices and catch batting practice and shag fly balls or something like that… anything…he really loves the game, Coach, and I just think we might be able to use a guy like that around the team.”

After I spoke, Coach just sat there looking at me. He said nothing for a few seconds and then said, “is that all?’ “Yes,” I said and he then dropped his head back down to his work and mumbled “get to your next class and I’ll see you at practice today.” He then motioned me out of his office, said “shut the door as you leave please.” And it was over.

After I closed the door, I stood just outside his office for a few seconds trying to gather myself and understand what had just happened. I had no idea if he had really even heard me but I felt good that I had tried. I also felt the kind of embarrassment you do when someone sees right through into your soul …when your real self is evident and your tough exterior is wiped away clean and all that is left is your true naked self. I felt small and weak …but proud for even coming at all.

Later that day I was in the locker room getting ready for practice when the coach walked by. As he passed, I looked up and when we made eye contact, for a brief second, and while I could not swear to it in court, I think he actually smiled at me….but since I hadn’t really ever seen him smile I wasn’t sure. I wasn’t quite sure what it meant or even if it had really happened but at least he didn’t kick me off the team, so I was happy about that.

I dressed and headed out to practice. As I walked I was thinking about the events of the day when I noticed a big man standing on the field with a rake working and shaping the pitcher’s mound. As I got closer I could see that it was Dave. Immediately thoughts raced through my head but I was not sure what I was seeing or what it all meant. When I was close enough I called out to” Dave” but he didn’t look up at first. Then, just as I got near the dugout, Dave seemed to notice me and he stopped, held up his rake over his head and gave me a big smile.

When I arrived in the dugout Coach was already sitting at the far end in his regular seat. I began to get ready, putting on my spikes and gear, occasionally looking down the bench to see if I could catch the coach’s eye. At one point I looked up and the coach and I locked eyes and he gave me a wink … in that “knowing way” …but said nothing. I nodded back but said nothing either.

It was our secret and I felt good, really good….but what I didn’t know was that I had set into motion a series of events that would change the destiny of our team.

PLEASE READ ONPart II – “The numbers don’t add up” …will be posted tomorrow

Our greatest glory…

16 May

Last month there was a boxing competition between a team from the USA and one from England. I was one of the coaches for the USA team. In the audience were family members of some of our fighters. During fights when the fighters I coach are not competing I like to go sit with their family members in the audience and talk to them. It’s very natural for even the most enthusiastic parents to feel nervous at a fight so I like to sit with them and make them more comfortable with the experience. Most of the time I just talk them through a round and tell them not to worry and how proud we are of their sons and daughters….I’m never sure if I’m helping out sometimes. 
 
A few years back I had one mother who would actually grunt and scream “NO” each time her son got hit. By the end of the fight the entire crowd was grunting and screaming in unison with her each time her son got hit and everyone, including the referee, was laughing and having a great time with it. On another occasion I watched as the mothers of both the fighters in the ring actually hugged each other during the entire fight refusing to look up until after it was all over. To tell you the truth, these were some of the funniest moments I can remember but they are also some of the most precious. Despite the fact our fighters might have felt embarrassed…they also felt loved..and that’s never a bad thing.   
 
Anyway, at one point in the evening I was sitting with a family of one of my fighters who had flown in from San Francisco to watch their son compete.  Both the mother and father were very pleased their son had found something he really loved to do but, naturally, they were a little nervous to see him fight. As we sat talking I assured the mother that things would be fine but despite my efforts I could see she was worried in the way all moms are when they watch their children fight. 
 
As we sat talking there was another fight going on and just then the American fighter was hit with a big punch that sent him crashing to the floor directly in front of us. Immediately the mother I was sitting with turned away and I locked eyes with the father and could see the concern on his face.  After a few moments the bout continued and the mother turned back to me and with a nervous smile said “I’m sure you’re a very good coach so please promise me you will make sure  my boy doesn’t get knocked down like that”  I looked her deep in the eye and said “No Mamm I cannot promise your boy won’t ever get knocked down….but I will promise to teach him to get up if he does.”  The moment was perfect and that instant I watched as her expression  turn from one of worry and concern to one of gratitude and warmth. For the first time she understood what we were “really” teaching these kids and she was grateful. Before I left to go attend to their son and prepare him for his upcoming bout the mother hugged me and thanked me for being her sons coach.
 
People are always asking me “why boxing?” I’m always surprised they can’t see it. To me there are few better places in which to teach the virtues and principals of success than in the ring. Boxing is a perfect metaphor for life and the struggles we all face on our own hero’s journey.  Life will knock us down and the ONLY thing anyone can really control is if you choose to get back up. Confucius said “our greatest glory is not in never falling, but rising every time we fall.”  If, after all the hard work, thats the only thing a kid gets from us then we’ve done our job.  

 Footnote:  Last week our amateur boxing program received the largest single donation in our program’s history. It was from the family of the young man I sat with at the fight I described above. The gift was enormous, very appreciated and very much needed. Accompanying the donation was a beautiful note thanking me and my assistant  coaches for what we are teaching their son…their note barely mentioned boxing at all!  
 
The family making the donation wishes to remain anonymous, however, I just could not resist telling the story and sharing  our gratitude and appreciation. It should also be noted that this particular family is not extremely “well-to-do” and while they are certainly not poor I’m quite sure that this was a stretch for them…making it all the more meaningful and important to me. 
 
From the bottom of my heart I say thank you! … you know who you are!
 
Coach

“Heavy” hearted

28 Apr

Flashback…

I was standing in the ring with one of my fighter’s just seconds after his first victory as a professional boxer.  “Coach,” he said “no matter what happens from here on out I just want to thank you for making one of my dreams in life come true.“  Tears immediately filled my eyes and I turned away to gather myself. When I turned back around he rested his head on my shoulder and embraced me as a grateful son might his father …I returned the hug and as we shared our embrace I whispered in his ear…“you need bigger dreams son.”

It is this type of moment that is the treasure of my life. Yet along with these cherished moments also come some very sad and difficult ones.  Times when I’m not making someone’s dream come true but rather watching one die.     

Such was the case a few weeks ago when this very same fighter sent me a text message that read as follows: “Dear coach, I’m retiring from boxing…please don’t be mad at me but you were right…it’s time for me to find a bigger dream.”   

"Final Instructions" In the corner seconds before our last fight together.

 Before we go on let me tell you about him. For the purpose of this blog-post we’ll call him “Heavy Duty” because that’s the nickname I gave him and he used in his professional boxing career. I love him like a son. The thing you have to know about “Heavy” is that he is the type of kid you hope and pray your own child will become. He’s a former major college football player and stands 6’3 and weighs 260-ish. He’s a big, strong, powerful man. He’s smart, coachable and, best of all; he’s a decent and kind human being. He’s a police officer, married and the father of three very beautiful young children.  

I started “Heavy Duty” boxing many years ago when one of my other fighters brought him to my gym. In our first year together I took “Heavy” to the D.C. City Championships where he won the heavyweight title!  Back then, I used to spar with my fighters nearly every day to teach them “the ropes” from the inside, and over the years ‘Heavy” and I have probably spared over a hundred rounds together and I can tell you first hand that this kid can hit!  What was even more scary was that he was fearless…a trait I never possessed myself.  

Naturally over the years “Heavy” and I grew very close and I watched as he grew into a good man, good father and good fighter. So, when it was time for “Heavy” to turn “PRO” he came to me and asked if I would make him a professional fighter.

I remember that day because when he asked I hesitated for a second. It wasn’t that I didn’t have faith in him or that I didn’t think he was ready but I worried that this may not be the best thing for him. You see “Heavy” has the heart of a lion but what I knew then was that while he  was brave, very strong and very good…he was also not “special” in the way someone needs to be if he is really going to make it big in this sport. They call boxing “the hurt business” and I worried that Heavy might get hurt himself if I didn’t watch out for him.    

But I said yes and immediately we went to work. The training was brutal and I could see early on it was taking its toll on him. He would work a full-time day job, run home to his wife and kids and then come to the gym in the evenings where we would put him through brutal workouts that would kill most men. 

Yet, I could see he was wearing down and after his last fight I knew something was up because he didn’t talk to me the way he normally would and he seemed to rush out of the arena right after he got dressed and did his little press tour.

So when I received his text, I was sort of expecting it…and relieved. 

Going into the "last" round - "whatever happens you fight hard!"

In his message to me he explained that during the fight he felt hurt and uneasy the entire time. He said that he begantoworry what all the wear-n-tear was doing to his body and he worried for his long-term health.  But the thing he said that bothered him the most and what ultimately made up his mind for him was that during the fight, and in the midst of the punch exchanges, he wasn’t thinking about the techniques I had taught him or our strategy for the fight but rather he was thinking about his children and what would happen to them if he got hurt.

When a kid starts thinking about that in the middle of a fight it’s time for him to move on.

After I received his text I tried to send my own, however, I’m not a good ‘texter” and it was hard for me to express myself in the text the way I wanted.  I tried to call him but I knew his pride would make it difficult for him to talk to me…It’s too soon for him.  This kid doesn’t know how to quit things so I’m sure he is struggling with his emotions. Truth is, I would probably just get all emotional if we talked right now anyway, so a little time is probably a good thing.

Since I didn’t get the chance to say it before let me say it now… 

Dear Heavy;

No fighter has ever made me more proud to be their coach. You have grown into an outstanding young man and one of the best human beings I have ever known. It has brought me real joy to hear you call me “coach” and I will never forget you and the things you taught me…that’s right…you were not the only one doing the learning here.  I can’t help but think how lucky your children are to have a man like you to guide them through life.

I hope, in some small way I have contributed to the man you have become. Don’t forget your old coach and check in from time to time….you know where I’ll be.

I will always be in your corner and I will be with you ’til the journey ends.

Love,

 Coach

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