Towards the end of my sophomore wrestling season, my mentor and wrestling coach had told me that by my senior year, I could be as good as the captain on my high school team at the time. While I appreciated that sentiment, I wanted more.
“Could I be better than that? Could I win the New England Championships?”
Without hesitation, Coach Davis said yes. He told me of a wrestler who had won the New England Championships with very little wrestling experience. He also told me that I had the “eye of the tiger,” a symbol of tenacity and grit. With that, the seed was planted in my mind. If I tried my hardest, then anything was possible. In his experience, Coach Davis must have known better than to tell a teenage boy with lofty goals that he couldn’t achieve something. More importantly, he must have known that there was something powerful about a boy with a dream. Years passed before I realized just how much those words had mattered to me back then.
Weeks later, in passing, he asked me about my life. I mentioned certain difficulties that were going on in my life. In hindsight, I believe I was just coming off of depression at the time. As a way to try to lighten the situation, I said in a joking tone, “Well, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger!”
With a serious look on his face, he stopped what he was doing as if to let me know that I had his undivided attention.
“You know, that’s a great way of looking at it. A lot of people your age can take it the wrong way and really do something to hurt themselves.”
What he didn’t know was that almost exactly a year before that conversation took place, I had seriously contemplated suicide. In two sentences, he had articulated something that I had struggled with so clearly, so precisely, and so effortlessly. I realized that his wisdom was far beyond my years and that I needed to learn more from him on and off the wrestling mat.
Without telling him, I requested him as an academic advisor (my high school assigned one faculty member to several students as their academic advisor). In hindsight, I should have told my current advisor at the time that I wanted to switch, but fortunately she didn’t take it personally as she figured that I had developed a strong relationship with Coach Davis. What followed was the most rapid and meaningful growth I had ever experienced up to that point in my life.
Later that year, I didn’t have a place to stay for Thanksgiving, so he invited me to spend some time with his family up in New Hampshire. This gave me an opportunity to not only see how he treated students, but also how he interacted with his family. His parents were wonderful hosts who treated me as their own. It was one thing to hear him preach about living a life of excellence. It was another truly profound thing to see him practice what he had been preaching.
Every step of the way, Coach Davis seemed to be able to offer support in any and all parts of my life. Amazingly, he was also wise enough to give me enough space to grow into my own person. Together, we proceeded to achieve some very satisfying accomplishments on the mat. I co-captained a team that beat three other teams in our league that our school hadn’t beaten in around fifteen years. In the off season, I would go on to place 3rd in Thailand’s national team trials. The following year, I lost to Thailand’s returning national champion by one point to secure my place as the alternate for the national team. While I didn’t achieve my goals, I certainly wasn’t far off.
By the time my graduation day came around, I did not dread the moment like some of my classmates. Because of all my time that I had spent with Coach Davis, I felt that I was well prepared to move on and tackle other challenges in college and beyond. Of course, there was a mutual understanding that I would find him to say goodbye before I had actually left.
In the chaos of all the boarding school seniors packing their stuff into their parents’ cars, I walked down the dormitory hallway to the entrance to Coach Davis’ apartment. Other seniors were saying their goodbyes, so I waited patiently for everyone to finish. I had come to expect words of wisdom from him whenever we spoke.
“I have never met a student as earnest as you have been. People like you are the reason that people like me go into teaching and coaching. Please keep in touch.”
With a choked up “Thank you,” I walked out the door with a sense of accomplishment and gratitude.
Weeks later, advisor comments were due along with my grades for my final semester of high school. He had written the following:
“I have to admit that I have been procrastinating in writing this comment. This is the last time I will have the honor of writing about you in my formal capacity as your advisor and the prospect saddens me.
You have earned the respect, love, and admiration of your faculty and peers. You have achieved great things in the classroom and in our athletic classroom (a.k.a. wrestling room), constantly improving and striving to better yourself. Most importantly, you have always focused hardest on something that most people do not honestly consider until their adulthood – being the best person that you can be.
In the wrestling room, I have posted on the wall a quote attributed to Plato. It reads: “The first and greatest victory is to conquer yourself; to be conquered by yourself is, of all things, most shameful and vile.” I have never worked with a student or athlete who so earnestly exerted himself with this in mind. A consequence of this self-mastery has been an impressive ability to recognize and articulate your thoughts and emotions. An impressive consequence of that is an uncommon selflessness. And it goes on from there, always answering the question, “Am I being a being good person?”
I really admire you for that. This is the this that really makes you unique. So, regardless of what happens in the future in class, on the mat, or in life generally. Never lose this attribute.
Please stay in touch.”
Words couldn’t describe the pride and gratification I felt at that moment. His impact on my life was undeniable.
Years earlier, I sought out a mentor. At that moment, I realized that I left with a father figure.