At the age of 15, little did I know a strange question from a person I barely knew would eventually change my life. The person was my third period physical education teacher, and the question was, “Son, have you ever thought about wrestling? You’d be great!” Why was this such a strange question? Perhaps, because I was only 4 foot 7 inches tall, 96 lbs., and I avoided confrontation like a politician at a press conference. If anyone was a prototype for wrestling, it definitely wasn’t me.

In addition to this ridiculous question, from a guy who was obviously blind, our high school wrestling team was not only the best athletic program at our school, it was one of best programs in the state. The team consistently ranked in the top five in the state (second place just the year before). The wrestling team was the pride of our school.

In a state of shock, I asked Coach, “Why me?” He said, “Because you have something I can’t teach…an eagerness to learn and a great attitude.” To that I responded, “What about talent Coach, isn’t that a requirement?” Laughing, he replied, “Just show up after school in the cafeteria.”

That entire day, I couldn’t stop thinking about Coach. I thought to myself, he can’t be serious. He doesn’t know anything about me. Even if I was lucky enough to even make the team, how would I make it to practice every day – it was during school integration, and my home was 45 minutes away, and we had no car. I also thought, how could I afford the expenses? — I lived in one of the toughest inner-city ghettos in Miami, and my mother was a single mom with two kids and a job on the graveyard shift. Even bus fare would be a challenge.

Growing up in the hood, my ONLY thought was survival. I had lost several of my friends to violence, drugs, and guns. I had even managed to dodge a few bullets myself. At the time, most of my friends were either athletically gifted (their ticket out of the ghetto), on drugs or selling them, or in jail or on their way to jail.

Due to my small stature, I was often picked on by my bigger friends. My only saving grace was that most of the toughest bullies at my school were also my closest friends — so I was safe.

After school, I reluctantly went to the cafeteria to see Coach. I had already arranged to have a friend, who was also trying out for the team, to give me a ride home. When I arrived at the school cafeteria, there had to be at least 150 kids there – most who were members of our school’s football team. There were only 13 positions available! To say I was intimidated is an understatement. Not only did I see some of the best athletes at our school, I also saw some of the toughest kids from my neighborhood. I couldn’t believe it. When they saw me, they were just as surprised.

Shortly after, it got worse. Coach walked to the middle of the crowded cafeteria and gave one of the scariest speeches I’d ever heard. Even the guys from my hood – known for their toughness — got a little nervous. However, one comment that Coach made really hit me. He said, “Unlike most sports in which you’re recruited primarily for your talent, wrestling is NOT one of them. Wrestling is NOT about how big, how fast, or how strong you are. Wrestling measures the size of your heart, not the size of your talent. And I plan to put your heart to the test.”

After the speech, he invited us to come back the next day. As we left, Coach quickly walked over to me as I was exiting, and whispered in my ear, “I’ll see you here tomorrow, right?” Thinking to myself, “You’ve got to be crazy.” I panicked and said without thinking, “Sure Coach.” But little did I know that the next few weeks would not only shape the course of my life, but change it as well.

As the weeks went by, I noticed something strange starting to happen. As Coach had predicted, most of the “talented” athletes who tried out for the team started to quit. As some of my toughest friends from the hood started quitting, I actually felt more confident that I hadn’t given up (although I wanted to several times). Before most of my friends quit, they’d try to scare me by reminding me how small and skinny I was – and how experienced and tough the competition would be. Their comments actually made me more determined to make the team. Although I had received a shot of confidence as they all began to quit, I noticed that I was the only one left from my hood still trying to make the team.

During this time, I had to catch three city buses (one way) to get home after practice. By the time I got home, it was usually pitch dark. Sitting on a bus stop (all 96 lbs. of me) at night by myself (in a predominantly white neighborhood) quickly became one of the most frightening experiences of my life. I was called every racial slur in the book — by people I didn’t even know! But I never batted an eye or showed any sign of fear. By the time I reached the last bus stop in my own hood, I was being approached and propositioned by prostitutes, drug dealers, gang bangers, crack heads, and drunks – just to name a few.

Here I was trying to do the unthinkable (become a wrestler), and at the same time, survive the unpredictable (a trip home every night). As I look back now, I don’t know which was tougher – making the team or making it home.

Well, to the amazement of ALL of my friends, MOST of my family members, and least of all, myself, I DID make the team. I also made it home safely — for three years. Although I eventually went on to have a stellar wrestling career, the personal and team accolades aren’t what I’m most proud of. What I value most about wrestling was the person I became.

In hindsight, I can see now that making that wrestling team did more for me than I could have ever imagined. Wrestling helped me tap into resources I never knew I had. Through wrestling, I learned personal leadership, persistence, and commitment to excellence. Little did I know that everything I learned in wrestling would eventually spill over into my personal life – physically, I won a weightlifting title in high school; academically, I graduated at the top of my university class; professionally, I became the youngest professor ever hired to teach in my state; socially, I became a motivational speaker for at-risk youth; and emotionally, I learned to accept and love myself – all 96 pounds (then) of me!

I now realize that poverty has little to do with one’s financial condition; it has everything to do with one’s mental condition. What I lacked in self-esteem and confidence as a scrawny teenager, money could never buy. But what the sport of wrestling (and a persistent coach) helped me to discover about myself and my potential, I can never repay. I owe wrestling my life!

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