A life-changing decision


Standing in the middle of the football field, wearing nothing but well-worn tennis shoes, shorts and a tank top in 35-degree weather, I knew I had to make a life-changing decision.

My option: either stand there and freeze to death, or, for the first time in my life, quit something that I had started and go home. I faced this dilemma 47 years ago, but I remember it like it was yesterday.

In my mind, my next few steps would brand me as a quitter by my brothers and my dad. A hard choice to make, and it changed my life forever.

My first season as a Briarwood high school Buccaneer football player had just ended when I told Dad I wanted to try out for the soccer team. He said yes. A week later I found myself standing in the middle of the football field, surrounded by 30 other kids who were also freezing.

After an hour of non-stop running and kicking a frozen ball with almost frozen feet, we gathered together as the coach demanded. “Now it’s time to start conditioning,” he said.

I was already totally exhausted at that point. The sport of soccer wasn’t one for me. I quit. Walked off the field. And I knew I would have to explain why when I got home.

To say Dad was disappointed would be an understatement. He seemed even more devastated than I was. Whether he was or not, to this day I don’t really know. Of course I got the, “Winners never quit and quitters never win” speech. Then he asked what I was going to do now.

I felt like I had to say something even though I hadn’t thought this fully through. Next thing I knew, I blurted “Wrestling. I want to try out for wrestling.”

Few times had I seen my dad speechless. This was one of them. I watched his face relax, and the disappointment slowly drained from his body as he fell into the brown overstuffed recliner. He didn’t say anything for the longest time, and I was on pins and needles wondering what he was thinking.

When he could finally speak, it was with a resolve I had never heard before: “If you start, you are not going to quit, young man.”

The first day of wrestling tryouts, I wore the same well-worn tennis shoes, shorts, and tank top I’d worn for soccer tryouts. But that’s where the similarities ended.

First, the wrestling room was 90 degrees. Second, there was no running around in shorts for an hour. Third, and most important, the entire sport was something I was already good at, for I’d had plenty of practice growing up.

“I can do this,” I happily thought. Grabbing your opponent (brother), throwing him to the mat (ground), and then pinning his shoulder to the mat for three seconds, (sitting on his chest until he says, “Uncle”) was a well-honed skill.

For the next five years, Big Brother James, Twin Brother Mark and I wrestled – legitimately for sport at Briarwood. Mark was a region champion twice. I pinned everyone during my last two seasons. The only match I lost was when I was trying out a new move called a guillotine. I lost because I accidentally pinned myself.

Eventually I went on to win state my senior year. The quitter was definitely gone. I was a winner, and once again, my dad would be proud of me. Or so I thought.

After winning the state championship match, my hand was raised as I searched for him in the stands. I wasn’t just searching for my dad, though – I was searching for his approval – to no avail. I had won the biggest match of my life, but I still felt defeated. Head-down, the quitter in me walked off the mat. Dad was nowhere to be seen.

That was 42 years ago today, and I’ve never forgotten that feeling of utter defeat. I’ve also never forgotten what happened next. Stepping off the wrestling mat for the last time, with my head still weighted down and bowed, I didn’t see the strong, massive arms that suddenly wrapped around me. I had just won state in wrestling and could escape most holds, but the bear hug I was getting was one I couldn’t shake off.

As the owner of the arms lifted me off the ground, a familiar voice whispered in my ear, “Win or lose, never forget. I’m proud of you, son.”

For the previous five years, the thoughts of being a quitter had cast its dark shadow over every part of my life. It was a shadow that I alone had placed there. With Dad’s massive bear hug, my shadow of shame was finally lifted. Every morning since, I wake up saying to myself, “I’m a winner, and I can defeat any adversary that comes my way.”

If something, or someone, in your life has you programed to think you are a loser, you can change; you can chase that dark shadow away. You don’t have to win a state championship to believe you are a winner. You just have to believe.

When Big Brother James read this story, he gave me a call, “You don’t know this, but I went out for wrestling in the eight grade … and I quit. The only reason why I went back out in the ninth grade is because you did.”

Big Brother James ended up being a four-time state champion in the heavyweight division.

[Rick Ryckeley has been writing stories since 2001. To read more of Rick’s stories, visit his blog: storiesbyrick.wordpress.com.]