What I’ve learned: The truth as I see it now
In 2013 I ventured into the unknown. I wasn’t receiving any calls from the places I applied. Then one day Dakota State University’s Assistant Football Coach at the time, Coach Collins, rang me up. I learned of the graduate assistant position, how I would be working with all teams, the stipend, and the 2/3 tuition for a master’s degree. I also learned I would be alone in this position.
It was an exciting time going from an intern that year to a head coach. I still have the notebook where I wrote all of my goals down.
“I’m going to be the best intern in the nation. I’m going to be the best graduate assistant in the nation. I am going to be the best Head Strength and Conditioning Coach in the nation.”
I spoke them into existence. But when I arrived on campus, the first day on the job the football team was maxing out. The room was so packed I had to wiggle my way everywhere to get a vantage point on the technique. There was a lot of work to do.
I attempted at living 20 miles away on a beautiful lake house but it became to stressful and costly with time and gas. The catalyst for this was my car’s transmission going out on the way home one weekend. I didn’t know how I was going to make ends meet. My girlfriend at the time asked her parents to come pick me up and they drove three hours at 8 or 9 pm to come pick me up and bring me home. My car was towed to Albert Lea to be fixed. How was I going to pay for this?
My parents have been there for me at every turn. They are my guardian angels. The car was taken care of and has been great every since. So the start of my new position started out difficult with this but I was given grace. But on the ride home an idea flashed across my consciousness…the weight room closet. It is big enough for a twin size bed. I can ask around for a mini-fridge or two and a microwave. I’ll put my clothes in the locker room. There is a shower back there too. Hey! I can do this. It was decided on the drive back that Sunday.
I called my best friend Michael Neppel and he said it sounded doable. I called my brother Phil and he said so too. And then it was done. The next day I got moved in. I took the inflatable mattress I was sleeping on and brought it into the closet…where it was the perfect fit. However, one night a bolt from the piece of a equipment in there punctured a hole in the mattress. For 2 nights I slept on an ever decreasing air mattress. Craigslist the next day and I had a twin mattress delivered to the building I was at. It was after 5 pm during the week. I was nervous an athlete or coach may see what I am doing and put two and two together. Somehow, nobody was around and I carried the twin bed down and into the closet. I now had a permanent home.
The next nine months were a combination of triumph and trial. I rarely if ever received a restful night sleep for fear of someone finding out I was living in the closet. But what was to come next could not have been expected. Within the first month my family shrunk in size.
My brother was driving truck as a power linesmen; sticking to the speed limit, seatbelt on, safe as he could have been. Suddenly, the driver’s side front tire blew out causing my brother to attempt to salvage this impending wreck. He tried so hard he ripped the steering wheel off. He literally fought for his life. It is impossible to know what he went through when the big rig crashed. But I imagined it. I imagined when it went crashing down that he banged his head hundreds of times, causing the fractured skull and brain damage as was noted at the hospital. With this imagination and knowledge of injury, I accepted his death immediately.
There was hope, as is human. Nobody wanted to believe he was gone. And although he was still alive by our standards, I knew in my bones his time here was done. First it was shock, then it was tears, and then talking to my Dad after 2 days we simply wished the parade would end. People continued to come and wait and offer their condolences. Why is this continuing? Nobody can have their head hit that many times and have any meaningful existence afterwards. And so eventually after 9–10 days, the call was made. I took a leave of absence for 2 weeks. But then I was back at it.
I remember going through my own struggles just a week before the accident. I was wrestling with the impending release from my girlfriend who I deeply cared about. She was a rock for me but the writing was on the wall for going our separate ways, for multiple reasons. This was hard to swallow. But I started the best I could to accept and find meaning in my life; renewing myself in this micro way.
I was on my way to Cedar Falls, IA for a Olympic Weightlifting certification course by United States Weightlifting. This was going to be a fulfilling visit as 2 months prior I forged relationships with so many people at the University of Northern Iowa as an intern strength and conditioning coach. But that weekend of learning took place in the depths of my being, not in the weight room.
Those 2 weeks I learned a lot about people; good and evil. I became closer with my family as well. But now it was time to get back on the saddle, however hard it seemed to be.
And eventually I made it through the year. When I was offered the position and talked to my mentor Jed Smith, the Head Strength & Conditioning Coach at Northern Iowa, he said you have to take it. Those are the types of positions where if you prove your worth, they will find a way to hire you full time.
And many people worked to find me money for a full time position. The position was created, I applied, interviewed, and was awarded the job in late July of 2014.
All the struggle of the first year paid off. But more struggles were on the horizon. The next 4 years proved to be the most gratifying of my entire life. I would be teaching classes and working with all teams, save for 1. I developed countless relationships with athletes and students, not to mention fellow coaches and colleagues. But it was a constant process of struggle and overcoming obstacles. Some self-imposed, some from the job. And I questioned myself. I remember listening to Sigur Ros as I sat on my knees with my head and hands on the ground, crying my eyes out. I felt my brother, my struggles, my pain, and my sacrifices. It all came pouring out of me like rainstorm.
Each year I went in and out of depression and when it got bad I contemplated ending my life. It wasn’t a rash contemplation, however. It was very practical. I asked myself if my pain and oppression was worth it. I really sat with that question. I wrestled around with it. And a lot of times it didn’t seem worth it. But I came to a maxim that I live by. I understood something about myself through this process of darkness bestowed upon me. The gift of darkness needed to be opened up, examined, played with, and turned into light. That is what darkness is there for. It is a gift. And I learned how to become an alchemist; turning darkness into light.
My maxim: I would rather die than wake up at age 30,40,50,60, and onwards knowing it was too late, that I wasted my gifts, that I didn’t fulfill my destiny, that I acted too cowardly in the face of my darkness, that I didn’t realize the ultimate gifts of life.
So I had a choice. If I were to forego suicide, the only way I would commit to this path would be to go all out. To stop at nothing. To continue to press forward into the darkness and cultivate the habits, disciplines, and characteristics needed to transform the hell into heaven. I chose the difficult path.
It wasn’t paved. There was weed overgrowth and each day I was tasked with the pulling of each individual weed. Each day was an opportunity to clean up my life, one weed at a time. It was tantalizing to look at the paths around me that were paved. I wondered where those paths led. I thought it seemed so easy; that I could just go on the paths there were already paved. But I knew in my soul that those were false paths. Sometimes I did stray and take these paths.
They took the form of avoidance, procrastination, Netflix binging, smoking weed, chasing of sex, and all other instant gratification activities. Each time I truly looked myself in the mirror after trailing off the path I felt horrible. I knew this wasn’t what I wanted. But each time I strayed I learned. And I kept getting back on my path. And each time I came back, it was always there. It was waiting for me. More weeds grew because I was gone but I simply started over, weed after weed. And this goes on ad infinitum.
The weeds will always need to be picked each day. This is my micro-purpose that allows me to live my greater purpose.
As the months loomed prior to the start of my 5th year, I became depressed. The stress of an ever increasing workload with no help started to really sink in. On a Saturday night, I laid in bed in a panic. My breathing was shallow and there was no headway going to be made trying to sleep. So I went to my safe haven; I went on a walk. It was midnight but I had no choice. I needed to take care of myself. That walk was medicine as it is every day I go on my walks. That medicine just happened to be on the brink of panic. I was able to start breathing better and thinking more clearly and calmly. Little by little, inch by inch, my friend and I started making plans. We started grandiose but then started getting practical. We were to move somewhere together and forge the life that we design. And every night I went on walks and talked to my friend. Each walk illuminating ways we could turn this into a reality. Each day we took tiny action and the reality started to come into existence. Eventually, after getting another job secured it became evident this was happening. It didn’t seem real but it was exciting to go on this adventure. Finally, halfway through the week of my eventual resignation it was made clear; this was my last hurrah.
We went to visit a house in Minneapolis. I was talking to my friend on the phone when suddenly I realized…tomorrow I am going to resign. I already wrote up a letter in preparation the night before for reasons beyond me. It came to me that this needed to be done. Maybe a therapeutic exercise to get it all out.
Writing does that. It is a form of self-communication linking the past to the present while giving hope to the future.
I felt the avoidance come on, however. Initially I was just going to inform the head football coach and wait to tell my boss and human resources the next week. It was going to be a Friday and my family was moving my brother to Omaha for his schooling. But I made the choice of a man. I told my family I would not be able to help but that I would drive down myself later in the evening after I took care of business.
The power of choice is unlike any other. When I made the decision to take care of it all in one day, I became filled with personal power. I went on a walking meeting with the head football coach. He told me he was proud of me at the end for the decision I made, all things considered. Then, the next moment I felt some hesitation but knew it needed to be done. And I knew I would take the challenge on. It wasn’t going to be put off or avoided. I walked into my boss’ office and told him I was handing in my resignation to human resources, thanked him for my time at Dakota State, and walked out. He seemed genuinely surprised and dumbfounded, a look on his face I had never witnessed before. I felt really good about standing up for myself, something I hadn’t done during my time there. Then, it was to the final deed.
I headed to human resources and handed in my lengthy letter of resignation. After the standard out processing paperwork, I was asked if I had anything I wanted to say. I paused. Truly, going into this I didn’t know if I would talk at length. But once I got started I kept going. Halfway through I started crying. The entire journey became so clear to me. The up’s and down’s but ultimately coming out on top because of a commitment to the values and truth I live by. My gratitude for the time at Dakota State cannot be understated.
There is nothing I would trade for the experiences, lessons, pain, and ultimate gifts I received from this journey.
As I drove back from my weekend in Omaha with my family, headed to tell the football team of my decision, I cried many times. It was such a beautiful experience to share with all the athletes, but especially the football team because they bought into me, accepted me, and trusted me from day one. I lived and breathed helping this student-athletes succeed. It wasn’t a job. It wasn’t work. It wasn’t a career. It was my life! And this movie I was watching as I was driving back was incredibly beautiful to watch.
As I walked onto the field and waited for the time to address the team, I noticed my heart rate increase. I noticed the physiological processes start to go into fight or flight. But I knew that these symptoms were there to help me. I took a deep breath and began.
I asked them to take a knee. I asked them if they knew what I was about to say. And I started to cry. This was it. It’s difficult to put into words and is almost a disservice to do so, but I did my best to illustrate what the people in front of me meant to me. Afterwards, many came up to me and we shook hands and hugged.
In those moments no words matter. It is the respect shown to one another that transcends language.
As I write this now, I tear up. Tears of joy. Tears of fulfillment in my time here with these men. I have seen them all struggle; mentally and physically. I have seen them all overcome barriers; in school, personal lives, in the weight room, and on the field. I have seen them fail; losses, missed lifts when going for a personal record, and poor test scores. I have seen them triumph; defeating a rival, making history, setting records on and off the field, and becoming more disciplined men. I have been a witness to all of this. I was lucky enough to help them along the way. And without them, I wouldn’t have been able to become the man I am today.
My story isn’t over; not by a long shot. The day I resigned was the day I was renewed; another journey starts as the one before it ends. I am filled with excitement as I move towards my vision. But I will never forget how I arrived at my current journey.
It started as a scared little boy. And it ended a mature man.