Friday, March 4, 2011

Witness to the Extraordinary

Grammy and I have a niece, “Wonder Woman” and a nephew, “Big Mac” who are physical specimens and incredible athletes. They are the youngest of a generation of cousins and our whole family likes to follow their accomplishments. Wonder Woman is a two-sport college athlete and a genuinely beautiful soul. She is a beautiful woman of grace and style with a gentle spirit when she is not competing. When she steps on to the field of play, she is a force to be feared. I think she is a very nice blend of her parents and the Four Sisters Farm family swells up a little when we brag about her.

Big Mac is a high school junior and a truly fine young man. He is humble, courteous, kind, and a marvelous athlete. We are talking about the whole package here. Mac is a great looking guy with the heart of a warrior who is built like Adonis (if Adonis was on a little better weight-lifting program). It is a rare thing in this day to find a man so blessed and gifted that doesn’t seem to feel the need to, in some manner, scream “Hey look at me, I’m all that”. Instead, there is a quiet confidence about our nephew which seems to speak for him. No arrogance, no conscious effort to promote himself or diminish those around him. Instead, there is just something completely unspoken that causes you to pause and take notice.

Last weekend, Grammy and I had the privilege of watching Big Mac perform on the State’s most prestigious stage for Kansas high school wrestlers, the Kansas State High School Wrestling Tournament. It was an opportunity for Mac to measure himself against the best of the best the State had to offer. Even more importantly it was a chance to fulfill a dream and realize his full potential in the sport. The state wrestling tournament is truly a magnificent event filled with glorious victories and heart breaking defeats. And while they keep team stats and recognize the teams that score the most overall points, it is at its very core a measure of one’s individual ability, heart, and determination. There is nowhere to hide on the wrestling mat and no one to make up for your mistakes and vulnerabilities. I truly admire the young men who choose to test themselves in such a manner.

As fate (and the bracket) would have it, Big Mac and the guy presumed to be his toughest opponent (blog name = Gladiator; kid looked a little like a young Russell Crowe) wound up on the same side of the bracket. This story is not about Gladiator, so I will not spend a great deal of time describing him. Big Mac’s father said it best when he said, “Looks like twins”. Suffice it to say he was a big, strong, confident opponent and he was ranked #1 in the State of Kansas. The bracket tragedy made it obvious to many that the state’s two best wrestlers would not meet in the championship round of the 215 lb weight class. It also made it clear from the start that one of these highly skilled young men was in for a huge disappointment.

In Big Mac’s first match, he walked out onto the mat with a sense of purpose, shook his opponent’s hand and pinned him in 39 seconds. The two graciously shook hands and what was destined to be became history. Big Mac’s opponent did not seem overly upset and it was my perception that he was simply overmatched and he knew it. Not the arrogance of a proud uncle but the simple truth. Gladiator’s first match was an unsettling copy of Mac’s. He simply strode confidently out to the center of the mat and pinned his opponent in 56 seconds. I have to admit I had a little wave of nausea that passed through me and it was only forced away by my determination to be unfaltering in my belief in Big Mac. It concerned me that Big Mac might have seen what Gladiator had done and let the shadow of doubt creep into some recess of his mind. To the contrary, he seemed to expect the result and be comfortable that things were stacking up in a predictable manner. The second match for both wrestlers went substantially the same. Both out pointed their opponent by a comfortable margin setting the stage for a terrific showdown.

It also set the stage for a long and tense quiet before the storm. It was a terrific privilege to witness the story first hand and sit in the presence of such a great family. The fan club was made up of Big Mac’s parents, Wonder Woman, Grandma Mac, Grammy, and me. Grandpa, (the original Big Mac) was not able to be present in person but he was certainly never far from my conscious thoughts. You see he is maybe the biggest supporter of Big Mac and they share a special relationship and bond. I could not help but wonder how hard it must be for Grandpa to stand by waiting for news. In addition to those present on this day there were many more in the family waiting for any information that could be relayed. Grammy is a bit of a computer nerd and she was faithfully keeping the world updated via social networking. The information flow was much appreciated by the Four Sisters Farm family and beyond.

By now the whole arena knew Big Mac and Gladiator were going to meet to determine who advanced to the championship round and who would be relegated to the consolation bracket where the best you could possibly do was third place. Not that third place is anything to be ashamed of but champions do not think like other people or there would be more champions in this world. Maybe worst of all, the loser would have to endure well meaning consolation like “You had a great year.”, “You did your best and should be proud.”, and the classic, “You set the stage for next year". Don’t get me wrong, these are all legitimate statements and certainly I have said them on occasion. But, I have been involved in enough athletics, training and competitions to know they are a poor substitute for reaching your goals and fulfilling your dreams. To settle for less than your dream can only be considered and entertained after you have come up short and had time to grieve for what might have been. There was not one fiber in my body that could bear the thought of Big Mac having to grieve for what might have been. He had worked too hard, endured too much pain and done things “too right” to come up short.

Now, I am a man who believes in an all powerful God. I firmly believe nothing is impossible for the God of the Universe. I am, however, inclined to believe God does not view winning and losing the same as man. I am further inclined to think God may have better things to do with His time than to watch ESPN. That being said, I am also persuaded that God loves his children and cares about each of us beyond our understanding. So, this may give you just a little insight into the theological struggle I was having as Big Mac prepared to face Gladiator. I must admit I even thought about asking Grammy to whisper a little prayer and have a brief chat with God. (Grammy is a loving and generous soul and I got to thinking her chance of a positive response might be a tad better that mine.) However, in the end, I was afraid the enormity of the importance of this outcome might somehow slip past a gentle soul who would prefer we all win. So I simply reminded God he made some to be warriors and asked him to protect both young men and give them the strength and fortitude to handle the outcome. I also casually mentioned in passing that Gladiator was ranked #1 in the state because somewhere in my personal theology I believe God loves a good upset.

The time moved in slow motion. Big Mac sat in comfortable silence with his dad. There was no need for words. They had faced such moments together many times before and an unspoken and maybe unconscious routine had developed. After all, they had been at the wrestling game since Big Mac was a Tiny Mac. Big Mac’s dad is a quiet man who feels no need for meaningless conversation. He is comfortable with himself and like many of the good men I know, he is comfortable with silence. I suspect he is responsible for much of the quiet confidence present in Big Mac’s personality. He is also a man who hates crowds and needs space. I would guess he is most comfortable in the field walking behind a good bird dog. The truth is the only visual evidence of anxiety came in the form of his left leg bobbing up and down like a piston. So there they sat, Big Mac with ear buds listening to music and dad with seemingly calm composure betrayed only by the nervous leg bob. It occurred to me that Big Mac could have chosen any number of ways to pass the time waiting for the moment of truth. He chose to sit right there in silence next to his father. I cannot begin to describe the flood of emotions I felt watching this interaction between father and son. I think my brother-in-law is a blessed man who has earned the love and respect of his son. The truth is there was so much at stake that each man had to be somewhat lost in his own thoughts. The father worried his son would have to know the agony of coming up short; the son wanting to fulfill a dream and make his family proud.

As the time grew near, Big Mac got up and disappeared. I got up to stretch and use the restroom. On my way into the men’s room, I encountered Big Mac. I gave him a hug, told him I loved him, wished him luck and waited for some memorable response. He told me he loved me too and shared what was on his mind, “Man these singlets are a pain; ya have to take em down every time ya have to pee.” Now, this is information a 52 year old man is probably never going to use but I could not have been more pleased with his response. Clearly my nephew was unshaken by the enormity of the moment.

Big Mac made his way down to the arena floor and began the ritual of preparing to go into battle. He began getting warmed up, stretching and shaking out his muscles. Across the way Gladiator had made his way down to the floor and was following a similar ritual. They paced back and forth and stole looks at each other out of the corner of their eyes. Each taking stock of the other and measuring each other as only men can do. There was no glaring or sign of disrespect. Just two finely tuned athletes on the verge of competition with nervous energy releasing in the form of shoulder shrugs and pacing. They were literally like two big cats pacing back and forth and both wishing to get on with it. Totally focused and in the mental zone where warriors go for final preparation.

They met in the center of the mat and it occurred to me they were both probably relieved the waiting was over. They shook hands, the referee blew the whistle and that which we had all waited for was upon us. They circled each other and immediately it was apparent they would wrestle each other with a different strategy than the previous opponents. There was a caution in both of them which was not present in the earlier matches. There was no fear. Each was unafraid but determined to be smart and wait for the other to make a mistake. Both were looking for some opportunity to gain a position of advantage and both were unwilling to be the first to risk being too aggressive. There was hand-fighting and feigning efforts to shoot the others legs for a take-down. When they did lock up it was like two evenly matched bulls with neither having enough of a strength advantage to control the other. The first period ended with no points scored and the excitement level on the rise.

In the second period, Gladiator ended up in the down position. Now I don’t know much about wrestling but I know it seems pretty certain that the man in the down position is likely to escape the other man and gain a point. This is exactly what happened and Gladiator did just as expected and earned the first point. This probably was no big deal but it caused real panic in my soul. I don’t know wrestling but I do know fighting and I know what real speed, quickness and strength looks like. I am familiar with how small the margin for error is in such contests and how quickly momentum can change. All day long we had watched wrestlers get beat by the slightest of margins and now Big Mac was behind to an experienced and dangerous opponent.

The third and final period began with Big Mac down a point. Even so, he seemed unaffected and maybe even a little more confident. Although he had not scored yet, he was beginning to be more effective with making contact and maneuvering Gladiator. Again, I know little of wrestling and I am often not sure why the referee stops action and resets the wrestlers. All I know is this happened again and Big Mac ended up in the down position and promptly returned the favor and earned a point for an escape. Tied now, Big Mac suddenly became much more aggressive and made several attempts at take downs. This concerned me because he was obviously much more comfortable waiting for opponents to act and then countering their move. Likewise this seemed to be Gladiators strength and this made for a scary final period. It dawned on me that Big Mac had made up his mind to go for it. He was not going to be content to let the time run out and go to overtime. So he upped the ante and got very aggressive. Time and again Big Mac was the aggressor and they would lock up and end up off the mat, both men heaving with their hands on their knees. Twice he almost managed to accomplish a take-down but the time ran out and we found ourselves in overtime. Nothing could have been more fitting. The two men were evenly matched and it seemed tragic for either to fall. The crowd had waited all day and now their endurance would be rewarded with the high drama that should be attached to such battles.

Now if I had understood the overtime rules, I would have needed another trip to the men’s room. It completely escaped me that the first points scored in overtime win the match. They went at each other just like you would expect from two men used to using their will to win. Each determined to triumph, neither willing to even consider the alternative to winning. They banged into each other, struggled for any slight advantage and ended up off the mat time and time again. With only seconds left on the clock, the referee reset them one last time, blew the whistle and got out of the way. Big Mac wasted no time and risked everything on a take-down move. This time he got just enough of an advantage to make it happen and scored a two point take down. Our crowd went wild but while I was happy for the two points I was still worried about the 15 seconds left on the clock. Big Mac’s dad was hugging me and I said something really stupid like “Is it over?” He kind of gave me a weird look and then realized I did not understand the first to score, wins. He cleared it up by giving me a high five and telling me, “It’s over, he did it.” All I know is when I finally became conscious of my reaction, I was yelling “YES!!!!!, Yes!!!!, Yes!!! at the top of my voice, pumping my fist in the air and jumping up and down like a school girl.

It was in this moment that I saw Big Mac look up at his family and point at all of us. I could clearly read the look on his face. It expressed enormous relief, joy, happiness, gratitude, and above all release of all the emotions that must be kept in check to perform at such a level. My eyes might have leaked a little right here, and my chest might have heaved some at that moment but frankly it’s none of your business. In that precious moment, I have never been more proud to be a part of this family. That being said, I knew full well that Mac’s finger point was an acknowledgment of and tribute to his mom and dad. It was an unspoken thank you for their sacrifice and support and an outward sign of his inward appreciation of their love. I am not a romantic. In fact, I am pretty much a realist. I say this so you will understand I know the difference between a romantic view of an event and reality. The real truth is we got to watch an extraordinary young man accomplish an extraordinary feat. He earned it and he deserved it. As Grammy said, “It was the sweetest sweaty hug I have ever gotten.” Big Mac gave us all a hug; cause that’s just who he is and that is what you do when you do things right!!

The next day Big Mac won the Kansas High School Wrestling championship in the 215 lb weight class. It was a close and hard fought match against a worthy opponent. I cannot say it was anticlimactic; but the truth is, it was expected. Big Mac did what champions do and he stayed focused and finished the job. It was the kind of ending that was fitting of a Great Quest. In the end we got another sweaty hug. Grammy was right, it was perhaps the best sweaty hug I have ever experienced. So, here’s to you Big Mac!! I am proud of you. You took on all comers and in the end you were the last man standing. You are a worthy Champion and I love you. Thanks for the extraordinary experience.

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Thanks for the epic battle. I expect to see you next year!! (Gladiator stormed through the consolation bracket like a man on fire and pinned his opponent for 3rd place.)

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PS: Grammy and I now have ten Grandchildren and seven are boys. I could not help but think of them as we shared this experience with Big Mac and his family. It reminded me how important it is to love and support our children. It reinforced for me the importance of the father-son relationship. Our grandsons are blessed with fine fathers and they do not need me for that role. This frees me up to concentrate on being their number one fan. Maybe Big Mac and his dad will sit beside me some day cheering for one of the young men from Four Sisters Farm as he strives to be the best in some arena of life. I can tell you this, I am happy some of the genetics of Big Mac are in the gene pool shared by the children of Four Sisters Farm. Even more importantly, I'm glad to be a part of a family that knows how to love. I mean a really deep love that endures and produces all kinds of different champions.

(Special thanks go to Rock Star - she came and snapped some pictures and helped corral four of the Four Sisters Farm grandchildren who came with us to the Championship rounds - Rock Star, your love for family is evident in your actions.)


  1. I just have to let you know I really enjoyed reading this. Well, very well, written. What a great experience.

  2. Wow! I have tears streaming down my face. This was beautifully written Dad. Way to go Big Mac. You are the man. Love your proud cousin!

  3. As a mom of a brand new wrestler, and as a fashion-conscious woman who previously swore she would not let her boys wrestle because of those horrendous singlets, I was tremendously touched by this wonderful story. A side note, I just became the mom of a Tiny Mac so that added to the tears streaming down my face! I hope someday that my wrestler and my Baby MacArthur are fine young men just like Big Mac!

  4. I work with Big Mac's dad, he told about your blog. Very well composed and very emotional. After a meeting today i was able to spend a little time with Mike and witness his fatherly pride. And it is genuine pride that Mike has for his kids, the chest inflates but few words come out. I called Mike apparently minutes after the semifinal match with the Gladiator, I thought maybe I was talking to somebody else, I had never heard so many words come out that fast from him before. What a special experience you as a family were able to witness.