It felt like a bullet ripped through my chest. I couldn’t breathe. Time had completely stopped. The walls of reality closed in around me rapidly until I collapsed into myself like a black hole. I sat on my knees in the middle of the mat for an eternity of seconds. I just wanted it all to end, like a bad dream, but I also didn’t want to wake to the painful reality – I just didn’t want to be.
It was the last match of my college career and I got pinned. If I had won, I would be guaranteed to place in the top eight in the country. As a child, my dad and I would go watch the NCAA tournament every year. I always dreamed that one day I would stand on the top of that podium. Now, I was eliminated for the third year in a row in the very same round. I was done.
It hit me like a freight train. I got up, shook my opponents hand, and staggered off the mat in a daze. I stumbled into the concourse of the Wells Fargo Center and collapsed against the cold concrete wall. And I cried.
I sobbed and sobbed until snot ran down my face. I sat with my head tucked between my knees, still sweaty and shirtless. I was wailing loudly and spastically, struggling to catch deep gulps of air between hysteric outbursts. Wrestlers and coaches alike passed through the concourse and I didn’t even think to care – I was in another world.
I finally caught my breath and dug my phone out of my bag. I got up and went to meet my father. I rushed through the halls with my head down, sniffling. When I saw him, the floodgates opened again. We hugged. I cried into his shoulder until his shirt was soaked. At 24 years old, I had fully reverted back to a state of infancy. He held my head and tried to comfort me.
“Rollie, I’m so proud of everything you’ve done.”
As a child, when I lost a match, he would always say, “You did a great job!” I would reply, “No I didn’t. I LOST!” I knew he was actually proud of me. I thought about all the sacrifices my parents had made over the years. I knew they always wanted the best for me, but now I felt like a total failure and I erupted in another fit of despair. My entire wrestling career flashed before my eyes. My first match. The weekend roadtrips. Summer camps. It was all over now and it felt like it was all for nothing.
Sometimes when shitty things happen, people will say, “If I had to do it all again, I wouldn’t have it any other way.” I never really bought into that; to me that’s just rationalizing the universe’s treachery. I would have it another way – a better way.
Other times, people say, “Well if you don’t try, you can’t fail” or “If you don’t care, you will never be disappointed.” I despise those sayings, no matter how tongue-in-cheek. I put my entire being on the line and went bust, but I have never regretted trying, never regretted caring. To me, a life without caring is a life without meaning.
Dan Gable went undefeated throughout high school and college until his very last match at NCAAs his senior year when he lost to Larry Owings. In articles about Gable, writers are often quick to point out that he treats this loss “like a death in the family” – still, after all these years, they marvel. I don’t suppose to know the first thing about his pain, but I do know this: Gable is a man who doesn’t even know how to not care.
Following the NCAAs, there was a grand afterparty. The tournament was in Philadelphia for once, so Penn wrestling supporters flocked from all corners of the globe. We rented out the entire top floor of the Loews Hotel. There were speeches and toasts, but I just wanted to hide. I wished I could shrink away from it all and just be invisible.
I ran into an older mentor of mine who had suffered a similar fate years earlier. He looked me square in the eyes, “It’s going to hurt for a long, long time.” He spoke slowly and deliberately. “I wish I could tell you otherwise…” his voice trailed off and I could tell he was reliving a sad story of his own.
For the first time, his words calmed me. It was like being lost in an artic blizzard and running into another human being. Even if he said, “You’re shit out of luck, there’s nothing for miles,” at least now the territory was known.
In the days and weeks that followed many friends tried to console me. “Just think, you have a great job offer that people would kill for. You are lucky.” I bit my tongue and nodded. Lucky? You have no fucking clue.
I spent the remainder of my senior year wallowing in anger and self-pity. I drank a lot, and that helped, sometimes. Eventually I chased the feelings of pain and resentment into the remotest corner of my cranium. Then, like a sadistic Poe character, I began to seal them off, brick by brick, until I constructed an impenetrable bunker.
I could talk about it, and maybe even joke about it with a few close friends, but I never actually plumbed the depths of my memory. I would speak, but it was automatic and reflexive, a coping mechanism that somehow bypassed my consciousness. I just wanted to forget.
When I finally did graduate, I dedicated myself 100% to my career. I worked in close proximity to my mentor, and every so often we talked about it. He always said that his loss drove him to succeed in all other areas of life. It must have worked too, because he was very driven and successful. I respected him greatly, and while I was driven, I was just never able to see it that way. Maybe I just couldn’t grasp the abstraction. I still missed the sting of competition.
The dominoes were all stacked in a neat row when I went down to Peru to visit Ben. On the last day, I sat across the bar from Ivan. We didn’t speak the same language, but he looked me right in the eye. I felt naked, like he was looking right through me as he talked to Ben in Spanish. “You still want to compete,” he said with an impish grin. Here was a man who had fought over 40 professional fights. Many of them predated modern MMA rules; they were bare knuckle and had no time limit.
I had just met him that day, but I felt like he already knew more about me than most people. When I told him he was right, but that competing was impossible, he shook his head back and forth and laughed at the absurdity of the notion. “I’m confident you will find a way,” he said without blinking. He had seen that hidden fire, the thing that makes me tick, and he knew its power. He found the bunker, and with one simple gesture, leveled it to the ground.