Dan Russell Tougher Than Hell 0 Comments


I stepped off the airplane after the flight back from North Dakota State in early spring, along with my teammates and coaches. I had done it.  I was the second person in U.S History to win four NCAA titles. Each of us wrestlers had the usual mountain of bags to collect – clothes bags, plus a whole other duffel full of weight cutting gear: the rubber suit, the hats, gloves, sweat suits and more, all of it unwashed and smelling like a public health hazard – and once we had loaded up, I walked over to the crowd of media that were waiting for interviews.

Thirty, maybe forty minutes later, I was all done with the press and looked around for my teammates. They’d gone.

I slumped into a taxi and sat through the twenty-minute trip to downtown Portland. The driver recognized me and wanted to talk about my fights, but I just wanted to think about what I was going to do once I got home. The apartment was new and I hadn’t had time to do much to the place, other than put up my trophy wall. I’d bought four long, thick shelves and fixed them up so you saw them as soon as you walked in the door. Only my best trophies had made it up there – the best state victories, the world championships from when I was a kid, and the haul from the last three NCAAs. I was looking forward to adding these three latest ones to the collection, thinking about how they would balance things out nicely.

I dusted the shelf before I started adding to it. For so long it had been bothering me that the collection was incomplete without these senior year prizes, but at last I was at the point of being able to relax. I’d trained and fought and proved that I was the best wrestler in my class. Finally the monkey was off my back and I had the trophies to prove it.

I wasn’t surprised that there were tears in my eyes as I placed the last of the awards up on the shelf. It was an emotional time. But as I called out, “This is it!” to the empty apartment, the tears kept coming.

“This is it,” I called out again, only slower this time. And quieter too.

“This is it.”

The sobs came faster than I could ever have imagined. I was doubled over, feeling choked and pinned and brought low by the tears and this sadness, this overwhelming sadness. I felt loneliness like you feel pain when you’re struck down by the flu, with every muscle and bone seeming to ache. My friends had given up waiting for me – or had they even bothered to pause in the first place? My new apartment was empty and bleak. My collegiate history was about to be inked into the record books. This is it. This is all I have been working for. This is all I have.

I lay down on the floor, the carpet still holding the smells of the previous occupants. I pressed myself lower into the carpet, the sobs coming from some deeper place now.

The sport of wrestling had taught me to work hard. But working harder, winning titles, climbing the next rung never seemed to satisfy.

Years later, All hell broke loose once again, and I found myself standing on a street corner shaking uncontrollably.  My anger, frustration and disappointment had erupted.  I tried to talk myself back to health. I was tired.  My trembling body was not responding.  I had tried so hard.  Working harder was not working! Loneliness was consuming me.  I was wildly successful by the worlds standards yet I was at the end of myself.

My collapse was public.  We were at a neighborhood block party where all of my friends and neighbors had gathered. Yet this humiliating experience became the catalyst for healing. My unraveling became the training ground in becoming a champion in the ultimate fight. But first, I had to come to the end of myself.

The truth is, we are all in a fight. We may be facing challenges in our marriage, battling cancer, fighting for our kids, struggling with the economy.  You and I are in a fight! You and I are on the battlefield.

The way through is not to do more, but to give everything!

Triumph does not come through working harder.  Victory comes through surrender.

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