It was 1999, and J Robinson was competing for what might have been his first national championship since taking the helm of the Golden Gophers wrestling team 13 years earlier. He had come tantalizingly close the year before, taking second to Iowa. And now, at Penn State’s Bryce Jordan Center, he was within striking distance as he stood with his wrestler awaiting a medal-round bout.
I was in the stands wearing my “I Did It” T-shirt — a prized possession I earned by graduating from J’s 28-day intensive wrestling program five years earlier. Completing the camp was then the seminal achievement of my life. I had long dreamed of winning a Pennsylvania state championship, and as I approached my senior year, it was increasingly clear that I needed to do something radical to make that happen. It was my mom who handed me the brochure for J’s camp.
I didn’t win that state championship — not even close — but what I learned about myself at J’s camp was life-changing. Every day I woke up not knowing if I could finish the camp; all I knew was that I could finish the next practice. I learned to focus on the next thing — not to get overwhelmed by the impossible thing. That lesson carried me the next year, when my longtime girlfriend broke up with me, and it has carried me through hard moments ever since.
When we ran 17 miles two weeks into camp, I set a new limit for myself. When football two-a-days rolled around that fall, I came to believe I could outwork anyone else on the field — and I did. J taught me those things.
So there he was, going after his national championship and I not far away. I bolted down the steps and put my hand on his shoulder. He turned around to see a boy in his “I Did It” T-shirt. And at that moment I became the only person in the room.
He spent a handful of minutes quizzing me on what had become of my life — Penn State, finance, soon-to-be married, etc. A man who had much more important concerns concerned himself only with me.
J lost to Iowa by a narrow, 2-point margin that day. He would win the first of his national championships two years later. But he achieved that day the sort of signal victory that was the real hallmark of his career. He effortlessly taught a young man a lesson that he has carried with him throughout his life.
As I lose myself in my own ambitions and distractions, I remember J’s consuming gaze and think: “I want to be like that.”
J is not the first coaching legend to fall (“U wrestling coach fired over drug probe clash,” Sept. 8), and he reminds us of the frailty wired into our humanity. He made the wrong call in protecting his wrestlers from the consequences of their actions. While it’s possible his motives were self-serving, my small experiences with J suggest a different reality. Perhaps he thought he could save them from themselves.
But even while his decision reflects a defect in judgment, it may well also reflect his strength of character. When one principle came into conflict with another, these young men were the consuming object of his focus. He set all other concerns aside — no matter how relevant, no matter how important. It’s all too easy for me to believe, because this too was the gift he gave to me.
Far more than his national championships or the shame surrounding his departure, it is lessons like these that will echo forward as his real legacy.
Luke Zubrod is a consultant in Kennett Square, Penn.