Over the last few years, my world has changed, and I owe the sport of wrestling a sincere gratitude for keeping my world together when it was being blown apart.
I have personally seen the positive impact this sport can have on a person and their life.
And by extension – their families lives.
This sport has taught me how to believe in myself, how to work hard, how to endure pain, how to give all of myself to a cause.
And most importantly, it has taught me –
how to fight a fight against an opponent much bigger than any other – life.
When you are a member of the “Life-Changing Events Club” you develop a different perception on life and on what matters.
It’s your reward for the injustice you have endured.
My reward has introduced me to many great people I would never have otherwise met.
I have learned about so many people’s lives.
And their circumstances.
The ability to be happy in any circumstance is a rare quality.
As a life-changing event club member, it is a quality that resonates with me.
I am attracted to it.
You combine that quality with wrestling and you have my attention.
Maybe that’s why when my brother Joe said to me last year –
“I want to introduce you to a kid I met at the gym. He wrestles for ESM. You just got to talk with him. I’ve never met someone before who has such a great approach to life,” I got excited.
My initial response to my brother was,
“Joe, I know everyone who wrestles for ESM.”
“Do you know Frankie Walz?” He asked.
“No, I don’t,” I replied
“Well, you should – I’ll introduce you to him. I’ve been spending some time with the kid, I have sort of taken him under my wing. He’ll amaze you.”
“How will he amaze me?” I asked
“He has a happiness disconnect with his life circumstances. It is a rare quality.”
“Tell me about him,” I said.
“We immediately hit it off. The more we got to talking the more I realized how unique this kids approach to life was. One day, he was going to walk home from work, so I gave him a ride. I drove and I drove, and after 8 miles I said to him – you were going to walk this? He said yes. So I kind of took him under my wing. I helped him wherever I could help him. He has a great perspective on life and a craving to find the right way to do things, and you know me, I have to do things the right way. He had an interest in getting in better shape, so I told him how important nutrition was so I took him to Whole Foods. We are also both movie aficionados. You can ask him about any movie, and he can give you an excellent synopsis. You’ve got to talk with this kid – he has one one of the best approaches to life that I’ve ever seen.”
Coming from my brother Joe, those are strong words.
A few weeks later I was sitting in the stands at the William Floyd Autism Duals, and my brother Joe introduces me to a 15-year-old, 200 pound sophomore from ESM – Frankie Walz.
“Hey, JohnA this is Frankie, the kid I was telling you about,” my brother says.
Frankie and I started talking.
During our conversation, he mentions to me that one of his favorite movies of all time was “Awakenings,” with Robert De Niro and Robin Williams.
The movie where Dr. Oliver Sacks believes his patients, who have been in a lifeless coma state for many years, are alive inside. And he then works tirelessly to bring them back to life.
Obviously, he’s caught my attention.
I thought to myself what are the odds that a 15-year-old wrestler that I just met would share with me that one of his favorite movies of all time was “Awakenings?”
I knew the odds were astronomical and that divine intervention was more of a possibility than random chance, so I took the opportunity to find out why he ‘s in my path on this day.
Was it for my journey, or his?
I sat and talked with Frankie for a good amount of time that day.
He revealed to me that ESM was the 5th school that he has attended in the last six years and the 15th different community he has lived in during his short lifetime.
I asked him why this was his 5th school in 6 years and he replied,
“I’m homeless. Actually, I was homeless, but now I have found a home.”
For some reason, I knew he didn’t mean that his family just bought a house, so I asked him what he meant.
He said, “Last year I enrolled at ESM after wrestling certifications so I couldn’t wrestle during the season, but I still went to every practice.”
I said to him, “What do you mean you went to every practice? Why would you attend practice if you knew you couldn’t wrestle in the season?”
His answer floored me.
He said, “Because, for the first time in my life I knew what it was like to be part of a family. My wrestling coaches and teammates make me feel part of something. They were there for me. When they found out about my situation they raised money for me through a tournament – and they never told anyone. I would do anything for them.”
He went on to share with me that his goal is to ‘just win one match in his high school wrestling career.”
Now, to you and I, that goal sounds like it comes from an underachiever – but if you ever knew his circumstances, you would understand how overachieving and insurmountable “just one win” seems to him.
He went on to say, “This is only my 2nd year wrestling, I know no moves, and I have never won a single wrestling match as of yet. But I fight like hell. And I will keep fighting for those guys.”
I left the gym that day forever a Frankie Walz fan.
Last season, after that, I watched every Frankie Walz match.
17 in all.
Just as “Wait till next year” became the hopeful cry for Cubs fans for 108 years, “I’ll get my win, next match,” became Frankie’s optimistic mantra for 17 consecutive matches.
Frankies’ matches, at first, were not competitive, as this sport is merciless to beginners with no wrestling moves, as raw effort is overshadowed by a long technique learning curve.
Then as the season progressed, Frankie learned from each non-win, and he put himself in a position to almost win a few matches.
Then he lost some heartbreaking matches.
Some in the last seconds, some by getting pinned while leading or tied in the score.
All along vowing, “I’ll get my win.”
And then in the final event of last year – Frankie got his win.
A pin at the Herricks Tournament.
I was so happy for him.
Frankie finished the year with a 1-18 record.
True to Frankie form, it didn’t matter to him what the number was in the right-hand column, whether it was 18 or 200, what mattered most to him was that there was a 1 in the left-hand column.
“I did it. I went out there and fought every match. I’ll wrestle anyone. I’m not afraid.”
A successful 1-18 season.
What a perspective.
Most people couldn’t find happiness in a 1-18 season and still keep their drive.
Frankie Walz is not most people.
When you are 16 years old, and you have already taken all that life has thrown at you at such a young age, you adhere to a different doctrine than the rest of us.
I call it the Inky Johnson doctrine.
Inky Johnson, the Tennessee University football player who lost the use of his right arm just games before being a number one draft pick in the NFL once so eloquently said,
“Cut me where you have to cut me, I guarantee you if you don’t kill me you won’t stop me. You got to take my life before you take my drive.”
To most a 1-18 season would be a catalyst to quit.
To Frankie, the one win was the crack in the concrete where a green shoot found the space to grow.
Fast forward a year.
In the first event of the 2016/17 season, something magical happens.
Frankie looks like a wrestler.
He has wrestling moves.
He wins three matches in one day.
The following week Frankie beats a ranked wrestler.
The wrestler who had a seemingly insurmountable goal of just winning one varsity match in his high school wrestling career, today, a year later, is now a ranked wrestler himself @ 220 pounds.
On the same day Frankie got ranked, and probably more important to him if you would ask him, Frankie was called upon and came through for his wrestling family.
Kings Park (#5) had a 34-28 lead over ESM going into the last bout of the night.
I’ll let Frankie tell the rest…
“As I was walking on the mat to wrestle, Coach Garone said I have to pin this guy to tie the dual meet. If I didn’t pin my opponent, we would lose the dual meet. So I went out and wrestled an opponent who outweighed me by 65 pounds. This kid was big, strong and heavy. With 30 seconds left in the match, I was leading 5-1.
There was a blood timeout. While plugging my nose to stop the blood, Coach Garone told me not to worry about pinning my guy. To just go out there and win the match. But I remembered what he told me before the match. That the team needed me to pin my guy for us to tie the match. So if I failed to pin him, I felt like I would let the whole team down. Walking back to the circle I got pissed. I told myself I was going to use every ounce of what was left in me to do what my team needed me to do. To pin my guy. So when the whistle blew to restart the match I took an immediate shot, I brought my opponent to the ground, and I pinned him.
I couldn’t believe it.
Everyone was going insane.
It was an amazing feeling.
Getting my hand raised was super satisfying.
I knew I didn’t let my team down.
It’s a feeling I hope to have many more times.
After the match, Frankie and I were talking, and I commented to him, “It took me 52 years to appreciate life, to always be happy in any circumstance. You seemed to master it in less than 16 years. Most never master it at all. To what do you attribute your great attitude and approach to life?
And he said, “I’ve learned in my life that an open mind and a kind heart will always make you successful, no matter what one’s circumstances are.
I just put in my head that I may not be the strongest, fastest, most talented, best looking, smartest, most popular person out there, but there is one thing I can say about myself, and other people have said about me is I always work hard. I always go 100 percent.
I never give in or give up to anything that’ll lower the view that I have of myself.
I just try to be the best I can be.”
Wrestling is an amazing sport.
And my brother Joe was right.
Frankie Walz is an amazing young man.
Whom I am proud to call my friend.
It is funny how life works.
My brother Joe takes Frankie under his wing, and in return, Frankie uses that wing to inspire others to fly.
Capturing the People and Culture of the Greatest Sport on Earth.