Toughness | Jim Steel

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by Jim Steel | March 05, 2024

Ever since I was a little kid, I have been inspired by stories of
toughness and courage. Athletes have inspired me. The Arturo
Gatti/Mickey Ward trilogy never fails to motivate me – two warriors
who had no quit in them. Jack Youngblood played in the NFC
Championship game and Superbowl with a broken leg. Years ago,
Baltimore Colts quarterback Johnny Unitas was hit by Chicago Bears
Doug Atkins so hard in the face that his own teammates couldn’t bear
to look at him in the huddle because his face was so bloody. Atkins’
hit was so ferocious that with today’s rules, he probably would be
kicked out of the league. One of Unitas’ offensive linemen grabbed
a handful of mud and packed Unitas’ face to stop the bleeding.
Unitas never left the field, and when the referee told him to take as
much time as he needed, Unitas said, “Just spot the damn ball.”
He never left the game.

I have found
inspiration in other places also. The book Tears in the Darkness
tells the story of American Ben Steele, who survived the Bataan Death
March despite unspeakable treatment by his Japanese captors. For
example, during the 65-mile march, if the soldiers, starving and
dehydrated, stopped to drink even out of a mud hole, they had their
heads chopped off. If they fell from exhaustion, the captors left
them for the tanks to run over. Japanese soldiers in jeeps would
drive by and nonchalantly cut American soldiers’ heads off with their
swords. Ben survived, crediting growing up on a ranch in Montana and
his father being tough on him growing up. One time, when he was 15,
he went and collected horses 15 miles each way in a blizzard. Tough.

I have been around some
tough sons of bitches in my life also. The toughest of them all was a
Special Forces soldier, from the time when I was a collegiate
strength coach. I have been fortunate to train some of those guys for
the last 10 years or so. I was in my office one day and I received a
call from a lady in the athletic department telling me that a Special
Forces soldier was coming to see me. When I walked in the weight room
after warming up a team on the football field, I saw a bald, heavy
set older man, standing next to a 30-something bearded man in a
flannel shirt by a power rack. I didn’t recognize either of them.

“Hey, Coach Steel,”
the 30-something man said, “How are you doing? It’s me, Don
Miller.” “Good,” I said, “How are you?” I was waiting for
my brain to figure out just who the heck these people were. Turns out
that I had given a lecture to him and a group of his Special Forces
teammates a few years before. And after talking to them for a bit, it
turned out that the older guy was an oncologist, and Don had lung
cancer. Don was in town for radiation treatment and he needed a place
to lift weights while he was going through it. He had lost a bunch of
weight, and that’s why I didn’t recognize him.

Don asked me if he
could train in our weight room while he was in town. “Of course,”
I said, “Anything you need.” He explained that he’d gone to
the local NFL team asking to train in their weight room, but they
said that they couldn’t open up 7 days a week for him. I was thinking
to myself, “This guy wants to train while going through radiation,
and train 7 days a week?”

He showed up to train
the next evening. He told me to not treat him differently than anyone
else that I trained. I said that I wouldn’t, and we began. He was
weak, but he tried real hard. His body weight was around 165, 20
pounds less than when I had last seen him, and he had been through
chemotherapy, so I understood his loss in strength. I knew he had a
Muay Thai background so we next went to the boxing area to do some
punching mitt training, where I called out punches and he worked the
combinations on the mitts. I paired him with one of my assistant
coaches who was an excellent fighter. I told them that they would be
performing one-minute rounds each, alternating with each other. Each
of them would do a minute of combinations and then the other person
would go for a minute, and 10-1-minute rounds was the plan. During
the middle of the second round, Don suddenly stopped, unable to
catch his breath. He rocked backwards, gasping. I thought to myself,
“I have killed a Special Forces soldier.” And then, all of a
sudden, he stood upright, put his hands up and said, “All right,
let’s go.” I thought, “Now this is a different dude.”

He was in town for 6
weeks. During that time, he trained with weights 5-7 days a week and
boxed a few days a week. We hunted geese in the snow together, drank
moonshine whiskey together, and got kicked out of a restaurant
together (this was after he and one of my assistant coaches cleared
out some tables to practice Jiu-jitsu). He came to my son’s
basketball game, and, after a meal at my house, he helped my wife
clear the table, of course before I could get to it, which made him
quite the gentleman in her eyes.

One time after a
training session, I said to him, “You know the Vikings drank mead
after a tough workout.” I had no idea if the Vikings did that or
not, I just wanted to see what he would say. “Do you have some
mead?” he asked. “No, but I have some Pabst Blue Ribbon.” I
reached into the office fridge and tossed him a cold beer. “Just
like the Vikings,” I said.

With 2 weeks to go in
his treatment, he came to me and said, “Coach, I really love being
with you guys and training, but I really want to get back to my wife
and kid. I’m going to try to go home a week early. Do you mind
training me twice a day? I’m also going to do radiation twice a
day.” He wanted to fit 2 weeks of training and radiation into one
week. He didn’t want to miss anything. And I trained him twice a
day and he did radiation twice a day for that last week.

I was sitting with his
oncologist in my office one day when Don wasn’t around, and I asked
him what side effects Don may be experiencing from the treatment. “He
should feel as though he has a fever all the time, he should be
lethargic, low energy. He shouldn’t feel like doing anything.”
Don hadn’t shown any of those side effects, and in fact, by the
time he had finished training with me, he had gained 15 pounds and
hit personal records on some of his lifts.

Before he left, I told
him what the oncologist said regarding how Don should be feeling.
“Are you feeling any of that stuff?” I asked. In the whole time
he was around me, and going through all that stuff, he never
complained one time. After I asked him that question, he looked at
me, and in the only instance I knew that I was actually dealing with
a human being, he shrugged his shoulders.

I don’t look to
athletes for inspiration much anymore. Whenever I need a kick in the
ass, I just think of Don. His display of otherworldly toughness, both
physically but especially mentally, will be motivating me for a long
time. Many times when motivation is waning or when faced with a tough
challenge, I have asked myself, “What would Don do?”

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