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A Tribute to Coach Dennis Tuomi

About a week ago, my high school wrestling coach passed away at a good old age.  Hundreds turned out for the funeral;  thousands wished they could have.  I went.  It was the least I could do to honor a man who was instrumental in shaping who I am–the things I value most about myself.   His son, Tom, was right in there with the shaping, but he’s going to have to wait until he passes away at a good old age before he gets a tribute such as this one, although I hope he knows my gratitude.

Coach Tuomi coached for decades, and I was just one among countless others he impacted.  I can’t speak for them, for the most part.  My reference point is my own life.  Others had him for other sports, but for me, it was only wrestling.   I hadn’t wanted to wrestle, but through some clever footwork by my father, I gave it a shot. After about a month, I was hooked, big time.

It is all very hard to explain.  I had only hit 5 foot the summer before my freshman year and at my first weigh-in, I checked in at a scant 88 pounds.  Not ideal, even for the lowest weight class (103) but worse, the guy at 103 had experience, and he spent that first month (heck, that first season!) cleaning my clock.  I had to wrestle 112, which I did not weigh enough for.  I may have been the only person in wrestling history that had to EAT in order to make legal weight!  But I digress;  the point is that in my all my scrawniness, I had some glimmer of the warrior inside, but no real hope that that warrior could stand its ground when push came to shove–until wrestling.

The number one thing that Coach Tuomi gave me was his steadfast belief in me.  Not just in the sense that I would prevail on the mat, but that I would prevail in life.  He wasn’t a man to say much (to me) but there was never a moment that I saw him regard me with anything but kindness in his eyes, and confidence that come hell or high water, I would do my best.

There were two things that Coach imparted both as a coach and as a teacher.  Both have been emblazoned in my mind:

“Do not worry about the things you can’t control.”

“If you think you can, or you think you can’t, you’re right.”

There are valuable life lessons in these, but they are especially appropriate for those who wrestle, and only a few outside of the sport of wrestling will know what I mean.

You need to understand that when you step out onto the mat, the whole universe rushes away and you are fundamentally alone;  alone, that is, except for the other guy on the mat who wants to inflict intense pain upon you.  He wants to crush your will, dominate you, batter you into submission.  And he will, too, if you let him.  No one else can stop him.  Not your coach.  Not your parents.  Not your fellow wrestlers.  Not the fans watching.  Perhaps only the referee, provided he can get there in time to keep the damage from becoming permanent.

If you lose in wrestling, it is usually because the other guy was better than you.  More disciplined.  More skilled.  Or maybe he just wanted it more than you did, and was willing to pay whatever price necessary.  It isn’t like basketball, where your personal attitude is a tiny, tiny component feeding into the final outcome.   There are too many variables–your fellow teammates and of course the whole other opposing team.  The mental game is just categorically different.  Basketball players may step on the court nervous about the outcome of the game, but wrestlers have every reason to fear for their very well-being.  Their ego and dignity are at risk.  There is a chance that, literally, they may very well be brutalized–both body and mind.  And there would be no one else to blame except YOU.

Do not worry about the things you can’t control… but in wrestling, Coach Tuomi knew that there were a great many things we could control, such as how hard we worked, how disciplined we were both on and off the mat, and so on.  We could not control those factors in our opponent, but we certainly could with ourselves;  don’t worry about the opponent.  Worry about YOU, lay it all on the line, and then, there is nothing to be ashamed of.

If you think you can, or you think you can’t, you’re right.  If you step out onto the mat thinking you’re going to lose, Coach knew it, and wouldn’t be surprised in the slightest that you did, in fact, lose.  He wasn’t surprised when you won, either;  it was too be expected, after all, you knew before you stepped on the mat what the outcome was going to be.

I internalized both of these statements.  I remember something coach said about me, which got back to me from a circuitous route.  Another wrestler, he said, was always surprised when he won.  But I was always surprised when I lost.  And that is still true today;  I expect every venture to result in victory, because I pour myself into the endeavor, leaving very little left on the ‘mat.’

Yet, sometimes I do lose.

I’m sure that Coach had much to say about this component, but perhaps it just goes back again to the nature of wrestling.  Very few wrestlers escape their careers without chalking up a few losses.  In fact, I feel sorry for those who never lost at all, whereas I am proud beyond words of the guys who stepped out onto the mat, over and over, and lost nearly every time.  Do you know what kind of person one must be to have that kind of character?   Most people lose once, and they’re done.  Losing, when there is no one else to blame for losing, stinks, to put it mildly.

Indeed, in my own career, I still chalked up more losses than many people even compete.   My career was not been defined by my victories, but by my defeats, and how I reacted to them.  The spillover into later life has been immense and profound.  I owe as much to Coach for his words after a defeat as I do from his help in preparing me for victory, but of the two, it is the former that has proved more important.

It is so hard to explain.  I’m talking about who I became, who I am, as a man.  You would have to know something of the victories and the defeats, and the personal price paid for each, and then understand that solitary war one fights on a mat, and how that anticipates the victories and defeats of life.  All Coach Tuomi demanded was our best;  that is all, but it wasn’t always enough.  What do you do?  You get back up.  You circle back to the center of the mat.  You bid your opponent to come forth again;  he bested you once, but before God and his holy angels, you’re going to make him pay.    He may win, and may inflict pain, but oh dear Lord, imagine how he will look after he met the buzzsaw; sure, he may escape with another notch in the win column but only–insofar as it is within my control (and if it isn’t, I’m not worrying about it) as one barely escaping the flames.

You may have my body, but you will never have my spirit.  But in your quest to have my body, know this:  I will have my pound of flesh.

How much of this was imparted by Coach?  How much of it is just a function of the great sport of wrestling?  (Remember, wrestling is the only sport that God participated in–see Jacob;  granted, in that case, God cheated.  But still).  I don’t know if I could ever parse it out, or if it could ever be parsed out on this side of the veil.  I’ve seen other wrestling coaches, and the kinds of wrestlers they produce, and I just know in my bones that Coach brought something profoundly different to the table.  I can’t put my finger on it, but I know it.  And I know that I am in his debt.

I think about my victories, and I know he is to have some share in them.  And the losses, too;  Tuomi would have been insistent that I be gracious both in victory or defeat.  But sometimes I find myself mystified by what I have become; a rock, in some ways, as I think he must have been.  The times when I’ve been surrounded by opponents–not mere competitors, but actual foes–who point their scrawny fingers or raise their bully voices, who have had success issuing shrill, self-righteous howls… I see their faces, their looks of confusion when I am entirely unmoved.   Goodness gracious, what can they do to me compared to what I have already endured?  It’s laughable, really.  I’ve had bones stressed to the breaking point, been practically suffocated to death, dropped on my head, and so on.  These yahoos, what are they going to do?  The truth is, I pity them.  Don’t they know that if I lose, but I want it bad enough, I’m circling back to the center of the mat?  And I’m going to do that again, and again, and again, and again, each time extracting my pound of flesh?

Probably not.  They were probably basketball players.  😉

And then there are the twists of fate and fortune, the acts of God, as it were.  When my daughter was diagnosed in the womb with spina bifida it was suggested we abort her.  Physically and emotionally, it was just like getting body-slammed.  But you know what, I’ve actually been body-slammed before.  The pain is temporary;  you learn that in wrestling.  It is something you rise above and wade into on your way to your destination.  There is nothing for it but to get up and keep moving.  It was like that for me.  It is so hard to explain to those who haven’t had these experiences.  That profoundly sick feeling you have in your stomach the night before and the moments prior to the match, which by sheer force of will and discipline, you swallow hard and transform yourself into a warrior, and a sheer force to be reckoned with; may God help the one who does not give due respect to the weapon.  We did not abort our daughter.  We got up.  We circled back to the center of the mat and bid the universe to rejoin the battle–if it dares.  We will have our pound of flesh.

Coach was a warrior, a sheer force to be reckoned with.  He shaped me.  He inspired me.  He taught me how to wrestle, but through wrestling, taught me how to live–with courage, dignity, and principle.  It is too hard for me to parse out his influence.  I think it just permeates me.  What kind of man is able to do that?  What kind of man was able to do that for thousands and thousands?

Words cannot describe such a man.

He died last week.  But you know, as powerless as he was to defeat death, he knew the one who had, Jesus of Nazareth.  I can see Coach in my minds eye, departing the tomb, leaving it quite empty, and regarding Death for the first time as it really is–a wholly defeated foe.  I can see Coach circling back to the center of the mat, bidding his foe to take another crack at him.  But Death is nowhere to be seen.  It’s run for the hills.  The final victory had already been won, all that was necessary was to be steadfast.

And if Coach Tuomi was anything, it was steadfast.

I look forward to thanking him again one day, in person… if I have just an ounce of his steadfastness, I have full confidence I’ll have that opportunity.

I realize, of course, that I’ll have to wait in a very long line.





1 comment

    • patrice kemp on February 19, 2016 at 6:44 pm

    Tony, Read this again to my 12 year old grandsons today. I wanted them to see what a great influence their great grandfather was and how his main goal was to guide kids to lead confident, Christ centered lives. They did wrestle for a year but quit because it was too hard. I wanted them to read your story to see the struggles you have endured and what it took to overcome them. Thank you,
    Patrice Tuomi Kemp

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