“The Gift of Adversity”

“The Gift of Adversity”

National Wrestling Hall of Fame Induction
Steven H. Biondolillo
Copyright © 2015, 2013

Midnight tonight will mark the 51st anniversary of my first step towards the world of wrestling, because at midnight tonight, exactly 51 years ago, my father passed away at the age of 46.  I was just six years old and in the first grade.

It would be an understatement to say that my father was born into a set of challenging circumstances.  He was the fifth of six surviving children of Sicilian immigrants living in hard-scrabble Brooklyn, New York.  His own father was an intermittently-employed hard drinker with a mean streak.

In his early years, my father’s principal assets were prodigious athleticism and a pair of highly-skilled and devastating hands, which enabled him to survive a childhood on the streets and a stint in reform school, where he was introduced to a breed of men ironically called “good fellas,” whose ranks he would eventually join.

Among the dozen clear memories I have of my father are a handful that I cherish:  in particular, learning to ride a bicycle, learning to hit a baseball, and, with my 11-month-younger brother, learning to box—a skill that had earned my father, in the circles in which he traveled, legendary status both on the streets and in the ring.

You might now be thinking those fraternal boxing matches were my first step towards the world of wrestling, but that would not be the case.  After my father died, my mother’s circumstances dwindled, and our family slipped into a life of poverty, welfare and crime.  Then, three years after my father’s death, when I was nine years old, my mother learned about a school for fatherless boys in Philadelphia called Girard College for Orphans, and arranged for my placement there.

Thus I became a ward of the courts of Pennsylvania and began my seven-year tenure in the nation’s oldest large-scale orphanage, which rescued me from a chaotic life in New York City and provided me for the first time with stability—predictable nutrition, adequate clothing, medical care, a good education, and (the most important thing to this nine-year-old boy!) abundant athletic opportunity, including the sport we are here this evening to celebrate.

Entirely unbeknownst to me, I had arrived in the mid-Atlantic state generally recognized to be the cradle of wrestling in the eastern United States, and at a school of several hundred boys in which many (if not most) of the best athletes wrestled.  I remember witnessing, as a 10-year-old fifth grader, my first wrestling meet.  I had arrived in Pennsylvania from the New York City public schools, where wrestling was a TV spectacle and fighting strictly forbidden.  Now here I was, watching—live-and-in-person under the official auspices of a school—two partially-clad boys tangled up in an all-out brawl.   It was shocking, exciting, almost dizzying! I thought… was this going to be expected of me?!  I play baseball for goodness’ sake!  I’m a shortstop and centerfielder!  What’s going on at this crazy school?!

A year later, as an 11-year-old sixth grader, I found myself dressed in oversized sweats and rolling around on a mat in Girard’s subterranean wrestling room.  Our elementary school team was coached by our varsity team’s co-captains, who, to their endless credit, provided a wonderful introduction to what all of us here know is a very tricky enterprise to launch successfully.

Thus began my wrestling career, which would unfold in three separate eras:  six years at the youth and high school levels, where I became a two-time Philadelphia-area private school champion and one-time runner up, as well as a place winner in the National Prep School Championships; five years at the college and elite levels, where I twice qualified for the Canadian Intercollegiate Athletic Union national championships and placed fourth in my second attempt, as well as had the opportunity on a half-dozen occasions to represent both Canada and the United States in international competition; and, finally, five years as an assistant coach in Boston College’s Division I wrestling program.

Like all wrestlers of a certain age, I have dozens of wonderful stories to share, many of them true!  But in the interest of time, I will share only a single story from the very beginning of my competitive career, as well as some of the important lessons learned from that experience, after which I will sum up my professional career, which, as Harvard’s wrestlers might say, is what earned me a place on the podium this evening.

The story I will share is from my second year on the mat, when, because of my status as an undefeated 12-year-old eighth grader (I had skipped the seventh grade), I was asked at season’s end to wrestle a varsity match.  As far as I’ve been able to ascertain, it was the very first time my high school had tapped an eighth grader for a varsity match, let alone a 12-year-old eighth grader.  I weighed 88 pounds, but was inserted into the varsity line-up at 103 to replace our injured 103-pounder.  Our varsity’s 95-pounder didn’t bump up because he was protecting an undefeated season.

The experience of putting on (and swimming in!) the varsity singlet and tights, donning the varsity warm-up jacket, running through our ad hoc pep squad’s 30-yard-long human tunnel to the mat, and circling the mat in front of a screaming home crowd was spine-tingling and surreal.

As most of us here know, I would be the second in our line-up to wrestle.  To say that I was in a state of shock doesn’t quite get at the state I was in.  Without exaggeration, rigor mortis was setting in!  In an attempt to bring me to, one of our school’s baseball coaches climbed out of the stands, grabbed hold of my headgear and started shaking:  “Can you hear me, Steve, can you hear me?  Wake up!  Come to, buddy!”

Well, the inevitable happened:  I was hoisted onto the mat and landed, stunned, at the feet of… the Jolly Green Giant.  My opponent was 16-years-old, almost two heads taller, and 15 pounds heavier.  And, as if he wasn’t large enough, he actually struck the Jolly Green Giant pose, hands on his hips, arms spread wide, looking bemusedly down his nose at… Little Sprout.

Let me quickly recount for you the ensuing blur:  ready, wrestle; I shot; scored the takedown; hung on for the period; chose bottom; sat out; turned; caught the Giant’s head… and pinned him!  The explosion in that gymnasium was deafening.  It was one of only two times in my entire competitive career that I jumped into the air in celebration of a victory.

While there are many truths and lessons in this story that have shaped both my athletic and professional lives, I will share only a handful:

First, many of life’s opportunities and challenges present themselves suddenly, at which point you can choose either to climb into the arena or stay out of it.  One of our greatest presidents, Teddy Roosevelt, famously said:  “The credit belongs to the man in the arena.”  I say, always choose the arena.

Second, many (if not most) of life’s worthwhile challenges are big and hairy and green—two heads taller than you are and 1,500 pounds heavier.  The larger the risk in any enterprise, the larger the reward.  Always choose large goals and objectives, worthy opponents, and worthy enterprises.   Remember, you become what you think: therefore, think big!

Third, a little fear is a healthy thing, and useful.  It has often been said that one thing all successful people have in common is fear of failure.  Too much fear will paralyze you.  Too little can lead to cockiness, or deprive you of the juice and the drive that most of us need to succeed.

Fourth, never underestimate your opponent.  Looks are deceiving.  Little Sprout is happy to take you down.  Practically every military strategist in history has noted that underestimating one’s opponent is the first flaw in a failed campaign.  Always bring a healthy respect and your whole game to whatever challenge you face.

Lastly, never disrespect your opponent, either in victory or defeat.  Right now you might be thinking that the Jolly Green Giant staring down his nose at Little Sprout was disrespectful.  Perhaps.  But the less disputable truth in that long-ago wrestling match is the more egregious expression of disrespect was Little Sprout’s leap into the air.  I should not have done that.  I remember that, when I lost the bronze medal match in the 1972 National Prep School Championships to a wrestler hailing from one of the nation’s other orphanages—the great Milton Hershey School—my opponent did not jump into the air.  Instead, he took me by the arm and walked me to my corner, which was a very classy thing to do.  Win or lose, always be classy.

I have taken these and many other lessons learned on the mat into my professional life and career.  As many of you know, I founded the firm that gets the credit (or, depending upon your opinion about this type of fundraiser, the blame) for sparking the national renaissance in walkathons.  We did not invent walkathons; we brought them to scale by organizing the world’s first million-dollar walk, $2 million walk, $3 million walk, and so forth.  In USA Today’s listing of the nation’s “Top 10 Charitable Fundraising Events” are three walkathons designed and/or meaningfully developed by my firm.  Those would be number one, number three, and number eight.  Number eight alone involves over 700,000 participants and three million individual check writers, who collectively contribute in the fight against breast cancer over $75 million per year.

Along the way, our firm has become the nation’s leading special-event fundraising educator, training over 13,000 nonprofit staff.  The net result of our efforts has been to catalyze a $2 billion walkathon market, as well as elevate and professionalize the entire field of special-event fundraising.

Big numbers aside, let me tell you what our most important achievement has been:  by developing the world of peer-to-peer fundraising—walkathons, bike-a-thons, and the like—we have given average American citizens, as well as citizens with extremely modest means, the opportunity to be philanthropists.  Because in walkathons you ask your friends, family members, neighbors, and coworkers for small contributions to support the causes that are dear to you, the nation is now teeming with caring people of modest means who routinely raise tens of thousands of dollars.  My team and I are proud to have helped unlock the potential of grassroots giving in the United States, and to have prefigured many of today’s trends in political and online fundraising.

So where are we headed next?  As we changed the world of special-event fundraising, our firm is now aiming to change the world of “corporate team building.”  What currently passes for “corporate team building” technique seems to be off-the-mark:  one thinks of ropes courses, “escape the room” games, bicycle-building projects, theater improv, and scavenger hunts.

Thinking differently, our idea is… if you want your team members to have a deeper understanding of each other, and you want to put them in touch with their inspirations, as well as build their commitment to the team… they must face each other in a circle and (no, not wrestle!) talk.  But not about anything.  Specifically, they must talk about their “Gifts” (all the amazing things life has bestowed upon them), their “Thoughts and Inspirations” (all the individuals past and present who’ve captured their imaginations), and their “Actions” (the things they are actually doing that will, when they are dead, serve as their footprints).  Gifts, Thoughts, Actions!—three words that can meaningfully describe and predict the arc of one’s life.

While I would love to share with you my personal response to all three of these powerful words, I will end now by sharing only what I believe are life’s three greatest gifts:

First and foremost is the gift of life itself.  I say a prayer of thanksgiving to God, and to the father I never had a chance to know, who died 51 years ago this evening and never had another chance to give his sons a hug:  thank you for life.

Second is the gift of adversity.  Yes, adversity—the never-ending series of experiences, challenges, and forces which shape our lives and characters.  Whether you’re a two-year-old struggling with your laces, a child struggling with a musical instrument, or an adolescent struggling with peer pressure… whether you’re a student struggling with algebra, a breadwinner struggling to make ends meet, or a business professional struggling to meet competitive challenges… whether you’re a young boy struggling with the death of a father, a plunge into a life of poverty, or a seven-year stint in an orphanage, you should say a prayer for the life-shaping gift of adversity.  We know from the biblical story of Jacob wrestling the Angel two things:  that God will challenge us, and that wrestling—the metaphor for sport itself—is also the quintessential metaphor for the entire human experience.

And last, but not least, the third of life’s great gifts is the gift of community.  Some of us are lucky enough to be born into productive families and communities, while others of us choose and/or create them.  Whichever, all of us, in meaningful measure, are defined, supported, schooled, inspired, propelled, and validated by the communities we are part of.

Which is why I am humbled to stand here before you.  My wrestling career, my business career, my life are as much your achievement as mine.  You, the people in this room, have defined me, supported me, schooled me, inspired me, propelled me and, now, validated me.  The nation’s renaissance in walkathons… the fact that Americans of modest means can now be philanthropists… the $2 billion peer-to-peer fundraising industry that supports so many worthwhile causes… these are, in meaningful measure, your achievements, too—the achievements of our collective wrestling community, which exists to protect and promote life’s most perfect level playing field—the mat!—on which kids like me—who might never have had a chance—learn to survive, succeed, and flourish.

As I walk away from this platform, I thank you from the bottom of my heart, and ask all of you to give yourselves an ovation and, maybe, even a hug, but for goodness’ sake no “body locks”!

Steven H. Biondolillo was inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame as an Outstanding American from Massachusetts on November 2, 2013.