It was late October, 2012, the Monday after fall break. Manti Te’o and the ghost of Lennay Kekua were leading Notre Dame football on a historic run, “Gangnam Style” was etching its name onto the list of embarrassing things we’ll have to explain to our children, and my age was about half the number of pounds I was overweight. Looking for a way to get in shape, I migrated to Stepan Fields for my first practice with the boxing team.
I remember the workout. We lined up in groups of four. The first man did a 50-yard sprint back and forth, three times. The second did burpees, the third did jump lunges, the fourth did spider-man pushups (push-ups, but you bring one knee to your elbow). When the sprinter finished, each man moved to the next exercise. We went through the cycle four times. This was a cakewalk compared to mid-season workouts, but at the time it was excruciating. I was wheezing, bending over, my head aching from exhaustion. I watched captains and veterans pass me by, breezing through it as I struggled mightily. My first thought: this sucks. My second: I have to stick with this.
I remember learning stances and footwork, wondering if they would ever feel natural; my first spar, throwing wild haymakers and crossing myself up. I recall my first real bout, feeling, at 6′-3″, like the world’s smallest person as I stood against a 6′-9″, 245-pound former varsity basketball player. I spent two rounds barely landing a punch until the referee broke in – “Son, we gotta stop it,” – the TKO (technical knockout) was announced, and the other man’s hand went in the air. At the team banquet, I received a poster with a quote from Theodore Roosevelt in the center:
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
I read that, looked back on my experience, and thought, again: I have to stick with this.
College is defined by decisions and risks. Some are bad, some are good. Some change you. Looking back, as a senior entering my third tournament, the decision to drag my doughy, timid freshman self to practice that afternoon changed me forever, in ways that go far beyond improvements in health and boxing skill.
Mac, our strength and conditioning coach, is fond of telling us early in the season that we haven’t yet learned what hard work is, and he is right. Boxing teaches you what hard work is: reaching beyond your limitations, knowing the pain is temporary, but the things that take its place – strength, confidence and fulfillment – are not. You pursue individual achievement while encouraging others, competing without cutting throats. You hear the voice in your head telling you to run, and tune it out. You learn the rewards of discipline and challenging yourself, and the bonds that come with overcoming adversity alongside others. I have travelled far and wide and learned a lot in the last four years, but no lessons have impacted me more than the ones I learned stuck in a 20 x 20 patch of canvas.
Mere self-help, however, is not the purpose of this tournament. Our raison d’être is not to be found under the lights of the Purcell Pavilion. It is in Dhaka and Srimingal and Khalippur, in places most of us will never set foot. The friendship between the boxers of Notre Dame and the parishes of Bangladesh is now 86 years old, one of the oldest partnerships at this tradition-laden university. Each year, we raise over $100,000 through ticket sales and donations to support educational facilities and health clinics run by Holy Cross parishes in one of the world’s poorest countries. A few club members travel to Bangladesh each year and visit the missions, and the stories they bring back are of hope and opportunity, of light brought into some of the darkest places in our world. This is the greatest lesson we learn, precisely because it is not about us. Our focus on the missions is a reminder that while courage, hard work and brotherhood are valuable, true fulfillment comes from applying these to something greater than yourself – that living a purposeful life is its own reward.
These are the men in the arena. I have had the privilege of being among them, and there are few things more comforting than knowing that when I exit the ring for the final time, they will still be here. I invite you, on all of our behalf, to join us: donate, come watch, and be part of the culmination of our efforts in the coming weeks.