The coach was sick, but he refused to stay home. And so, every day, the teenagers watched as he hobbled up the narrow staircase to the practice room, leaning on a cane, sometimes stopping to catch his breath.
Courage. Discipline. Toughness.
These were things that 35-year-old Mike Powell had always stressed to the team.
Even as he grew weaker — losing 40 pounds of muscle, his bones protruding from his chest, his skin turning orange from a cocktail of potent medications — he continued to lead the wrestling squad because, he said, he wanted to pass along a lesson to his boys.
They might not win every battle in life. But they should face each challenge head-on. No excuses. No self-pity. "Huskie style," he said with a grin, citing the mascot at Oak Park and River Forest High School.
Powell had long been more than just a coach. And over the last two years, as his health continued to slide, many of the wrestlers came to understand that true strength doesn't come from the weight room, and real leadership doesn't require a man to be able to stand.
"Just how strong he was, even though his body was so weak," said Liam Pegg, 20, "that's going to stay with me forever."
Polymyositis is a progressive autoimmune disease. It strikes without warning, causes the muscles to wither, and sometimes leads to death. Some people go into remission for decades. Others end up in wheelchairs. But such uncertainty, Powell points out, is a part of life and, of course, another lesson for him and his team.
"I want them to know that the courage and the discipline and the toughness that I learned in wrestling are the things that are going to help me battle this," he said. "I want them to know that all the things that we teach in wrestling, that they are real."
The hot, stuffy wrestling room in the balcony of the high school fieldhouse had always been a place where the team learned more than just the art of the headlock. Outwork everyone, he told the boys. Outsmart everyone.
A dark-haired bull of a man with cauliflower ears and a crooked pinky finger, Powell cultivated a certain swagger, both in himself and in his team. Every day, he trained alongside the teens — teaching them to do back flips, challenging them to push-up contests — and charted their athletic progress on a dry-erase board labeled "MANLINESS."
"Push yourself!" he barked as he paced the sidelines, a drill sergeant in flip-flops and cargo shorts.
The dedication he preached had once worked for him. He grew up in River Forest and had been "a punk" at Oak Park and River Forest High School. Failing grades disqualified him from state competition his junior year. But with the support of his coach, Powell righted himself, won a state wrestling championship the next year, and became an All-American at Indiana University. After graduation in 1999, he got a call that would set his life's course. "Why don't you come back to coach the wrestling team?"
Even in the offseason, Powell kept in almost daily contact with many of his wrestlers' parents. He pulled kids aside for heart-to-heart talks and paid for tournament fees and plane tickets for those who couldn't afford it. He badgered the boys about schoolwork ("What's your GPA?"), encouraged them to read ("Are you man enough for a 650-page book?") and had them recite poetry in the weight room. (A favorite was "Invictus", by William Ernest Henley: "I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.")
For many kids, Powell filled a void. He and his wife didn't have children, and Powell treated the wrestlers as his own.
"My real dad is in jail. … Then my stepdad went to jail when I was in fifth or sixth grade. After that, there was no one," said Ellis Coleman, 19. "Coach Powell is like a father to me."
In February 2009, just after the wrestling team had won its first state championship, Powell began struggling in the weight room. "I couldn't bench-press what I had bench-pressed in the seventh grade," he remembered. He went from knocking out 40 pull-ups — easy — to not being able to hang on the bar. He thought he was run-down from a long, intense season. But his strength continued to deteriorate.
Muscle biopsies, blood tests and electromyographs soon followed. On April 11 of that year, the doctor called with the news. "I remember like it was yesterday. I walked to the back room of the basement. I asked my wife not to be around me, and I just wept," he said.
In the following weeks, the 198-pound athlete dropped to 157 pounds. He lost control of his bowels. He couldn't stand for more than a few minutes.
Sam Koenigsberg, 16, remembers helping Powell on the stairs that lead to the practice room. "We just walked, one step at a time," Koenigsberg recalled. "It was like helping my grandma."
After the diagnosis, Powell couldn't chase kids down the hall anymore, demanding to know why they hadn't shown up at practice. Instead, it was the wrestlers who were stopping by Powell's classroom to make sure he was OK.
Ethan Moes, 21, mowed Powell's lawn. Sammy Brooks, 17, helped push his cart at Costco. Chris and Nick Dardanes, 19, called him at home every week, to ask if there was anything he needed.
"There were times he came to school when he probably shouldn't have," said Brock Friesen, 20.
One day, Powell fell down the stairs at school. Another day, he collapsed in the boys' restroom. A group of parents sent an emissary to Powell's house. They were worried that he was pushing himself too hard.
But Powell said he needed the team as much as they needed him.
"I was really scared of dying," he said. Being around the team — even if he was coaching from a chair — was a way of holding on to life.
Day by day, the kids learned from Powell's battle.
For Darius Henry, a 15-year-old who had bounced between three foster homes, the coach's illness helped him recognize, "I might think that my life is hard, but really I'm lucky."
Sean Jackson, 19, said he "realized how you have to cherish life."
For Weldon Rogers, 22, it was a reminder to find your passion and make it your career. "Here's a guy who can hardly stand. But still, he's in a hot, sweaty room moving around and coaching," he said. "Do you believe that much in your work?"
Over time, the coach learned too.
"When I got sick, I realized that this was the first real challenge I've ever had," Powell said. "That discovery was really powerful for me, because I was just faking it before. I had two parents growing up, who loved me dearly. For me to say, 'When the chips are down, you have to keep going,' that was really easy for me to say."
There was new power behind his words when, during practices, he asked the boys: How are you going to meet the challenges in your life?
At home, his wife, Elizabeth, cooked anti-inflammatory meals of sweet potatoes, kale and grass-fed steak.
Scores of letters arrived from former wrestlers, their families and other coaches.
Hundreds turned out for a fundraiser to help cover his medical bills.
There were setbacks and complications. Powell took 27 pills a day, sat for six-hour intravenous drug infusions and underwent biweekly blood tests. Eventually, the doctors hit on a combination of medications that seemed to stabilize the disease. Powell gradually gained weight and threw away the cane.
In begrudging acknowledgement that he must live at a slower pace, he stopped teaching in April. But he continues to coach, he says, to show his kids that he is "unbreakable."
"That's how I want them to be too," he says.
It's the offseason now. Time to rest for some teams, but not at Oak Park and River Forest High. On a recent afternoon, two dozen wrestlers are drilling in the fieldhouse. In kneepads and head gear, they work in pairs, arms locked together, pulling and pushing, attempting to hurl one another to the mat.
Three years ago, the coach would have been out there with them, showing the boys how a shift of their weight and a well-placed thrust of a hand could earn them an ounce of leverage and help them gain control. But now, he is on the sidelines, sitting on a blue cooler.
Across the room, a boy is struggling and is about to be pinned. Powell launches a barrage of support. "Wrestle off your back!" he yells, urging the boy to fight. "Get off your back! Find a way! Find a way!"Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun