Tommy has fought to move from a survivor in his home where there were real life and death struggles to finding his personal Jesus and working to be an overcomer.
In high school I started out as a bony freshman who tried and failed to make the football team. I remember vividly how coach Coffman took me into his office that smelled like body sweat and liniment. He made it clear to me that I was the last one to be cut from the team. He told me in his stuffy style how my heart was in it, but there'd be no point having me on the team, because there was no chance I'd see any playing time. What a diplomat!
As I made my way from the office through the locker room, I fought back tears, afraid the guys putting away their pads would make fun of me. Smugness was in the air along with the body sweat.
When I made it home on the bus, I kept it all bottled inside until my father came home to our little country house and immediately asked if I made the team. Then I cried like a boy who lost his puppy. As usual, my father tried to comfort me, and talked about getting my hunting license and how I could excel in other ways.
I hadn't thought about it that much until now, but my father knew what I needed. He delivered me to my older cousin who had a basement filled with weightlifting equipment. He told my cousin Paul, "See what you can do with this kid of mine. I need you to toughen him up a little."
Paul was tall and athletic, in his thirties. He had a reputation as a top grad school basketball coach. His next passion was power lifting. It was in his musty basement with cold steel, I found my niche. I took the bottled rage of being a skinny, misfit in school and harnessed it with the weights. In a few months' time, I turned sixteen and went to my first power lifting meet against men. I failed miserably at it, but Paul didn't appreciate whining. He drove us back in his Volkswagen bug and lectured me until his face turned blood red. I thought in that moment his head might explode.
Humility was coming in doses, but I wasn't about to quit the one thing I knew would get me respect. I hadn't forgot about my youth group and kept up with my desire to impress the girls at church. I went back to the basement gym and stuck with it through high school. The change in me was revolutionary, a true metamorphosis. I had peace within through my personal Jesus and a show of strength as I bulked up. No one in school picked on me anymore, and I had earned a reputation as the strongest weightlifter in school.
In the beginning of my senior year the old freshman football coach noticed me. I wasn't sure if he recognized that I was the one he cut from the squad years ago, but he told me, "You should be in sports, because you show so much promise."
I didn't rub it in. But this time I smiled all the way home, not in a bus, but driving my first car from school and couldn't wait to tell my father what this coach said. I earned his respect, and I savored it. My father's wide grin and twinkle in his hazel eyes told me, he knew what I needed all along.
Like any success, sometimes it can get into your head and heart. I often hung around with the outcast of high school, I even played chess with Herb Cottington who surprisingly went on to become an infamous serial killer out west. One day this veneer of myself I painted would be shattered and a valuable lesson learned.
It started innocently enough in school, early in my senior year. For some reason, there was this hidden longing, this dark desire to bully someone. I just wanted to know how it feels to pull that trigger. There were plenty of freshman to find, perhaps hundreds to pick on.
When the bell between periods rang, I pounced on a kid. He was bone-thin, pale white and looked as if I could breath on him and he would fall over. I stopped him in his tracks, put my hand up over his locker and asked him if he was ready for a beat down?
His eyes darted about, and I waited for him to pay me respect, plead his case. He sniffled a bit. "My brother is Joe Coogan, and he told me if anyone picks on me, to let him know and besides, I have cancer."
I backed away. Guilt and shame flooded my soul. I knew and liked Joe Coogan. He was a cool guy who went to the church that my best friends father built with his bare hands as a preacher/ carpenter. "Oh," I managed. "I...I know Joe. My mistake. Sorry bout that."
I wanted to crawl into a locker and hide. I couldn't believe that in my one weak moment, I found the one person in hundreds who should have been the last person ever bullied! I tried to forget about it and move on, but he kept coming back in my dreams saying, "I have cancer."
A few months later, my friend informed me that Joe Coogan's little brother had passed. He also told me there would be calling hours at Calvary Baptist church. He suggested we should pay our respects.
It was a cold evening with stars in the sky like silver trinkets. We walked through the front door of church and down the aisle. For me, it was a gauntlet of eyes. I'm not sure if anyone knew us, except Joe and his girlfriend. The mother hadn't taken her eyes off us. The father seemed unsure about us. Friends. We could be seen as friends from school. But I was no friend, I was the one who bullied Joe's little brother.
I braved the walk to the front near the stage. It was as if a boiling spotlight came over me. I folded my hands and knelt in respect. Before I prayed, I looked at this teen, frozen in time, forever the young son who would never see another day at school. He would never fall in love with a girl, never get married...never...never...never! SO MANY NEVERS. His star had fallen and burned too soon and suddenly across a naked sky.
I closed my eyes, guilt like a millstone around my neck. I begged God to forgive me.
As I shuffled away, I stifled the pain and blotted the tears until I could be alone in the cold beneath the frozen stars. I vowed to God I would follow his plan, and I would never take for granted each day.
I learned that every day is a day of GRACE!
Tommy is me growing up
Tom sr. is my father who raised me.
Paul is my older cousin who recently turned 80 years old. At 77 he won coach of the year honors with Onondaga Central High basketball and still is very active teaching boys. He's still my favorite cousin.
Joe Coogan and Joe Ann were high school sweethearts who married, had a family and moved to Tennessee. His mother and father had seven children all toll. The one child who passed was only fifteen. Shortly after that one of the boy's friends who was at the funeral died tragically in an accident.
Herb Cottington was a nerd with an IQ of about 150. He never lost a chess match, moved to Vegas, counting cards in black jack, it was there that he murdered his first girl, then went on to murder two more women.