What does it mean to be a man?
It is a late-spring night in 1997 on frat row in Bloomington, Ind., and the blood is starting to thump in Mike Powell's temples. Behind him, the wiry dude with the wild eyes is yelling on the steps of the frat house. "Stay the f--- off my porch!" he roars. "Come back here, and I'll kill you." The guy's friends are right there with him, taunting along.
Powell grimaces. No one talks to him this way. He's 205 pounds of pure fury—an All-America wrestler in Indiana's highly rated program, a sophomore on track to compete in the Olympics. Charismatic, darkly handsome and fueled by a confidence that borders on arrogance, he's the kind of guy who wears ripped tank tops to parties, who wedges a Junior Mint in the crevice of his cauliflowered left ear and dares girls to eat it, knowing they will. Those close to Powell see his gentler side—how he's the only male in a women's studies class, how if you asked his three roommates to name their best friend, they'd all say Mike Powell. But to the lugs at Bloomington bars and parties he is only the most alpha of males, someone to test themselves against, and he is happy to oblige. In his senior year at Oak Park and River Forest High near Chicago, he went 42--0 on the mat and won the state title. Since then he's also undefeated in bar fights.
Tonight Powell has left a frat party with five other wrestlers, and now he hears them yell back and senses the brawl taking shape. He turns, and the night becomes electric. It's six versus 30, but that doesn't matter. Powell puts one guy in a choke hold, flips another over his back. A burly young man comes flying in; Powell catches him and bangs his skull on a car, cracking it like a coconut. He looks up, the rage in his eyes. Who else wants some?
The angry, drunk kids continue to rush at him, and Powell dispatches them with frightening efficiency. They don't know who they are up against, how much power lies in Powell's 5'10" frame. In a few days he will be chewed out by his coach for fighting and lose about $2,000 off his scholarship. Those reprimands will fade, though. What will remain is the truth of this night and many others like it: No one messes with Mike Powell.
Now it is March 2009, 12 years later, and Powell stands with his arms outstretched on the sideline at the Illinois state team wrestling tournament, awaiting the impact. At 33, he has become the man he always aspired to be: coach of a top high school squad, fiancé of a beautiful woman he adores, father figure to so many lost boys.
After years of building a program, of spending 18 hours a day living and breathing OPRF High wrestling, he's done it: His alma mater is the 3A champion. Now here comes Sammy Brooks, the freshman who dominated the clinching match, sprinting across the mat with eyes afire. Sammy leaps into Powell's arms, 152 pounds of joy clutching his rib cage. Powell hugs him tight, inhaling the sweat on his chest. And then the coach who can bench-press 300 pounds, who can go days without rest, whom former Indiana teammate Eric Pitts describes as "the strongest human being I've ever known," feels an unfamiliar sensation: weakness. Powell's left leg buckles, followed by his right. He stumbles backward, into the void.
What if you woke up one morning with the flu and it never went away?
It is two weeks after the state tournament, and the OPRF wrestlers have gathered in their high-ceilinged workout room. Of the 3,000-plus students at the school, almost 60% are white and almost 30% are black, and the team's makeup reflects it. The wrestlers are joking and showing off their six-pack abs when Powell walks in and makes for the pull-up bar. "Let me show you punks how this is done," he announces with a grin.
Ever since the state finals Powell has felt strangely tired, but he's convinced it will fade. Leaping, he catches the bar with an overhand grip and yanks himself up, the veins in his biceps ridging, his back muscles compressing. In the past Powell ripped off 40 pull-ups, sometimes 50. On this day, though, he stalls after four, as if his power supply has been cut off.