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During the day he taught in the emotional-adjustment classroom. Here were some of the roughest kids from Chicago's West Side—boys who'd been kicked out of OPRF's behavior-disorder program, who were from gang-affiliated families or had been shunted from one foster home to the next. For most, just being at school was a victory. Powell was supposed to teach them math and science, but instead he held classes in manhood. He talked about what it means to be a father and about the toll of absentee dads. He also taught a lesson on African-American culture, from W.C. Handy to Eazy-E and Wu-Tang Clan. He had the kids write their own eulogies, then asked them to describe their mothers at their funerals. He had them do push-ups in class, took them on field trips, walked the whole class to his house so students could take his two dogs for a walk—the type of mundane suburban activity the boys rarely experienced. Are you crazy, other teachers said, taking a bunch of gangbangers to your house? But nothing bad ever came of it. Powell's goal, as he told his friends, was "for each boy to say that for the first time in my academic career I had someone who really loved me."
Over the years Powell persuaded a handful of the EAC boys to wrestle. They joined other kids on the team who had learning disabilities or developmental issues. Some came from terrible backgrounds. Some had parents who were substance abusers. One was repeatedly abused by a parent when he was five years old; another had been forced to watch as his father, a notorious West Side gangster, abused his mother. By 2009 several were starters on a state championship team. Others never won a match, but that wasn't the point. They stayed in school; they graduated.
The boys listened to Powell because he spoke their language, swearing and telling bad jokes and revealing his own scars and failures: how his parents' divorce when he was 17 had been rough on him; how bad grades had disqualified him from the state wrestling tournament in his junior year; how he'd been selfish in college, gotten in those stupid frat fights and gone out drinking beer and smoking pot instead of training, which led to the injuries that derailed his career. I peaked as a freshman in college, he told them. I don't want that to happen to you.
Of course he also talked about his triumphs. How at the start of his senior year at OPRF he gave up everything that seemed most important at the time—his girlfriend, parties, hanging with his buddies—and focused solely on his goal of becoming a state champion. How when he did it, dominating the title match, he was so elated that his coach had to pull him off the mat so he'd stop celebrating. How he became more curious about the world as he got older, reading New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman and listening to blues singer Robert Johnson and NPR and eventually becoming a vegetarian. ("A meathead vegetarian—ironic, huh?" he joked.) How when a former girlfriend called him a narcissist he dismissed it, then later decided she was right and he needed to change. How he got a graduate degree in special ed and took a job as a teacher's aide and an assistant coach for about $17,000 a year because he felt he was doing something important.
With Powell at the helm the Huskies went from unranked to a state power within five years. In 2006 they qualified for the state team dual meet for only the second time in their 52-year history. The following season OPRF went 17--3 and had eight state tournament qualifiers. Then, in '09, it all came together. The state title was OPRF's first in any team sport in four years.
Powell had achieved his coaching goal, but now, with polymyositis, he faced a different kind of challenge. After that first horrible night in the basement he awoke angry at himself. For years he'd been telling boys to shun excuses, to avoid self-pity. He'd talked to them about being unbreakable, about persevering, but he'd never faced real hardship. What kind of example would he set if he gave up now?
The next afternoon Powell gathered his team after practice. "You guys have probably noticed that there's something wrong with me," he said. "I'm really sick, and I'm not going to look very good for a while, but here's what I want you to know: I'm going to be a badass, and I'm going to beat this. Everything I've taught you is real. My recovery starts now."
A few days later Powell sent an e-mail to the OPRF wrestling Listserv, which included alumni, friends, relatives and students:
I have been diagnosed with polymyositis.... I have the strength in my major muscles of a small child and I fatigue with very little exertion. I am on severe doses of Prednisone and am showing progress. It will be many months before my strength is back.... I'm hoping for remission status. Either way, this really sucks. For a guy whose entire, apparently fragile, persona is predicated upon physicality and activity, it is particularly hard to swallow....
Obviously my biggest concern is that I will not have the energy to keep the wrestling program going the way we are accustomed. So any and all help is welcome. I am being told not to push myself, which goes against everything I stand for, but I am abiding nonetheless. Thanks for your well wishes. And keep in mind, I'm no punk. My spirit is strong.