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It is a clear, cool afternoon a year later, in the fall of 2011. Students hurry through the halls of OPRF, laughing and posturing. In the Field House, a stream of wiry boys ascend the steep stairs to the wrestling room.
The room is cramped, with low ceilings and padded walls, and the disinfectant sprayed on the mats makes it smell like a mix of dirty socks and ammonia. Small windows let in orange spikes of late afternoon sun, but the dominant light comes from the rows of fluorescent bulbs overhead. A boom box on the windowsill blares out Little Lion Man, by Mumford & Sons: Weep for yourself, my man/You'll never be what is in your heart/Weep Little Lion Man/You're not as brave as you were at the start.
Within minutes the room is alive with activity. Young men in singlets run in circles, then cycle through various warmup moves: cherry pickers, frog jumps, dive rolls, front handsprings and dynamic stretches. They begin grappling in pairs, oddly silent given their level of exertion. The sound is of hard footfalls and the whap-whap of backs smacking the mats. Against one wall sits a blue box the size of a small suitcase. No wrestler is allowed to sit on it. It is Coach's box.
On the far side of the room a skinny man with short brown hair leans down, hands on knees. He is wearing khaki jeans, a blue cap, a T-shirt and small round glasses. He moves slowly, each action considered. Those who knew him five years ago might not recognize him. At least not until he opens his mouth. Mike Powell's voice remains large and raspy. It still carries the weight of the body that used to be attached to it.
It has been a rough year and a half for Powell. After reaching his nadir that night on the couch, he realized he could no longer live his life at full bore. He needed to accept that he'd never again be the most powerful man in the room; he needed to redefine what it meant to be a man. So he made concessions. Last May he gave up teaching. At the end of the school year he gave an impassioned going-away speech to the OPRF faculty. By the end of it the entire room was crying.
These days Powell's CPK hovers around 800. He cannot exercise, unless you count walks with his dogs, so his victories are different. "I'm undefeated in the steam room," he says, smiling but serious. "No one outlasts me."
Powell tries to rest as much as he can and not dwell on what-ifs, but it is hard. "One of my regrets is that I was just on the verge of actually doing something, of becoming the man I believed I could become," he says. "I don't know that there was a happier or more grateful 33-year-old man on earth. I don't care about these guys who are making a million by the time they're 25. That's not what I wanted to do. My goal was to win the state championship and do it the right way: with hard work and humble men who learn the great gifts of wrestling, and love from people who are not their relatives and who understand what it means to give yourself over wholly to someone or something." He pauses. "Wrestling teaches these really powerful lessons about delayed gratification, and I was finally giving [the boys] that. I was finally harvesting it in myself. I'm probably a better coach in some ways [now], but there's no way to replicate that spirit."
His practices are different these days. He sits down often, takes breaks. Every once in a while he'll show off and leap over the hurdles the wrestlers use to work on their explosiveness, even though he knows that later he'll pay the price for the exertion.
Now he slowly circles the room, watching as the wrestlers work on moves in pairs. "That's a macho finish—that's how you finish!" he shouts as a skinny freshman drops an upperclassman. Then, out of the corner of his eye, he catches junior Ben Sisler pile-driving a sophomore into the mat. "Ben, that's an all-state takedown. You need about two more and you're money!" More than ever, Powell tries to drive home his lessons. "You are who you are," he tells his team, "whether you're standing in a singlet or in a suit at a meeting.
"You can be a macho man and love your wife. You can be a macho man and be sensitive."