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He tells his wrestlers that he loves them, and then, when they blush, he says there's no shame in expressing affection. "You don't have to say it back," he says. "Just know it's O.K. to say it."
Often he worries that he is less effective as a coach. Others disagree. "He's 10 times the coach he was," says Brooks. "He's smarter, and he prepares better. I grew up wanting to be just like him, and I still do." Mike Boyd, a former Illinois state champion, joined Powell as an assistant this season and is amazed. "I've learned more in a month and a half than in the last 10 years," Boyd says.
The team is good this year, once again capable of winning a state title. By Christmas the Huskies will be undefeated; by January there will be talk of an outside shot at the mythical high school wrestling national championship. But for now, in the fall of 2011, Powell focuses on how proud he is of the team's makeup. Of his 14 starting wrestlers, several were once special-ed kids, including Darius Henry, who wrestles at 113 and 120 pounds. Before coming to Oak Park, Darius had spent his life in and out of foster homes and had never wrestled. As a sophomore he finished with a 3.5 GPA and won his age group's national wrestling championship. If he continues on this pace, he will earn a college scholarship.
Powell's success stories are everywhere. Sammy Brooks just signed with Iowa, one of the top programs in the country. His brother Ben, class of '09, wrestled for a year at North Carolina. Two OPRF grads are living at the Olympic Development Center in Colorado Springs: Ellis Coleman, who is on track to wrestle at the London Olympics, and Peter Kowalczuk. Coleman became a wrestling phenomenon after devising a move called the Flying Squirrel that looks like something out of a kung fu movie. From a standing position he leaps over his opponent's head and, on the way down, grasps the other boy's waist or legs and flips him into a takedown. (YouTube it.) To this day Coleman calls Powell his "second father."
There are other types of success stories too. There is the boy from a gang-affiliated family who graduated from college and now writes Powell letters in which he addresses the coach as Dad. There are seven other boys who call Powell every year on Father's Day. There is the girl, Nicole Valentini, whom Powell welcomed to the team and who won only two matches but credits wrestling with giving her the confidence to succeed in life. There is the young banker who remains so proud of his crushed ears that when his mother worried what girls would think of them, he said, "Mom, I would never be with a woman who was that shallow."
That mother, Michele Weldon, continues to be amazed by Powell. She recently wrote a memoir about her fight with cancer and ended up including chapters on him. At wrestling tournaments, she says, the other mothers "all talk about Coach Powell and what he has done for their sons as people and how he developed their sense of integrity and discipline. It's something I'm so profoundly grateful for because I cannot begin to offer that in a way that they can begin to hear it."
The fathers feel the same way. Kevin O'Mara is a superintendent at a nearby high school, and his son, Jake, an OPRF junior, is a state-ranked wrestler. Twice O'Mara has dropped off personal checks to support the OPRF program. "Look, I don't care about wrestling," O'Mara says while watching practice, "but I care about my son being a good young man, and Powell does that for him."
John Irving wrote that "wrestling is not about knocking a man down—it's about controlling him." That's what Powell strives for now: control. He no longer dreams of hiking the Appalachian Trail or going on a surfing trip to Hawaii. Instead he meets old friends at the diner for breakfast. He does breathing and energy exercises. He recites Invictus five times a week in the sauna, lingering on the final lines: It matters not how strait the gate,/How charged with punishments the scroll,/I am the master of my fate:/I am the captain of my soul.
He has become painfully realistic. He knows he's twice as likely as a normal person to get cancer, that if he ever has esophageal problems it's likely a death sentence. He's 35 and could live another five years or 15 or 40. He has no idea. He'd trade the uncertainty for 10 good years.
Powell reads stories about people who go out in a blaze of glory, living their final days to the fullest. He reads stories about people who make miraculous comebacks. These are the stories that get made into movies, that inspire others. He understands that people do not want to read about the grim daily battle to survive. It's why so many other polymyositis sufferers give up and waste away.