Taekwondo and My Life
When I was 3 years old my mother realized that I had some serious sight problems that extended beyond normal lens corrections. After several meetings with several different doctors in the field it was decided I needed surgery on my eyes to restore my vision. I was predominately blind in both eyes and was probably never going to see clearly. I clearly remember the first surgery. I was very scared at the operating table of all the doctors and nurses and the masks, tubes, and brightness of the room.
After the third surgery in two years on my eyes I was given a pair of glasses in which I had to wear all the time. These glasses were not normal. They were very large and very expensive. My mother later told me they cost almost $500. In 1974 $500 was huge amount of money for a single nurse raising a child with severe medical needs. I remember as if it were yesterday the day I woke up and peeled the patches off my eyes. Everything was blurry and I had an instant headache. I put the glasses on and realized my right eye was seeing blue and my left eye was seeing red. The lenses were needed in opposite colors I was later told to off set some corrective surgery technique used to shrink my cornea.
So I went about living my life day to day with these crazy sci-fi glasses on my face. I went everywhere with them. One day I was down the street trying to meet some new friends. My mom worked all day so I spent the summer day’s home with my nana. She encouraged me to get out of the house and run around. I managed to meet a couple of boys. Almost immediately I felt the humiliation of them staring at my glasses. "Are those real?" they would ask. With that embarrassing question I sealed my reputation as a "flight animal" when I immediately ran home for safety where nobody made fun of my glasses. My fleeing right away sent out the vibe of my low self confidence thus setting me up for what was to come.
As I was riding my bike down the street one summer morning I ran into Billy Raymond. Billy was a burly kid who seemed to know everybody. He stopped me and asked again why I had to wear those "stupid" glasses. When I didn’t answer due to my being frozen with fear, Billy grabbed at my face, tore the glasses off my eyes, and continued to smash them with his feet against the sidewalk.
This began my future Taekwondo career.
My mom was devastated. She wondered why I would let this happen. "You didn’t fight back?" she asked. I could sense her displeasure in my "boyhood". These glasses were very expensive and not easily replaceable. My confidence was shot. I had none. I was a boy who didn’t have a Father to guide me through these difficult times. I had some weird glasses that when I went out of my house everyone seemed to look at me differently.
Then my uncle Dan said: "You need to get that boy into the Martial Arts".
In 1974 there wasn’t too much publicity about Martial Arts. The only thing was some low budget movies and actors that didn’t seem too popular. My Mom was reading an article in our local community newspaper describing some Korean brothers who had just opened a Karate school in Fairview Park. It went on to explain that Karate, or Korean Karate, as the article described was more than just learning how to fight. It taught an individual to have self control, commitment, and…..CONFIDENCE. My mom thought immediately that this was worth checking into. She consulted her brother, Dan, who had been in Judo for sometime, what would the benefits be for me other than learning to defend myself the next time Billy Raymond tore off my glasses and smashed them to the pavement. "Well", he said, "It would give him a purpose and a goal while at the same time teaching him to defend himself through body language, thus developing his overall confidence."
On June 1st, 1974, we walked into a small gym and immediately saw a class going on. A Korean instructor came over to my mother and me and began speaking in broken English. He asked why were here. After he and my mother spoke for several minutes in a side office, my mother emerged with a bag with a white uniform inside. She instructed me to go into the changing room and put this on. As I came out of the locker room the Korean instructor proceeded to tie a white belt around my waist. He led me into a class room with some other students. I was the only little one in the room. All the others seemed to have different color belts around their waists. Thus, my Taekwondo journey began. This is a journey which will never end.
December 14th, 1980, I was 11 years old and had been studying Taekwondo for 6 ½ years. I had really adopted the art in my daily life. My mother would take me to the dojang everyday. My Master Instructor, Kim Myung-Hwan, had become my new Father in everyway. First and foremost he was the most influential male figure in my life. Second, he and my mom had been dating for several years and married. I was so proud. Not only was my Master instructor in my dojang life but he was in my home life as well. My brother, John, was born in September of 1980 as well. What a fantastic couple of years it had been. It all flashed before my eyes on that cold December day as I lined up for my Black Belt test. First, I was the youngest student in that school to have the privilege of testing for the Cho Dan. I had competed in several tournaments, performed in numerous demonstrations, and accepted my role of becoming a Black Belt. There were only about 10 Black Belts in our dojang and to each and every one of them I saw individuals who were true Martial Artists. I performed all 18 forms that were required of our candidate class: Pal Gwe 1-8, Pyoung On 1-8, Koryo, and Bat Sai. We were required to perform 40 one-step sparring techniques and several self defense maneuvers. 5 stations of board breaking and one cinder block breaking technique were required to advance prior to our test. My first Dan test was one of the most terrifying days in my life but remains one of my most important. I could hardly imagine being able to wear that Black Belt around my waist. When my Father and Master Instructor, Kim Myung Hwan tied that Black Belt around my waist I knew instantly that this was to be my life. I would someday being tying Black Belts around the waists of future students. I would represent this world with a Taekwondo frame of mind.
In 1987 I graduated from high school and was preparing for my Sam Dan test the following week. I was actively teaching all the junior level classes for my father and training every day. My high school years were spent in the dojang. When my friends were participating in a variety of high school sports I was practicing Taekwondo. When Taekwondo tournaments conflicted with high school social activities I always chose Taekwondo. My competitive career was very extensive. I fought my first nationals in Columbus, Ohio, in 1989 placing 3rd. That year I finished second at the U.S. Team Trials thus qualifying for U.S. National "B" team. I represented our country at the World Games in West Germany finishing fourth. In 1989 I was invited to be a permanent Taekwondo athlete at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado under Coach Dae Sung Lee. In 1990 I won a berth on the U.S. National Taekwondo Team. This was an amazing achievement for me. I felt proud to be the top of the sport Taekwondo world and be able to compete with the best Taekwondoists from different countries. Our first Team event in 1990 was to travel to South Korea for a two week exchange. I was extremely eager to visit the homeland of our art and practice at the Kukkiwon. My trip to Korea was better than expected. I learned so much about the culture of Taekwondo, but most of all I realized at the age of 21 that I loved doing this. In 1990 I fought my way to a Bronze medal at the World Cup in Madrid, Spain and a bronze medal at the Pan American Taekwondo Championships in Bayamon, Puerto Rico.
Upon finishing my Taekwondo competitive career in 1991 with a victory at the U.S. Olympic Festival in Los Angeles, California, I headed back to Cleveland, Ohio, to assist my family in our dojang operations. My Father had suffered some severe injuries in a car accident in 1988 and simply could not teach anymore. We had two schools in the western suburbs of Cleveland with approximately 400 students combined. This was a fantastic transition for me as I felt I had gained so much valuable knowledge from my last 3 years living at the Olympic Training Center practicing Taekwondo 8 hours per day everyday. I couldn’t wait to share this with our students.
I immediately began preparing for my Sa Dan test which was going to take place in December of 1991. I invited my teammate, Han Won Lee, 1988 Olympic Bronze medalist and World Cup champion to assist in my Sa Dan testing. In our dojang my Father considered 4th Dan as a Master Instructor. I immediately accepted my new role of being a Taekwondo Master and worked diligently to develop more Black Belts.
In January of 1992 my Taekwondo life added another chapter. Bill Belichick was the Head Coach of the Cleveland Browns Football Club and he contacted me to instruct his players on flexibility, footwork, and hand to hand combat. He felt Taekwondo would assist his players in their football development. So my 16 year involvement in using Taekwondo to develop professional athletes began. I have since worked for the Cleveland Browns ( 1992-1995: 1999-2000: 2006), Dallas Cowboys (1998), Miami Dolphins (2001-2006), Green Bay Packers(2005), Denver Broncos(2007), and the Tampa Bay Storm(2005). I have dedicated a whole chapter in my life to bringing Taekwondo and its culture to Professional Football.
Taekwondo has opened all doors in my life for me. It has enabled me to overcome confidence issues with my eye problems, become a Black Belt, compete in our sports highest level, coach professional football, teach and inspire others, and coach the U.S. Junior National Team. In 1998 I was asked to coach the U.S. Junior National Team at the Jr. World Championships in Istanbul, Turkey. I was so honored that my peers and former coaches respected my ability enough to ask me to do this. As we started our training camp in Colorado Springs, I immediately realized the skill of teaching and coaching outside of myself. I mean that just because I do a technique or drill a certain way doesn’t mean that that athlete can do it the same as me. As the time passes, ideals and methodology continue to advance. I was learning to put them before me. When we arrived in Turkey, I was given four athletes with whom I would be coaching at the tournament. All four were new team members. I had the opportunity to inspire them in their first World Championship directly from the coach’s chair. My first three faired pretty well. Two of the three received bronze medals. My fourth competitor had the least amount of Taekwondo skill. She tried had but lacked the confidence in herself to "let it all out". I thought about how to motivate her to go fight with confidence and not worry about results. I yelled at her "Be the Bully". I used that cliché to remind to not let anyone push her around in the ring. Immediately she developed an "I am just going to be tougher than you" attitude. Although her skill was not up to par with some of her competitors, she went on to "bully" her way to a gold medal thus giving us our first Jr. World Champion. I was proud of my accomplishment but more so for her sake. I believed in what I was telling her and she bought into it. This is the same lesson I live by as a Taekwondo Master Instructor. I believe in our way of life. I live it. Our students see that and they too believe and exhibit a Taekwondo attitude towards their own life.
Throughout my Taekwondo life I have lived by the principle of "what would my Father/Master do?" Each time a problem arises I just ask myself what he would say or do. I always think about this before I pass judgment on any situation. Taekwondo has taught me to accept challenges not only for myself but for my students as well. To be a Taekwondo Master Instructor means that the "them" always comes before the "you". Some days I feel like staying home or letting a senior instructor teach the classes; however, I know that each and every student has dedicated his or her time to be there for me. To be a Master Instructor I must accept the responsibility of living in a fishbowl. I mean that no matter what I am doing or saying I am being watched and listened to by everyone. They want to see how I carry myself. They want to hear what my views are on each subject. My responsibility goes above and beyond simply wearing the highest rank belt I can. It extends to being a community role model and leader in words and actions.
One story which comes to mind is the story of my visiting a professional hockey team a game one evening at the Gund Arena in Cleveland, OH. My student’s father was the head coach at the time and invited me to their hockey game. I know nothing about the sport or any of its players. I had already been in the NFL for a decade so I did know how to communicate with professional athletes. As I entered their locker room after their game all the players were sitting at their lockers undressing and preparing for the head coach’s post game remarks. As he called the players to the huddle he motioned for me to come into their inner circle. We all knelt and said the Lord’s Prayer together as we held hands tightly. I was used to this ritual because of my being involved in so many NFL game days. Immediately following the prayer the coach addressed his team about their performance during the game and his expectations for the upcoming week. He then said that he would like to introduce a very special friend. He stated that I was a fellow coach who has coached international level Taekwondo athletes: coached professional football players: competed at the highest level of my sport. He talked about how committed I was to his son in his son’s quest to attain a Taekwondo Black Belt. I was humbled by his introduction. As I began to talk to the players I immediately focused on being quick and humble. I told them that I had been in Martial Arts since the age of 5. I had competed and coached in several foreign countries. I had instructed thousands of students of all ages and athletic, and non-athletic, ability. I had used my Taekwondo knowledge to help professional football players become better football players. I owned a successful Taekwondo school. I briefly told them all about my life as a Taekwondo Master instructor. One of the players asked me a question. It was a question that at first seemed so ignorant to me that I almost didn’t respond. It was a question that I simply couldn’t believe anyone would ask me after all I had said previously. This player asked me; "So, Are you a Black Belt?" I laughed at him and simply stated that I was a Fourth degree Black Belt.
I later reflected on this question. "Are you a Black Belt? " It made me realize one important factor in Martial Arts. The Black Belt is held in high regard by all non martial artists. It is a symbol of great accomplishment. I wanted to ask that hockey player how I could have all these accomplishments and not be a Black Belt. But today I so understand that question. "Are you a Black Belt?" Yes, I am a Black Belt. I am so proud to be a Black Belt. I am honored to be a Black Belt. I am simply; "A white belt who refused to quit".
As I look at my life I think about all the opportunities that Taekwondo has given to me. I reflect upon the discipline that Taekwondo has taught to me. Taekwondo is not only a way of life for me; it is the only way of life I have ever known. I have been on this earth for almost forty years. I have been a student of Taekwondo for thirty five years. I have had no breaks in training or teaching. I feel that taking a break from Taekwondo is like taking a break from breathing. I cannot.
As I look to the future I am excited to have the opportunity to test for the 7th Dan. I look at this promotion as not only a promotion for me but for my dojang as well. Since my Father passed away in 2000 our dojang has stopped with me. I am a fifth Dan and only have lower rank Black Belts. Now I can help to promote some of my loyal students to their higher goals of becoming Taekwondo instructors as well. Taekwondo is a constantly improving Art and Sport. I am very excited about the unification effort of all the Poom-sae. I look forward to learning and re-learning all the methods and philosophy of execution of each movement. I look forward to sharing my knowledge with fellow martial artists who have similar backgrounds and similar passion for art of Taekwondo.
I look forward to earning a Kukkiwon 7th Dan. I have spent the last several years focusing on my students and athletes and putting their goals at the front of not only my life but my immediate family’s life as well. I cherish this time of making Taekwondo mine again. Just for a short time…….