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Returning the Favor

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I didn't like Mike Hutchinson much when I first met him. He was loud, assertive to the point of aggression and supremely confident in both word and movement. He just rubbed me the wrong way.

It has taken me awhile to realize this, but it was more about me than it was about Mike. We met at Cozad (Nebraska) Junior High School. Cozad's school system was about number six in the nine school districts I would attend before high school. We moved constantly and our home life was just about as unstable as you would expect given the number of schools we attended. I was always the new kid and I simply expected people to treat me like crap. People seem to live up to their expectations for them. When your default is people will treat you crappy, it doesn't matter what they do . . . you will always feel treated like crap.

I got past that attitude eventually and learned to expect more from myself and the people around me. Mike Hutchinson helped me take the first step and I assume he has no recollection at all. Unfortunately, I find myself in the position to return the favor Mike did for me.

I keep in touch with Cozad High School's Class of 1982 through their Facebook page. Last week a friend in the group linked us to several newspaper articles. I read them with casual interest. Then my heart froze. On Thursday December 3, Deuel County (Nebraska) Sheriff's Deputy Michael Hutchinson was shot in the line of duty while serving a warrant on a suspect. He was shot twice in chest, once in the abdomen and once in the leg. Deputies returned fire and the suspect died at an area hospital. Mike was taken to Ogallala, Nebraska initially where he underwent emergency surgery. He was then transported by air to a medical center in Greeley, Colorado.

I read the article and then put my phone away. I said a prayer for Mike and his family and then I thought about a smelly elementary school gym 40 years ago.

That gym was where I got to know Mike Hutchinson. We were teammates on the Cozad Junior High wrestling team as 7th graders. We left school by bus right after classes were dismissed and went to an elementary school for practice. I loved wrestling. It made sense and I didn't have to rely on teammates. It was just me and another kid and it was all about what I could do. I was pretty good, too. I was very precise in my movements and techniques. I had them all down and wrestled very smart. There weren't many kids my size that I couldn't consistently beat. Mike Hutchinson just had my number.

It didn't make any sense to me. I could beat any of the guys who could beat Mike . . . I just could not come out on top against him. Mike wrestled the way he presented himself . . . all out. He brought this incredible energy and will to the mat that sometimes overwhelmed his techniques. Specific moves sometimes seemed like after thoughts, but they always seemed to work out. Sometimes I would almost have him and he would seem to actually will himself out of trouble. There was simply not an ounce of quit in this guy.

One particularly grueling afternoon we were rotating through a drill and I ended up against Mike. Great. I took a deep breath and waited for the whistle. As usual I did well for a little while then out of nowhere I was on my back. He had me . . . again. I relaxed and tapped him on the shoulder to signal defeat. He moved his forearm further up against my head and leaned on it.

"You give up?" he asked. I nodded. I didn't look at it as giving up. He had me. I didn't see the point of struggling against an impossible situation. He wins . . . again.

"That's it?" he yelled. "You're just gonna give up?" He pressed harder. I was uncomfortable and getting embarrassed. "

"The whistle didn't blow! You can't just give up!" He pushed harder. I started to get a little angry.

"If you want up, then get up! If you don't like where you are then fight through it!" he yelled. "Fight through it!"

His elbow really hurt on the side of my head and I felt like everybody was watching. I squirmed.

Squirming seemed to make him more agitated. "IF YOU WANT OUT THEN FIGHT YOUR WAY OUT," he yelled. "NOBODY GETS TO QUIT. FIGHT THROUGH IT."

He pushed harder and I felt anger and embarrassment come bubbling inside me from somewhere dangerous.. It surprised me in that moment that my anger and embarrassment had little to do with wrestling. Something snapped.

When you are trapped on your back by an opponent the best way to get out is to rotate underneath, moving your feet in the opposite direction of his. Then pulled down on the head and push up on the body to roll him over. If that doesn't work, as it didn't work with Mike, try again and when he moves back toward your legs bring your far knee over and drive it into his ribs. It was a shady move, but I got out just as the whistle blew. I was up and I was pissed. Mike was smiling at me. No that's not true . . . he was laughing at me. "I knew you could get out if you were mad enough." He smiled. "You can't just give up," he said.

I am remembering words from 40 years ago, so the exact exchange might have been slightly different. But in that gym in Nebraska so long ago, I got the message. I am not trying to say that a 13-year-old changed my life, but I am telling you that he helped me learn a lesson that made a difference. Whether he realized it or not, he wasn't just talking about wrestling. Something changed for me and looking back on it, I know it started right there. I stopped letting people dictate wins and losses to me. I learned the value of never giving up and 'fighting through it'. I also learned that I have a huge say in how people treat me. Nobody was going to treat me with respect if I didn't feel I was worth respecting. It took a long time to learn those lessons, but the process started with Mike Hutchinson's elbow on my head.

Mike and I never became fast friends after that . . . this isn't a fairy tale. We moved at the end of the school year. However, he made me a better wrestler. I think he had a small but significant part to play in my education as a human being as well. A few years ago I got involved on Facebook with some friends from Cozad. They let me into their group and I saw Mike's profile. I learned he was a Veteran and went into law enforcement. His Facebook page is loaded with pictures of his kids and grandkids. Even on our side of 50 he still wears that confident smile.

Mike is slowly recovering. He has been through half a dozen surgeries and finally got out of intensive care December 17. It looked pretty bleak at first . . . but like I said, there is no quit in Mike Hutchinson. When I saw the article about Mike my heart broke for him and his family . . . and a for 13-year-old wrestler in a smelly gym in Nebraska. If given a chance that 13-year-old would repeat the advice Mike yelled in his ear 40 years ago. He would try to return the favor Mike did him back then.

"Fight through it," that 13-year-old would tell Mike. "You can't just give up, the whistle hasn't blown yet. If you want to get up then fight out of it!"

Fight through it Mike. Fight through it.

Mike's family is looking at overwhelming costs as they stay in Greeley to be with him during his recovery. The link below is there for those who wish to help. Prayers are welcome as well.

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