“So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear…is fear itself.” These were the opening words spoken by President Franklin D. Roosevelt at his first inaugural address after winning the 1932 presidential election against Herbert Hoover. It was the peak of the great Depression, and people were scared. America needed a leader to take charge, and FDR did.
This is not a political story, quite the contrary. The theme here is combatting fear and having the courage to take on battles when logic would tell you that you cannot win. Friends, EVERYTHING we do in life begins with a thought. Our mind, and controlling our thoughts, is absolutely the difference between success and failure in most things that we do in life. For those of you who want a biblical reference, I refer you to Joshua 1:9 which states “Have not I commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.”
Today I will share some stories which exemplify what it takes to overcome fear.
As is often the case, I will share with you some of my experiences as a West Point cadet. We begin with my first year, known as plebe year, and my great friendship with the Department of Physical Education (NOT). Back in 1972, after completing New Cadet Training (known as Beast Barracks) from July through August, New Cadets officially become Cadets (a promotion from New Cadet) and the academic year begins. Cadets are split up into one of the then 36 companies (I was in Company H, Second regiment (known as H-2). Back in those days, cadets remained in their companies for the entire four years until they graduated. You sank or swam with your classmates within your company. You might say that your company classmates ae like a fraternity on steroids, with out the fun and games.
West Point’s physical training program is extremely rigorous. Every plebe enrolls in and must successfully pass boxing, survival swimming, wrestling, and gymnastics. Like the quote in Apollo 13, “Failure was NOT an option”. A cadet who cannot pass all of the requirements by DPE did not graduate, plain and simple.
Plebes were assigned to one of the four courses randomly as each would last half a semester. As fate would have it, my first Phys ed class was boxing (you fellow grads know where this is going) …stay with me. Boxing, whether you like the sport or not, certainly puts a cadet under stress, creates a level of fear, and helps a cadet develop courage.
Physical education classes were just one component of physical training at West Point. We also had mandatory intramural sports for most of our cadet careers. I’ll never forget in the Spring of my senior (firstie) year our tactical officer, MAJ Campbell, calling the 30+ firsties into a large meeting room (referred to as a day room) and saying, “Gentlemen, as you know, participation in intramural sports is voluntary during Spring of your final year. I am here to find out which sport each of you volunteer for.” So much for being voluntary!
I regress, back to plebe year. I survived the eight weeks or so of boxing class, only having to go to the hospital once with a migraine when a classmate sucker-punched me when we were not supposed to be going at full strength. For most plebes, finishing boxing was a huge relief. I was no exception.
However, my relief was short-lived. About a week after I had finished boxing class, I heard the traditional “BANG BANG” on my cadet room door. For a plebe, that knock was the signal to jump to attention as an upperclassman was about to enter the room. The entrant was a firstie, Joe Marvil, from H-2 class of 1973. He said to me,” Mr. Sanders, have you had boxing yet?”. I responded, “Yes, sir”. He then said, “How much do you weigh?’ I responded, “180 pounds, sir”. He then said “Great, here’s your jersey, boxing practice tomorrow afternoon.” I had just inherited the one-step-below heavyweight slot on our intermural boxing team. YAY (NOT). Once again, I beat the odds. There had been only a one in four chance that I would have boxing as my first of four Phys ed courses my plebe year, and of course, I won. (you cannot box on the intramural boxing team unless you have already passed plebe boxing)
Before I go into my stellar boxing career with H-2, I’d like to go back to the topic of fear (in a funny way). At West Point, the Commandant of Cadets, a one-star general officer, is responsible for all the cadet training and discipline. His was the job of ensuring that we “built character” every day. He and his staff were certainly to be respected, and yes, even feared. Oddly enough, we as cadets took FDR’s quote and adopted it for our own cause. We used to say, “We have nothing to fear but Feir HIMSELF” It turns out that our Commandant of Cadets was Brigadier General Feir.
In close competition with Commandant, the Department of Mathematics also struck fear in the hearts of many plebes. Six days a week, 80 minutes each day, we had calculus class and were forced to “defend our boards” by doing calculus problems on the chalkboard and present our solutions verbally if called upon.
Is there any wonder that the head of the Department of Mathletics in 1972 was none other than Colonel Dick?
Back to intramural boxing. Our first bout was scheduled against our arch-rival, company I-2, the week after we got back from winter break. Nobody was in shape (thank God). I was scheduled to fight a very good fighter and classmate by the name of “Rolf Herbstler”. As the second-to-last fight of the company match (there were a total of 7 fights, each three rounds of two minutes each), I remember nervously shadow boxing while the other fights progressed. I watched the other fights and will never forget watching one of my classmates from H-2, Carl Menyhert, destroy his opponent. Carl was so fast you could not even see his fists move. Just like Feir and Dick, Carl’s name described him…he was the man who applied “Many Hurts”! He could land a series of five to ten blows to an opponent before anyone know what was going on. Carl was really pumped up, earning respect as a plebe, winning his first fight.
Seeing me in the corner of the gym warming up, he came over to encourage me. He said, “Joe you are going to do great! As long as you’re not boxing against Herbstler. Who are you fighting?”. I replied “Herbstler”. Thanks Carl. Thankfully, Herbstler was also out of shape after having just returned from Winter break and he didn’t put me in the hospital. I lost the fight but didn’t lose my dignity!
For some reason, I only remember one additional match plebe year, and this was against another rival company, D-2. They were good, and their heavyweight boxer was one of the best around. Without saying it, we all thought our heavyweight fighter would lose to D-2. That meant that we had to win 4 fights BEFORE the heavyweight match in order to beat D-2 overall. As my luck would have it, we had only won three fights leading into my bout against a much taller (with much longer arms) fighter from the class of 1974. I realized that I had to win my fight, or it was likely that H-2 would lose the entire match that day.
The moment of truth had arrived. I thought about those brave soldiers on D-Day (one of which was my Uncle Norm) assaulting the cliffs of Normandy and figured that all I had to do was conduct an all-out frontal assault for six minutes! I knew I was going to get hit, many times, because there was no way I would be able to out-reach my opponent. I made the decision (AND OVERCAME FEAR) that I would have to survive a flurry of my opponent’s punches before I could get one of my own in.
And so, it began, when the first round started, I began my assault. I got bloodied pretty badly trying to get inside, but he didn’t knock me down. We went at it for two and a half rounds (one-minute left in the final round) when my opponent threw his arms up and started to walk away. I was trying to Many Hurt him, and he was tired of my flurries. I then delivered a round house punch to his face which further pissed him off. We went toe-to-toe for the last 50 seconds. There is no doubt that technically, he won the fight as he certainly landed more punches than I did. But, with my bloodied face and all, the referee raised my hand in the center of the ring as the winner. Apparently, the judges didn’t like that my opponent had actually quit in the third round and they awarded me the fight based upon the courage I displayed.
My bout clinched the fourth match for H-2 and, after our heavyweight lost his fight, we still won 4-3. That moment was a turning point for me in my plebe year. I had “made the grade” in the eyes of the H-2 upper class. Suddenly, upper classmen cut me some slack when they would normally have harassed me. I felt great “taking one for the team” and having the team appreciate it. So, I ended my boxing career at an even .500 with one win and one loss.
However, that wasn’t end of my association with boxing at West Point. My senior year I served as the intramural boxing coach for H-2. (See the post entitled “They Still Called me SIR!”). It was now 1975 and much had happened in the boxing world in the previous year.
In 1974, Muhammad Ali beat heavyweight champ Joe Frazier in Zaire in what was known as the “Rumble in the Jungle”.
He was a heavy underdog against Foreman but beat him using a technique known as the “rope-a-dope”.
The rope-a-dope wasn’t invented when I fought in 1972, so I had had to fight my way in to my reach my opponent. But, three years later, when I coached our team, the rope-a-dope was a tactic that just might work in the right situation.
I always remembered the phase “Fatigue makes cowards of us all”. I also remembered my days back at Levey Junior High School with Mr. (Mike) Halstead as my basketball coach. Like Vince Lombardi, Mr. Halstead believed that physical conditioning, and lots of it, made a team and individuals more competitive. I used that logic as the H-2 boxing coach in 1975-6.
It all came together when we were fighting one of our fiercest rivals, Company G-2. We all knew it was going to be a day of close, hard fights. We were hoping to get to the heavyweight fight leading 4-2 as their heavyweight was a great boxer. Our heavyweight, Bob Manion from H-2 class of ’77 was good, but the G-2 guy was about a foot taller than Bob and much heavier.
All season I had been making the team do wind sprints and other conditioning drills. I wanted our team to be in the best shape possible, because, as I said, “fatigue makes cowards of us all”.
So, there we were, tied 3-3, heading into Manion’s fight. I told Bob that he was going to do the rope-a-dope. (hopefully the big G-2 heavyweight would throw a lot of punches early and get tired. I told Bob to protect himself, but not to return any punches until he heard me yell “GO! GO! GO!”
The G-2 guy was in pretty good shape, but not good enough to beat H-2’s conditioning. Midway through the final round, I saw the G-2 boxer’s arms drop as he was getting tired. I then yelled at the top of my lungs “GO! GO! GO! MANION, GO, GO, GO!!!!!’. I yelled for the last thirty seconds while Manion employed Meny Hurt punches on the opponent. His last-minute flurry brought the bigger guy down and we all jumped in the ring to celebrate Bob Manion’s rope-a-dope upset.
H-2 walked away as winners that day, but why? We didn’t necessarily have the better fighters, just like I certainly wasn’t better than either of the opponents I faced plebe year. But we were WINNERS because we BELIEVED in ourselves and faced fear head on.
Facing fear, like life in general, is a series of choices. If you fall, get up, never quit, and realize that you really do have nothing to fear but fear itself!