July 28, 2014

Moving On

Butcher drunk from the bitter cup, but I refused to be bitter
By P. Garth Gartrell, contributor

As if he were cheerily describing a favorite movie, Ammon Butcher said, “I always tell people, ‘I broke my neck wrestling, so when you think of pronouncing my name, think ‘Slammin Ammon.’” Let that sink in a bit. When you realize he was just trying to make me feel better for calling him “Aamon” as in “Damon,” you start to get the sense you are talking to a remarkable person.

On Jan. 12, 2007, Ammon was a high school wrestler from Plano, Texas, participating in a Texas prep tournament at Arlington Lamar High School. His younger brother Daniel was wrestling on the mat next to him. The two brothers had bought tasty treats the night before they planned to share that night after the conclusion of the tournament. This particular tournament was uniquely special to Ammon because it marked the first time the brothers would wrestle varsity together and it was hoped the sport would be the medium through which the bonds of brotherhood could be strengthened.

As Ammon rose from the bottom he managed to break the grip of the top wrestler who, with one hand around Ammon’s waist took the other hand to secure Ammon’s lower torso (actually he went for what wrestlers call a high crotch). Ammon is not sure of the exact sequence from there, but he ended up landing awkwardly on his head. Several vertebrae violently dislocated, resulting in a traumatic spinal cord injury thus depriving Ammon of the use of his hands and everything below his chest. The gym came to a standstill as Ammon lie conscious but motionless on the mat. His brother could see what was happening next door out of the corner of his eye as his opponent pinned him in his horror-filled distraction.

The Healing Process
A devout Mormon with four brothers and three sisters, Ammon spent much of his first quadriplegic year relying upon his Christian faith, loving family and devoted friends to assist him with the cross he had just been commissioned to bear. The aftermath of his trauma left him emaciated and worn out. His lungs had collapsed and he had pneumonia. He had gone from a muscular and lean 140-pound wrestler (“I weighed in at 139.6 pounds that day”) to a mere 110 pounds after 26 days in intensive care—a loss of nothing but pure muscle. Although he retained the use of his shoulders and biceps, he did not have the strength to sit, and to the extent he could, “what would I do?”

Fortunately, Ammon had family and mentors to lead him on his way back. Though his journey never consisted of feelings of self-pity, life had become enormously difficult. His mother Barbara remembers frequently saying, “Get up—you have to get back out there. Focus on what you can do. Someday you will have to provide for yourself and a family.”

Ammon especially credits a high school teacher Dr. Bissette who exhibited tough love, strength and tender guidance as Ammon found a new way to approach his life. His wrestling coach, Al Koebke, was also a tremendous support to Ammon and his family, visiting them in the hospital and home and bringing with him words of encouragement as well as assurances there was a large community of support pulling for a swift recovery. Ammon is reminded of the gratitude he felt for those who understood the hurdles of hardship he and his family were facing at the time and would yet face in the forgoing future.

“I remember so many giving so generously of their time, their means and their talents,” Ammon said. “Emails flooded my inbox, monetary donations were made, letters poured in from across the globe and good people were continuously at my bedside. The outpouring was so great the hospital had to move me to a bigger room. I cannot help but live in thanksgiving daily for the tender mercies of the Lord. To all those within the sound of my voice, know you have made a profound impact on my life and I will never forget your acts of kindness towards me and my family.”

A New Life
Before the accident Ammon was an indifferent student focused on getting into the best collegiate wrestling program he could. He never exactly struggled in any of his classes, but he had done nothing of consequence that in his own mind even convinced him he had the aptitude for scholarship. Still when he was finally able to return to school as he was still struggling to cope with his new life, he was faced with actually failing a class for the first time in his life.

The remarkable part was not that he avoided failing, but with actual effort, he found he could advance as a student and even thrive. Having had to discard the goal of achievement with his body he now contemplated a new world of achievement with his mind. Ultimately Ammon decided to attend Brigham Young University-Idaho, which hard core wrestling enthusiasts will remember was once the home of Ricks College—where the inspirational Rulon Gardner attended school and wrestled. Gardner went on to achieve national hero status for his Olympic gold medal win over Russia’s Alexandr Karelin, who had not even had a point scored on him in the preceding six years.

While Ammon had hoped to be involved in a career in exercise science, it became clear his physical limitations would limit his ability to receive the proper training and to function meaningfully. Ultimately Ammon settled on the highly intellectual and professionally rewarding field of public accounting and perhaps even tax accounting. Ammon was hired as an intern at one of the prestigious “Big 4” accounting firms and made plans to earn a master’s degree in accounting. (I know, you are thinking, accounting—how boring, but anyone who has been close to the larger accounting firms knows this is in fact a fast paced, exciting career that opens many doors in the business world. “We are the best MBA program out there” a Price Waterhouse partner once told me.)

BYU and the University of Texas were both favorites of Ammon’s and both happen to have among the best accounting programs in the country. As he was returning from a successful visit to Texas, he received a call from a Recruiting and Admissions Coordinator for the Fisher School of Business from The Ohio State University Masters in Accounting program who volunteered that Ohio State would fly Ammon to Columbus for a visit. Eventually it became clear that Ammon would receive one of the three full scholarships (plus stipend) offered by their Masters of Accounting program (Ammon eventually freed the scholarship up for another student when he accepted a university-wide scholarship). Ammon suggests that someday a Ph.D. in accounting may be in the offing.

Once a Wrestler, Always a Wrestler
Ammon knew he wanted some connection to Ohio State’s wrestling program, but knew so little about it that he and his father wandered around campus for several hours not really realizing the facilities are currently housed off the beaten track in an industrial complex near Kenny and Kinnear. Finally they ran into women’s hockey coach Nate Handrahan who indicated he knew wrestling coach Tom Ryan and would happily put the two in touch.

In many respects, Coach Ryan and Ammon are kindred spirits. Both are deeply religious people who aspire to give what they have in the service of others. Both have achieved at very high levels and both have had to pick themselves up from devastation—Coach Ryan lost his young son before he came to Ohio State. Both are inspirational leaders who have studied hardship and success in difficult circumstances. And both are wrestlers.

“I’ve drunk from the bitter cup, but I refuse to be bitter,” says Ammon as he lies flat on his back in the Wexner Medical Center on the Ohio State campus, in the midst of a six-week recovery from surgery to address his nemesis—pressure sores. In light of the strict standards employed at BYU-Idaho prohibiting any form of facial hair, Ammon now sports a full beard with the excuse he cannot shave because of the post-surgery blood thinners.

“Just like muscles in the body, the spirit needs stress to grow and that is what I take from my accident—through it I have grown my spirit. I am also fortunate to learn I could get excited about what I could do with my mind. I don’t spend any time thinking about my injury or what could have been. And I let the research take care of itself. If there is a therapy that can help me, great, but until that time, I am not thinking about it—there is too much to accomplish and I’m not going to get caught up in worrying about something that only might happen—there are things I can make happen and lives I can touch; that is what drives me.”

Barbara chimes in, “Yes, that is quite true. When he is up and about, he goes a mile a minute. Time is precious in his eyes and he always tries to make the best use of it.”

Winning by Objective
Among the things Ammon has reflected on are the lessons to be learned from sports in general and wrestling in particular and how those lessons can be applied to success in life. Prior to the accident, Ammon did not feel the sense that one translated into the other—all he really felt he cared about and thrived at was wrestling. When it came to success at a completely different venture and how to achieve it, he had to reflect on how to go forward based solely on what he could remember from a world now forever closed to him.

His conclusion, “Beyond the literal impact wrestling has had on my body, it has had an even greater impact on my character; and it is the development of my character which wrestling has afforded me that has provided the strength, stamina and resilience required to overcome the opposition I now face off the mat.’

He shared his thoughts with Coach Ryan during their meeting and the bond was established and a spot was reserved for Ammon as he became part of the program to harvest the lessons painfully earned and earnestly sought.

If you spend any time around Coach Ryan or his program you quickly realize how giving he is when it comes to support of his family, his wrestlers and anyone with a thirst for growth and improvement.

Likewise, Ammon ventures, “I want to be the person who cares for others, not the person who needs the attention from others and takes away from those who need it,” a remarkable statement when you think about it.

Just as Coach Ryan will spend endless hours with wrestlers working on their technique, he will train with them, be their confidante and spend whatever time is necessary for a particular need they have. Yet, “Coach Ryan has studied many different organizations, including Navy Seals to determine what makes for a thriving organization,” continues Ammon. “What he has found to be the most destructive factor to an organization are people of high performance and low character; Navy Seal instructors would refer to this as a selection error.”

Coach Ryan agrees: “the most harmful thing you can do in recruiting is to recruit a kid who demands 75 percent of your attention constantly because he refuses to learn and adapt to difficult circumstances because, let’s face it, there are few things more demanding than being an elite wrestler with the full time demands of a student. I have all the time in the world for a young man who wants to improve, but there are those who take all a coach’s time, take us away from the kids who really want to grow, but continue to make bad decisions. Worse than that and this is especially true of high performance/low character individuals who become leaders just by their talent, they undo the progress you are making with the kids there for the right reasons. We owe it to the kids and their families to grow these young men, but you have to start with people who actually want to grow.“

As if on cue, as I was finishing this piece, team leader Logan Stieber (@_logiebear_) tweeted the following:

“Too much emphasis is given to those with raw talent. He could’ve, would’ve, should’ve been this or that. The true credit belongs to those who make the most of what they have been given. Good work, ethics, determination, desire and coachability exceeds those athletes with more talent than who are seeking shortcuts to success.” T.J. Namberg

Implicit in these comments is, try as one might to recruit only young men with fully developed character, collegiate athletics still involves young people, away from home for the first time, often responsible for making decisions for the first time by themselves.

Enter Ammon Butcher
“Success in wrestling requires a person to make a multitude of little decisions correctly and the same in life,” says Ammon. “Through my injury, recovery and transition to a new life, I have thought long and hard about the ‘purpose of adversity’ and I’ve asked, what is it about the second person that passes a barrier that the first could not and the next barrier that a third could pass but the second could not. I intend to work with Coach Ryan to develop a structured program to address areas where student athletes are guided in the process of making right decisions under extreme stress that over time will accumulate to success in all areas of their life, not just performance on the mat.”

Ammon envisions a weekly guided program, (“management by objective” he volunteers—borrowing from a popular management technique, “MBO”) that asks the team to focus on certain topics, holds each other accountable and then reports on the things that work for each individual. The goal is not only to help with basic decision-making, but to help build and solidify the development of character. In essence, Ammon and Coach Ryan are trying to identify and cultivate those attributes that are characteristic of a national champion and a championship-caliber team.

As Stieber measures it, “It may not help the few guys who just don’t want to get it, but for many of the rest, guys on the bubble who want to get better in life and wresting, I think this attention to character program could help a lot.”

It also helps greatly that a leader such as Logan can embrace the program as envisioned by Ammon.

Ammon has found a life so full he has no time to think of his hard luck. Instead he has focused on the silver lining, a blessing he practically boasts of, almost as if he feels lucky for the hand he has been dealt. Occasionally he wonders about the meaning of his accident. Was it so that his family could learn the depths of their own promise by sharpening their emotional and spiritual tools through his travails? Was it to test his faith in God? Was it to give him a higher purpose than he would have found coasting through life unburdened by major events? Despite not having all the answers, Ammon will testify to at least one eternal verity, “No pain that we suffer, no trial we experience is wasted. It ministers to our education, [and] to the development of our [character]” Ammon quotes Orson F Whitney and that is exactly what he believes is occurring in his own life and hopes to be occurring in the lives of those he is blessed to associate with.

It fairly jumps out that Ammon could have stayed home—he could have stayed at home so his family could take care of him—but he chose to go away, on his own, as a quadriplegic, to college in Idaho and graduate school in Columbus. You can almost sense his guilt for what his accident has required from his family and the parental attention it has diverted from his siblings.

Life in Columbus
While in Columbus, he will not only strive to continue being the type of student who could receive a full scholarship from one of the most prestigious and demanding accounting programs in the country, but he will also contribute generously to the sport he has loved and he will prepare for the CPA exam which is among the most difficult of professional exams. He faces barriers every day—despite his desire to not be a burden, he needs someone to get him up, someone to feed him and someone to do his stretches with him and get him into bed. Also, remarkably, he and Coach Ryan have embarked on a book writing effort that addresses many of the topics, and others, they will develop in the course of Ammon’s wrestling instructional program of character, spirit and perseverance.

Ammon is thrilled with his decision to come to Ohio State and Columbus. “I am part of one of the premier accounting programs in the country. I am blessed to be associated with the wrestling team. And Columbus is a wonderful business community—all of the “Big 4” are entrenched here. What’s more, my quality of life will be enhanced significantly; here is a campus of over 50,000 young and highly inspired students, many of whom are involved in the medical community. I am going to need help and that pool is a fantastic resource of trained and motivated young people who can provide help.”

Parents only want their children to be happy. No parent would wish on a child what has happened to Ammon, but Barbara and his Ammon’s father Jeff are almost in awe of the happiness and life Ammon has made for himself.

“We all have challenges,” Barbara concludes, “but you look at Ammon and you say wow, with what he has gone through and you see his remarkable attitude, it causes you to move on and say ‘life is not so hard after all.’”