The Strong

AlejandroAt one of my grandsons’ recent track meets there was a fun race that featured beefy football players running against one another. Of course there was also a big twist to the competition. Each of the guys, who looked like defensive linemen, had to carry a tire as they circled the track. They had everyone laughing and having a good time, and I was reminded of a story that my grandfather loved to tell.

Grandpa grew up in small town Virginia. In fact he was so far out in the country that he wasn’t even sure if the place where he lived even had a name. The townspeople had to create their own entertainment. There were no theaters or musical venues or such, just whatever talent they were able to throw together from the locals.

On one occasion the citizens decided to have a race between the biggest guys in the county. The idea was that they would have to run through a course carrying heavy barrels of flour. They had to ford rivers, climb over fences and go through fields strewn with rocks while lugging the heavy containers. The path extended for several miles and was so treacherous that only a truly strong man would be able to survive the grueling adventure.

Grandpa said that everybody’s money was on one particular man who was built like  Paul Bunyan. His arms and legs rippled with muscle and he was well over six feet tall. My grandfather was in total awe of this contender, and so he wagered a small amount of his earnings on the outcome.

From the beginning of the race this incredible hulk of a man sprinted far ahead of the competition. Nothing seemed to stop him and in one phenomenal show of prowess he even climbed over a fence without stopping to set down the heavy barrel. Grandpa laughed as he pointed out that there was actually no contest, and his bet was as safe as if he had placed his money in the bank.

We humans have always had a fascination with individuals who hone their bodies into powerful machines. Here in the Houston area we are all enamored with J.J. Watt, an affable defensive player for the Houston Texans who at times seems to most surely be related to Superman. He has performed some spectacular feats on the football field and in the locker room, including jumping from a standing position to the top of a chest that was at least three or four feet off of the ground. When I think of J.J. I understand the admiration that my grandfather had for his hometown strong man.There is something almost mystical about such people. They metaphorically represent the strength of mind and body that we all wish to have.

Of course we are not all made of the necessary stuff to enable us to accomplish such remarkable physical feats. Even in the race with the tires that made us all laugh at my grandsons’ track meet there was one young participant who was significantly smaller than the rest and in spite of tremendous grit he was not able to keep up with the bigger boys. Still, there was something quite appealing about his willingness to try even as he fell farther and farther behind. In the end he received as much cheering and applause as the winner. We all somehow knew that his positive attitude was as laudable as size and speed.

My grandfather’s stories all had a common theme, namely that we humans are continually faced with challenges and the best among us fight with all of their might to succeed. He himself overcame one difficulty after another, and somehow lived to tell about his adventures with a hint of laughter and the wisdom of someone who had traveled along life’s highway for one hundred eight years.

We love our athletes because we understand how much hard work and pain it takes for them to do the things that they do. They push themselves beyond the limits that so many of us simply accept. This is also true of those who take their minds to heights of thinking and learning that literally result in unheard of discoveries. There are people among us who are not satisfied with being ordinary and their dedication to their craft separates them from the ordinary.

A couple of weeks ago one of the former students of KIPP Houston High School performed in his senior recital at Wabash College. To say that Alejandro Reyna is talented would be an understatement as evidenced by what he has achieved since the beginning of his education there. As a freshman he regularly wrote a blog detailing the adjustments that he had to make in a place far away from home with a culture unlike his own. His openness and sincerity made his writing an instant hit, but it was only the beginning of the incredible things that he would ultimately do. By the time that he had reached his senior year he had composed original music for oboe, piano and strings in addition to being a proficient singer. The works that he wrote were stunning and plant him firmly in the ranks of incredibly talented individuals. In his own way he is as splendid as the strong men who have been the stuff of fascinating legends. We will most surely continue to hear from this exceptional man. 

Each of us is endowed with particular talents, but we don’t always push ourselves to be our very best. Athletes work hard and often ignore pain. Those who are brilliant move beyond the ordinary in their quest for knowledge and answers to questions. There is much perspiration involved in achieving greatness and that is why we humans are so in awe of those who push the envelope of life. They become our heroes and live in the stories that we tell of them. Alejandro Reyna has already earned a place among them and he has only begun.   

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