Just off the mat…

by DanWolgemuth on February 24, 2023

It was an early Saturday morning in the winter of 1972. A school bus sparsely filled with 12 wrestlers and a couple of coaches left the parking lot of Wheaton Central High School bound for New Trier West High School. An eight-team tournament was ahead…

Within the first hour of the tournament, it was clear that our wrestling program was out of its league at this event. Seven other teams, some from the northern suburbs and the others from the urban core of Chicago provided evidence of this fact.

Early losses fueled persistent losses and an increasing level of intimidation.

I was the single exception. At a whopping 112 pounds, I navigated my way through the bracket to the finals. My grit and determination were fueled by a singular motivation; my brother Robert.

Robert was on staff with Youth For Christ in the north suburbs of Chicago… and I knew that if I persisted with wins, he would be available to attend the championship round in the afternoon. And so I did… I persisted, because Robert would be there.

And true to his word, Robert was there on that wintery afternoon.

He stood just off the edge of the mat. His voice echoed in my soul. He cheered and clapped and encouraged. His enthusiasm inspired the voices of my eleven teammates, none of whom had persisted to the finals. None of whom had a big brother like Robert.

And yes, in a moment of cosmic insignificance, I won the 112-pound championship. Because I had a brother. Because there was a voice of optimism and hope. Because Robert believed… even in moments that I doubted.

This marked me. Indelibly.

Within the last week, official word of Robert’s vocational retirement rippled through the Christian publishing world. Decades of competent and thoughtful engagement with the industry brought waves of well-earned accolades and congratulations.

Yet, as I think about Robert’s retirement, I’m struck by the beautiful reality that when our vocational work is done… our character persists. For the godly and good, a successful career doesn’t define us, our character does. And that righteous character continues. Beyond the resume building, and payroll deductions… character lingers.

Robert is still Robert.

Yes, by the mat of a 112-pound high school junior in 1972. And by my mat over and over since. Encouraging. Cheering. Hoping. Praying. Believing. Celebrating.

This defines him. This remains alive and active and unretired.

Paychecks stop… character doesn’t. Emails and phone calls grow quieter… all the while amplifying the voice of a sage who understands where true identity comes from.

Just off the mat at New Trier West… and hundreds of times since. Robert.

Congratulations, dear brother.

Character that persists.

Encouragement that never fades.

Retired, but not done.

I bless God for you.

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