Powell puts his flaws out in public
River Forest, 12/12/12--Oak Park River Forest High School wrestling coach Mike Powell and his wife Elizabeth Hess at home with their dogs Bea and Koko. | Jon Langham~for Sun-Times Media
Updated: April 1, 2013 6:52AM
Mike Powell’s odyssey through the media last spring began with a faculty meeting in 2011.
The veteran Oak Park-River Forest wrestling coach was invited to speak on behalf of teachers suffering from disabilities. Powell struggles with polymyositis, even though he looks relatively healthy despite occasional weight loss. But the rare disease diminishes his muscle strength and makes him constantly fatigue.
At the meeting, Powell told the OPRF staff about his deteriorating health. A special education teacher, he finally was forced to give up his classroom duties in the spring of 2011. He had been diagnosed in April 2009, just a few months after OPRF won its first Class 3A state championship with a 33-30 victory over Minooka.
“I lost 20 pounds in a season,” Powell said. “I came out and told my wrestling family right away and the public. I couldn’t walk up stairs and I had to walk with a cane.”
Powell believes now he may have suffered symptoms from polymyositis as early as 2006.
His story became widely known after a fellow teacher told a Chicago Tribune reporter about Powell’s condition. Months later, his story hit national news when Sports Illustrated reporter Chris Ballard spent nearly a week with Powell for a piece entitled, “Man in Full.”
Powell went public with his plight — big time. He made one appearance after another to raise awareness about polymyositis, which has no known cause. Since the disease is so rare — and the market apparently so small — pharmaceutical companies have not developed specific medication for treatment.
“I’m very grateful for the positive press,” Powell said. “But the press has portrayed me in a light that is not realistic. I’m a deeply flawed man.”
His travels took him to a northwest side public television studio and to a south side ballpark, where he threw out the first pitch at U.S. Cellular Field before a White Sox game.
Powell’s story found a national audience. NBC Sports Network broadcast a report based on the story in Sports Illustrated. ESPN’s E:60 called one show “In Relentless Pursuit,” which was adapted from one of Powell’s favorite mottoes. ESPN interviewed Powell’s father Bud and wife Elizabeth Hess and followed the OPRF team through the 2012 postseason, culminating in a Class 3A state final loss to Sandburg on a pin.
Locally, Powell was featured on WGN-TV and was a guest on WTTW’s “Chicago Tonight” to discuss polymyositis.
Through a partner, Chris McGrath, Powell created a business venture. His company, relentlesspursuitwrestling.com, conducts wrestling camps and distributes training videos.
While Powell at first embraced the publicity in order to build awareness about polymyositis, he also discovered a more personal benefit. The Sports Illustrated report touched on his troubled past as a punk, a bully, an immature kid while wrestling at Indiana.
“It has caused me to think about being the person they think I can be. I think about making a nice start,” Powell said. “My wife has made me a better person. If I made a few bad decisions, I could be spending a significant time in jail.
“I was a wild man. I would fight. That was a thing you’d get that out of me after a couple of beers. But I would break up a lot more fights than I was ever in.”
Last summer, when one of Powell’s former wrestlers, Ellis Coleman, competed in his first Olympic Games in London, Powell was there with Coleman’s mother Yolanda Barral. A fund-raising campaign organized by OPRF’s wrestling program helped her make the trip. Television cameras captured Powell and Barral cheering for Coleman in London.
Publicity like that encouraged people across the country to contact Powell with similar stories about their struggles with polymyositis.
“It’s been great. I’m very way behind for getting in touch with people,” Powell said. “Part of this is not having energy. My daily tasks take up a lot of time. I feel terrible about not getting back to people sooner.”
Although Powell will rest between breaks at day-long invitationals by laying down on the mat, he gains strength through coaching.
He tries to rely on his assistant coaches more. One of them, Paul Collins, is the son of Naill Collins, who handed the team over to Powell for the 2003-04 season. The Huskies went 9-13 in dual meets that first season. Two years later, OPRF made its first state quarterfinal appearance under Powell.
“I really think that without the sport of wrestling, I would be dead right now or certainly incapacitated,” Powell told Scott Casber of intermatwrestle.com last February.
The interview with Casber shows Powell’s passion after years of involvement in the sport, beginning as a 1994 171-pound state champion under former OPRF coach Norm Parker, then an All-American for the Hoosiers in 1996 and later as an assistant coach at his high school alma mater.
Powell said: “Before you can be a great coach, you have to develop love and trust. If you don’t have love and trust, you can’t affect change with your players.”
Regardless of how the disease saps Powell’s energy, he’s still dedicated to improving the lives of his wrestlers.
His program draws kids from a wide variety of socioeconomic classes. Many of his wrestlers come from single-parent families and don’t have the advantages of athletes in other sports.
“He turns boys into men,” OPRF athletic director John Stelzer said. “His vehicle to do that is wrestling.”
When he was teaching special education, Powell reached out to his students that had learning disabilities or suffered from behavioral problems.
“He wants to move them into wrestling and give them a purpose to school,” said Stelzer, whose first year as athletic director was Powell’s first as head coach. “He wants to give them a reason to be here and hopefully be successful in their own lives.”
While OPRF offers academic assistance for all of its athletes, Powell makes sure his wrestlers use the tutoring service. According to Powell, his athletic program is among the school’s leaders in grade-point average.
Senior Jake O’Mara has given a lot of thought about his coach the last few weeks as his two-year varsity career neared its end. Powell made an impact on his life, O’Mara said.
“It’s such a privilege. People always talk about how this is the best time of your life,” O’Mara said. “Powell talks about it. He puts things in perspective. I’m lucky to have the opportunity to participate for such a great team.”