At 13 years old, Jack was a three-sport athlete, playing lacrosse, football, and wrestling. In football, he was small at his position, which meant getting banged around quite a bit by larger opponents. Even so, he was a starter every season he played, more than making up for his lack of size with smarts, toughness, and drive.
His determination also translated to wrestling. Following in the footsteps of his Dad, a high-school wrestler himself, Jack joined his town’s Youth Wrestling Association when he was in the sixth grade. Wresting isn’t an easy sport to learn. There are no teammates to lean on for help, and newcomers frequently learn via highly physical defeats at the hands of more experienced wrestlers.
Being new to the sport, Jack had a lot of long days wrestling kids who were both older and better. Nevertheless, he was tenacious. He got more serious in his second year, but was frequently matched against opponents a year older. At one point, he endured a 20-match losing streak that nearly saw him quit the sport for good. Somehow, he found the will to keep at it.
Then something unexpected happened. Jack and his family were out of town for a regional tournament, but the day before his match, Jack injured his ankle jumping in the pool. Jack decided to give his match a try rather than see the whole family return home early. With nothing to lose, the young man who rarely won when injury-free hit the mat… and managed to win a medal despite wrestling on a bad ankle.
When football resumed, Jack was looking forward to another season. The day before the first game, though, a routine play led to a collision between Jack and a much bigger teammate, sending Jack to the ground. Thinking that he’d just had the wind knocked out of him, he tried to roll over, but was overwhelmed with shooting pain. When his parents arrived at the field, Jack was being loaded into the ambulance. An MRI was ordered, and soon, the bad news arrived: A vertebra in his lower back was fractured.
Injuries were nothing new for Jack — he had broken his hand twice playing lacrosse — but this one was much more serious. What followed was a long and painful recovery, made worse by having to miss his eighth grade football and wrestling seasons.
A few months later, in an effort to keep Jack’s spirits up and mind occupied, his wrestling coach suggested he start coming to the elementary school practices to help out. If he couldn’t wrestle, at least he could stay involved. It was a tough sell for Jack, who didn’t think overseeing a bunch of little kids could replace actual competition.
That first night, Jack saw that the youngest kids, aged 4 and 5, needed help. He gravitated to them, and was someone they could relate to. The experience of sharing some of the lessons wrestling had taught him sparked something in Jack. Not only did he keep going back, he started to officially help coach.
Just as things were beginning to look up for Jack, his town was rocked by the unimaginable tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary. The horrific shooting took place at the very school where the wrestling association held its practices and which some of the team members attended, and the community of Newtown was devastated by the events. The situation gave Jack new perspective on his injuries, as he saw the outpouring of support coming in from all over the world.
Looking for ways to help through sports, he reached out to the head of Nike asking if the company could make some sort of donation to support the town. Choosing not to publicize it, the company performed numerous acts of kindness in Newtown. Meanwhile, the wrestling program remained active in order to give the kids an outlet during the tough times. Jack was fully involved as he assisted with raising money for the families of the victims, as well as providing support in the form of things like yard work, landscaping, and other chores.
In honor of his resilience and compassion in helping to heal his town, Sports Illustrated named Jack Wellman their 2013 SportsKid of the Year. And this summer, I had the pleasure of meeting Jack when he attended the 2014 Ultimate Life Summit, an event I co-created to teach hundreds of students and educators the 7 Mindsets so they can make positive differences in their communities and the lives of others.
Meeting young people like Jack reassures me that the problems of the world will be solved through the open hearts and minds of today’s youth.
Until next week...
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