Saturday, April 9, 2011

My Champ: The Fighter

I used to go to my grandparents' house everyday after elementary school.  No matter how rough of a day I had, I always looked forward to going over to Nana and Papa's.

Nana usually had pancakes or waffles waiting for me, with layers upon layers of syrup.  And on the days when I wouldn't stay late, she'd make sure I always had at least a snack of carmel squares and Vernors.  To me, these were perfect meals.

After Nana was done feeding me, it was time for hanging out with the big guy.

Papa and I would spend hours together.  He taught me to play chess, do a proper pushup, and made the front yard our own playing field.

We would play catch with either a football or baseball until the sun went down.  We used to run this in and out pattern that would make Joe Montana and Jerry Rice jealous.  Papa, aka the Champ, would hit Sam, aka Shug, in stride every time.  We were unstoppable.  A perfect duo.

Little Shug
(Why he nicknamed me Shug, he's never fully explain.  I asked him once and he said "Because you're my Shug."  Papa is a man of few words and it made sense to him, so it made sense to me.)

What eight-year-old wouldn't be in love with this life?  Come home from school, eat like a prince, and play sports with the best teammate around.  I was in heaven.

Nana was always on point with the meals.  As a boy struggling to grow, she made sure I was fed.  But, there were times when I'd finish eating and the Champ was missing.  Nana informed me he was napping.  Well, now come on, we had a routine.  Eat, play.  Eat, play.  Eat, play some more.

I would often poke my head into his room to hear these animal-type grunts and snores.  Papa was knocked out.  I would usually give him about five minutes, then I got restless and Nana would tell me to go wake him up.

I'd nudge him, he'd roll over with a moan that insisted "what that ---" and then see it was me, smile, and hop out from under the covers.  Gametime.

He always made time for me and I couldn't wait to get out of school to hang out with the Champ.

One day in third grade, I walked in the door and Papa was already up from his nap and alert.  He noticed his normally energetic, excited grandson was looking depressed.

He asked what was wrong and I just put my head down in shame.

I've never been a big kid.  I was the smallest kid in my class until college and the only reason I finally got out of the lower tier was improved odds of going to a school of nearly 50,000 students and some legal growth hormone in high school.  Great investment.

But, in third grade I stood barely four feet and 50 pounds soaking wet.

I was a pretty well liked kid, but this one giant-of-a-creature was set on crushing me, both mentally and physically.  He picked on me daily.  Short jokes.  Shoves.  It was your standard grade-school teasing, but it finally took its toll.

I told my grandpa of what had been happening and without hesitation he grabbed me and took me to the basement.  You would have thought a meteorologist just reported a tornado was within a block of their house.  I've never seen Papa move that fast.

Once in the basement, he just looked at me for a moment and put up two hands.  I looked at him with a look of bewilderment.  "This is not the time to teach me some new high five, man!"  He waited a few more seconds then said "Hit 'em."

"Hit what?  Your hands? Why," I questioned in my head (I'd never question the Champ out loud).  He then followed with "No one is going to mess with you.  You are a Klemet."

For the next 45 minutes I threw punches at the Champ's hands like I was Joe Louis.  He showed me the proper fighting stance and routine boxing jabs.  He was determined to have his grandson ready to handle any oversized ogar.

He finished our session with this... (paraphrased) "Sam, you might not always win the fight.  You might lose, but you should always be ready and believe you can win....Now go kick that 'son-of-a-pup's ass."

I heard my grandpa swear before, but it was when he didn't think I was listening, so when he said that to me directly, I knew he meant business.

(He did add that I was not to tell my mom he swore, which made me laugh.)

I never got to fight the kid who was picking on me.  He actually stopped messing with me for the most part starting the very next day.  I have a theory that my grandpa found out where he lived and gave him a mob type visit to let him know there would be no more incidents or he might wake up next to a horses head.  Just a theory, though.

While I never got to use my Jack Johnson boxing skills the Champ taught me, I gained a lot more from that 45 minute session of throwing punches in the basement, I learned to battle, no matter what the challenge.

Without that day I never would have made the high school basketball team.  I never would have finished on the Dean's List at Michigan State.  I never would have had the guts to take my first job out of college making $22,000 a year in Salem, Illinois where the cows were smarter than most of the people.

My grandpa taught me in that moment not to fear anything or anyone.  He made me a fighter in life.

Now it's his turn.

Today, I learned my Champ took a punch.  He has stage four throat cancer and it's unknown how much longer he has left to live.

I heard the grim news when I was driving to work.  I had to pull over as my eyes filled with tears.  I couldn't talk, let alone drive.  I sat in a parking lot for five minutes in shock and anger.

I've always thought of my grandpa as invincible, so for him to take a hit like one only cancer can deliver felt surreal.

And then I thought back to the basement. 

Immediately, I wanted to get on a plane and head to Florida, look his doctor in the face and laugh.  I'd say, "Doc, I know your medical knowledge makes you believe my grandpa has only a matter of months left on this earth, but what no X-ray will indicate is that he is a Klemet.  Klemet's fight."

I know Papa will fight as long as he can.  He will give cancer a battle it wishes it didn't start.  He will jab and hook and uppercut like no one ever has. 

I've always thought of my grandpa as larger than life and that's why I know even life's biggest challenge can't get the best of him.

He's a Klemet.  He's a fighter and he's going to beat this "son-of-a-pup's ass."


  1. Sam
    I love it- cant wait to show my mom...she will be touched :) <3 Cory

  2. Good article man. Very touching and from the heart. I wish you all the best.
    -Nate Matatall

  3. Sam you are truly a great writer. Its so nice that you are cognizant of the wonderful memories you shared with a such a thoughtful and loving human being. God Bless both of you.