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Iron Sharpens Iron: Calloused Hands, Bloody Knuckles & a Fire in your Heart

As with most of you, I’ve derived a lot of the motivation for my life from family members. In my family, the main source of inspiration was my grandfather, Gabriel. Stern, stubborn, and strong as an ox in many ways, he was a card-carrying advocate of tough love; or as some refer to the approach today, loving tough.  

Grandpa came up the hard way – the very hard way. His mom and dad put him on the proverbial boat from Italy to the United States when things were deteriorating in Europe, just prior to WWII. He landed at Ellis Island, like so many millions of other immigrants over history, as a young teenager trying to carve out a life for himself in a foreign land with little more than the clothes on his back. There was no opportunity to finish a high school education. Survival was the only thing on his mind.

loveSomehow, he forged a meager living and moved around regularly to find warmth and a roof over his head. He worked at just about anything and everything available, regardless of the hours or how much it paid. The work wasn’t regular in those days, there were many, long dry spells, but he kept moving forward with grit and determination.  

I remember at a tender age when he showed me the scar from a gash in his side from working in a glass factory, and he told the story of how he tried desperately to hide it from his boss as it bled profusely because he thought he would be fired for being incapacitated. Fortunately, he was given care and kept on the job.  

When working in the fields in Italy, a donkey kicked him in the mouth and left a scar that ran from the bottom of his lip to the tip of his nose. His father had to use the straw from the field to stop the bleeding, as traditional stitches were not an option in that environment in those days.

He eventually moved to Ohio, married, and owned several different grocery stores over a period of time. His mantra of “home, work, church,” deeming most other things in life to be frivolous, always stuck with us. And he put us to work at a very young age, helping both in the grocery store and apartment building where we all lived. He left us with many enlightening sayings, phrases, thoughts, and other gems of wisdom before he passed in the early ’80s. My favorite is “calloused hands, bloody knuckles, and a fire in your heart!”

In his own broken English, emboldened way, he taught us the meaning of those impactful words very much like this, though paraphrased for clarity:

“If you had no material possessions but the clothes on your back, no formal education, or anyone to rely upon for help and guidance, you could be very successful in life as long as you have calloused hands, bloody knuckles, and a fire in your heart!”

We would learn that these metaphors had special meanings in grandpa’s mind, stamped his way of life, and he put them on display every single day.

  • Calloused Hands – Defines you as a worker, one who pulls his load plus more. Always willing to do whatever it takes to get things done, and to get them done the right way – with pride and excellence. Remember what we said about “putting your name on it” in a previous segment. If you did it, you want to be proud enough to sign-off on it before you present it as being finished.
  • Bloody Knuckles – Be a fighter! No, not necessarily in literal terms, but in being a person who never gives-up. Most of what is accomplished in life is done so with an indomitable will and a never-say-die attitude.
  • Fire in your Heart – Be passionate about whatever it is your doing! Your love for it should show, even when the grind is starting to wear on you a bit. Passion will get you through the tough times – and adversity is a given, not just a possibility.

Grandpa didn’t possess much at all when he stepped on that boat during those perilous pre-WWII days. But he certainly packed those three golden nuggets with him – and they served him well.

Now, what about your athletes? They have the opportunity to procure a great education. They have a tremendous support system around them in all areas. They have the whole world before them to go out and earn whatever it is that they want from life. Do they really have any excuses for not giving it their best shot? Remind them of that!   

Stay strong, stay in the fight, and keep making an impact!

Ken Mannie is the former head strength and conditioning coach for Michigan State University. He worked at the position for 25 years, and following his 45-year tenure, Mannie retired in March 2020.