Wrestling legend Ted HerbertYou always hear about stories where people reconnect with coaches and mentors from their past, and get a long awaited chance to thank them for how they affected their lives.

Sometimes life cruelly intervenes, and your story never has the happy ending you imagine.

This is my story, and an opportunity to mourn a man who I greatly respected, and to whom I owe a debt of gratitude.

The First Steps to Change Are the Toughest

In 2002, I was the prototypical high school nerd: I focused on my grades, had friends who never got in trouble and enjoyed playing video games as often as I could. Like many, there was nothing exactly wrong with my life, but I was searching for something and there was a gap I knew I had to fill.

I wasn’t expecting to find the solution in the world of professional wrestling.

For almost half of our lives, my best friend, Mark Chetcuti, and I had been hooked on what Bret Hart called the “cartoon world of wrestling”, an obsession that was passed on to me by my great-grandfather. My friend and I had come across an article in the local paper about a wrestling school that was opening in Brampton, Ontario run by Ted Herbert and his son Santino.

He wasn’t a name I recognized, like Hulk Hogan or Stone Cold Steve Austin, but I was intrigued by the article which said he was willing to train young men and women who wanted to enter this unique industry.

That weekend, I met Ted for the first time and was immediately taken by his quiet charm, imposing presence and passion for the business.

A Giant Amongst Men

Born in Trinidad, he began honing his craft in his native country, before going to Japan where he sometimes wrestled under the moniker Kuroshio Taro, and became the 1972 IWE Rookie of the Year. He traveled the world in the 70s and 80s and worked with the best the industry had: Mad Dog Vachon, Karl Gotch and the legendary Andre the Giant, to name but a few.

In his late fifties when I met him, Ted was looking to pass his knowledge on to a new generation of wrestlers, and he explained how he expected us to stay in school and get an education if we were to come and train with him. My friend signed on immediately, and in the following weeks regaled me stories of his training with Ted.

I spent weeks begging my parents to let me join, and after countless arguments, they finally gave in. I would wake up Saturday mornings thrilled to attend and get to the school early to train with my friend Mark (always the first to arrive) and Ted ahead of the other students. Those are some of my fondest memories, just the three of us working out and talking about anything.

It was there I first learned about neck-bridges and leg squats and how important it was to protect yourself in the ring, with a variety of shoot-holds forever engrained in my mind. For me, a career in wrestling was a pipe dream, because I was 130 pounds at the time, and had poor eyesight without my glasses.

I quickly realized that my goal to become the next Bret Hart was not going to happen, and I watched my friend surpass me and become Ted’s prize pupil and the best wrestler at the school, if not the province.

For all my disappointment, I found that it didn’t matter, because Ted gave me two gifts that I will never forget, the first of which was confidence, something I had been sorely lacking. He taught me to weight-lift and how critical it was to believe in one’s self. Ted’s time as a body-builder (having won titles in Quebec) really played a role here, in addition to his knowledge as a veteran wrestler.

Success is More Than Simple Victories

He instilled in us the importance of the fundamentals, and how key it was to be an expert at the basics before trying anything fancy. It is a lesson I have never forgotten, and remembered to apply in every aspect of my life; without a good foundation, failure will most certainly follow.

I loved those moments on a Saturday morning, when I was covered in sweat, and in more pain than I care to remember, and the greatest gift that Ted ever gave me was an escape when I most desperately needed one.

In 2003, as my family life was in upheaval, I found wrestling to be a safe haven from the harsh reality of life. Unable to pay for my lessons anymore, I was almost forced to leave, but Ted wouldn’t hear of it.

Privately, Ted told me that I would always have a place at his school, and he let me continue to train there as long as I could, free of charge. In my darkest moments, he was always willing to distract me, and I’ll never forget his tale of slamming Andre the Giant in Japan, a rare feat allowed by Andre because of his genuine respect for Ted as a wrestler and individual.

Thinking back, I believe that was Ted’s gift to me, and to the other kids he trained in those years that he operated his school.

Whether it was family problems, issues at school or something else, Ted gave us all a place to belong and find our inner strength. He made us feel like we could be extraordinary and reach for the stars. He never lied to us and he won our loyalty simply by being who he was.

On Always Taking Opportunities

Wrestling took its toll on me physically, and between that and the arrival of university, I stopped going to wrestle on Saturdays. I lost touch with him over the years, but I never forgot his lessons.

Three years ago, Mark phoned to tell me he had spoken to Ted, who had since closed the school and was enjoying retirement. I was so honored to hear that Ted was proud that I was focusing on my education and getting my Master’s degree.

Living far from the Toronto area, I failed to take advantage of that opportunity to reach out, and as time passed I lost contact with Mark as well. In March of 2013, having returned home, a good friend invited me to a wrestling-themed party he was having, knowing full well my history with the sport.

On the 20th, I pulled out my kneepads for the first time since 2005, and I was immediately overwhelmed by memories. I wondered how Ted was doing, and what he was up to today. I decided to see if I could find my favourite picture of him on the Internet, mid-fight with Mad Dog Vachon, a picture which hung proudly in the front office of the school when I wrestled there.

To my surprise and dismay, the top search result was an article at Slam Wrestling, titled “Remembering my late Mentor, Ted Herbert” by Mark Chetcuti.

On November 19, 2012, at the age of 65, Ted died during heart surgery at Trillium Health Centre in Mississauga, Ontario, leaving behind a loving family of children and grandchildren. I was shocked, saddened and ashamed all at once because I had never expected this.

I never got to the opportunity to tell Ted how much he helped me during the 2 years I knew him, and simply writing it now seems so completely inadequate. There is no other way to end this then to say, thank you Ted Herbert, I will never forget you.

This is for all of us who owe debts of gratitude that have yet to be repaid.

Remember to take advantage of the moments you have, because they can slip away in an instant, and time is too cruel to give you a second chance.

Image credit: Tony Lanza