October 15, 2022 4 min read 7 Comments
Mike Lavigna, 75, was a wrestler and has stayed fit for his hobby of sailing. He is not going to let prostate cancer rule his life.
By Ray Glier
Mike Lavigna, 75, was a wrestler and a wrestling coach so, naturally, he didn’t do the easy thing when the doctor told him this summer he had advanced metastatic prostate cancer, which had leaked into the lymph nodes. Lavigna didn’t rush into a treatment of hormones and chemo. That was too easy.
Wrestlers dish punishment, but they also get dished some punishment, and they like it. Many of them want their character revealed to them through punishment so they can work on improving it. Wrestling is volatile. Grapplers are stubborn. I don’t sense Lavigna has a death wish, he’s just stubborn with the ‘I got this’ mentality he developed through sport.
“It's hard for me to get my head around it (cancer) when I feel pretty good right now, in fact, I feel very good,” he said. “When you start taking chemo and hormone therapy, it's going to reduce muscle mass and bone mass and everything else that comes with it. Why do I want to start taking stuff if it's gonna make me feel like crap the rest of my life?”
Mike’s rationale is his rationale. He doesn't sound like a guy who spun the wheel and is casting all his chips for Red 7, or refuses to look over the horizon.
What struck me was not his mindset in dealing with cancer. It was something he said five months ago.
And this is why it is important to write about Geezer Jocks. The wisdom of age.
I wrote about Lavigna (LA-vin-ya) at The National Senior Games in Ft. Lauderdale in May. He was just a guy, as the NFL scouts like to say. He didn’t have overwhelming skills for the shot put where he placed 8th. Mike wasn’t there for the medals anyway. He was just there to compete and be around Geezer Jocks because it took his mind off the cancer.
Leaning back against a chain link fence in May, he told me the bad news about his prostate cancer, which was not quite as advanced as it is now. Lavigna said in May he wouldn't allow the cancer to make him retreat into himself. He said he would build up other people and give back as part of his therapy.
When I talked to Mike last week, he was following through on that pledge. He spent most of the 1 hour, 11 minutes talking about other people.
He plays keyboard for a woman in a retirement center and she is delighted whenever he arrives. Her enthusiasm for his music delights him.
Mike played music and talked the gospel on the front steps of the home of a long-ago rival, the only wrestler whoever pinned Mike in high school. The man committed crimes and went to prison for doing bad things to people. He was dying and had repented and he wanted Mike to hear it.
Lavigna told me the story of the younger brother of two wrestling champions. The kid was overweight and thought it would be ok to be “fat and funny” as an identity. Mike started working out the kid, first with a jump rope, then serious weights. He became a champion wrestler. Mike talked about the kid’s resilience and had how he had grown to believe in himself.
Lavigna talked about the “great” high school wrestling coaches in northeast Ohio in the heyday of the sport in the 1960s. Then, he spoke of the coaching staff of five for the Aurora High School team in the 1990s and how they had the brilliant idea of matching each coach with a wrestler whose personality and makeup a particular coach could understand. It yielded a state championship.
Nicknames on a team can create a closeness, a bond. In the wrestling community he was a part of, Lavigna said they adopted the practice of Native Americans by extolling the virtues of each athlete through a nickname.
“I would give them names, which in my opinion, came from some characteristic of what they had, or what they were about,” Lavigna said.
(His nickname was “Lightening Mike” because he pinned a kid in 37 seconds in a crucial match his senior year in high school.)
When he did talk about himself, Lavigna said he was the skinny kid in eighth grade who walked to the other side of the street to avoid bullies. Then he became a weightlifter and a feared wrestler and it was the bullies who detoured.
Mike was ashamed that he became a “Lincoln Lawyer” early in his legal career, a hotshot. He fixed that by volunteering to coach high school wrestlers who rewarded him by becoming champions and then successful business people.
His life is dotted with these epoch-making events of kids using wrestling as a foundation for life.
I asked Lavinga about how sculpting his body with workouts and paying attention to his weight is helping him fight an illness where, at this stage, the five-year life span is 29 percent. He said that gives too much credit to himself and not enough to “The Creator.”
Lavigna is devoted to scripture. He leans on it. He also said people should share their stories. It’s good for everybody. “God has given you a story,” Mike said. “Go tell it.”
Then he says, “We're surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. And no man lives to himself. Or dies to himself.”
Those words are so contradictory for a wrestler, who is alone on the mat, on an island...except he's never alone in Mike Lavigna's way of living.
Copyright © 2022 Ray Glier
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