It’s hard to believe I started my journey into the martial arts nearly 30 years ago. Like just about everything else I’ve ever done in my life, my journey has hardly been typical. Most people take one of three different paths: They either try it and move on for one reason or another after they’ve advanced a couple of belts, they progress steadily through to their first degree black belt and decide that’s as far as they need to go, or they make martial arts a lifelong practice. I thought— scratch that, I was certain—that my path would be the third.
Instead, I took none of these paths.
I started training in martial arts in my hometown, La Grange, Texas. I’d been fascinated with the Asian martial arts ever since my dad had introduced me to Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris movies as a kid. I wanted so badly to learn a martial art, but we lived about 15 minutes outside of town and the burden of driving into town several days a week when both my parents worked was too much to ask at the time. Money was a factor, too. Sometime around my 16th birthday, I must have convinced my parents to let me join our local tae kwon-do school, Unified Tae Kwon-Do.
By that time, I had my driver’s license, and could drive myself to town to train.
Tae kwon-do was the only option in our little town, but it suited me perfectly. I was tall, skinny, had long legs, and loved using them to throw the many high kicks that tae kwon-do is known for. I stuck with the martial art throughout high school, and when money was tight at home, my instructor, Kelly Jeschke, let me help instruct and clean the school on weekends to “pay” my tuition. She trusted me with a key to the school, and, looking back, I owe her a debt of gratitude for that that I probably never properly paid.
I was one belt stripe away from testing for my black belt when I found out I was going to be a father. Suddenly, tae kwon-do was low on my list of priorities. Looking back on it now, that sounds like a convenient excuse to quit. But it is what it is.
You can’t change the past.
I knew my son’s mother would be moving to Austin to attend the University of Texas, so I moved as well to stay close to my boy. Austin was full of different opportunities to train in martial arts. It was almost overwhelming. I loved TKD, but I’ve always been a very curious person and was interested in trying several different styles. Pretty much everything I could think of was available in one corner of the city or another. Aikido, judo, karate, kenpo, kendo, kung fu, even ninjutsu. And that’s to say nothing of the plethora of tae kwon-do studios all over town.
Wanting to at least get my black belt before moving on to something different, I stuck with tae kwon-do initially.
Unfortunately, there were no schools affiliated with my particular style in Austin, and I never felt the connection to any of those other schools or their instructors that I did with my school in La Grange. Needless to say, I never stayed very long in any of those schools. And with some life experience and perspective on my side, I think that had more to do with my own faults and issues I was working through than it did with those particular schools. Again, you can’t change the past. But hopefully, you can learn from it.
Eventually, I moved on to try other styles, both formally and informally. I studied American Kenpo for a time, aikido, kuk sul won, judo, and even iaido. But nothing stuck for longer than 6 months.
I never stopped practicing tae kwon-do, and I would frequently work on basic motions, bag work, and patterns on my own or with my son. It was enough for a while, but one day I woke up and realized my thirties were behind me, fifty was bearing down, and I still had never gotten my black belt.
A black belt in tae kwon-do does not signify an end but, rather, another beginning. Competency rather than mastery.
But the black belt was a goal. A youthful goal. And one that was very important to me. And I had neglected it. And I had failed to learn one of the tenets of our system: perseverance. I had let life circumstances get in the way of achieving that goal. Worse still, I had used those circumstances as excuses to make myself feel better about the failure.
But failures only lack value if nothing is learned from them.
And fortunately there’s another tenent in our system I didn’t fail to heed: indomitable spirit.
This winter, as I often do when the craziness of the holidays are behind us and time seems to be in greater supply than inspiration, I found myself directionless, unmotivated, and falling back into habits that never seem to serve me. I began to think about why I never prioritize my health or hobbies and goals that are important to me. Kelley thinks I’m selfless and that I put everyone else’s well-being before my own, but I’m not convinced that is the reason I neglect things that are good for me. I found myself wondering if my failure to give oxygen to my own wants and needs was just another example of me finding excuses to not do the things I once thought were important to me but required actual work and persistence. Maybe I’d gotten so used to not prioritizing time and resources for myself that it was just reflexive.
I started to question who I was without my family, without my work. I couldn’t easily answer those questions.
When I was a teenager, if you had asked me what pastimes I would do for the rest of my life, without hesitation, I would have said tennis and tae kwon-do. And I would have been wrong in both cases. Maybe it was my upcoming 45th birthday and the realization that the time for inaction and indecision was quickly passing. If I was gonna turn things around, now was the time.
So, with LOTS of encouragement from Kelley, I made the decision to start reclaiming my hobbies. I called a friend and asked if she would be willing to set a regular tennis date once a week. She agreed, and we started playing in January. It was great. It got me out of the house, it got me exercising, and I started meeting new people at the courts. I picked up partners and started playing several times a week. I was having a blast, and I felt great.
But there was something missing. Something kept nagging at me.
It was no mystery what it was, so on my birthday, I reached out to a friend who is the current owner/instructor of my old school in La Grange, Master Debra Filla. We were students together back in the 90s, and I had trained with her briefly when we were living in La Grange in 2019. I asked her if there was any way that I could make my black belt happen. I was up for distance learning or even driving back and forth a few times per week. I just knew I needed to reach the goal. This time, I didn’t care what the obstacles were.
I knew there had to be a way.
She said she thought she knew someone I could possibly train with. She would make a call and let me know. To my surprise and delight, she got right back to me and gave me the number of a man named David Herring, a long time UTKD practitioner who she said was looking to open a school eventually. He was open to training with me, so we met over lunch and talked for nearly 2 hours.
We hit it off!
I have been training under David for nearly 6 months now, and, honestly, I couldn’t ask for a more dedicated, charitable, kind, and experienced teacher. His attention to detail is the reason I am progressing the way that I am. I can now do jump spin kicks again. At 45! I mean, I’m no Jean Claude Van Damme, but I am excited about my prospects for growth.
I still have that red belt, but I am on track to test for my first degree black belt next March—one year from when I picked back up with my training and 30 years from when I first began this journey. I have Mr. Herring, Master Filla, my original teacher Ms. Jeschke, Grandmaster Bu Kwang Park, my family (for their encouragement and sacrifice), and the tenets of our system, Unified Tae Kwon Do, to thank for the fact that I am finally back on the path.
I took a long break, but I never gave up. The indomitable spirit of that teenager lived on inside of me. I just needed help to reawaken him, and I needed the support of the people mentioned above to do it.
To thank David and Debra, I decided to make some Texas wall hangings using all of the colors of our belt system. I have since made another for Kelly, my original instructor, and plan to connect with her soon to finally say a proper thank you. If you or someone you know is on the path of martial arts—no matter what system—this would make a great gift to honor their dedication to their art. They are currently available in our Made-to-Order section of our site.
Click here to get your Black Belt Texas today.
If you live in another state besides Texas and are interested in buying one of these in your own state, send us an email and we will get you taken care of.
If you’re reading this, and you’ve let something meaningful to you fall by the wayside, it’s never too late to jump back in. Go write that novel, run that marathon, finish law school—whatever it is.
You got this.
Postscript: One week and one day ago, I tested for my double black stripe. 27 years had passed between my last test in April of 1994 and this one. It’s never too late.