May 15, 2014
RUSTON, La. - "The body is very important, but the mind is MORE important than the body." That statement by internationally renowned bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger about the importance of the mind and one's attitude is essentially a creed Louisiana Tech strength and conditioning coach Kurt Hester lives and one that he was forced to physically show Tech's football players this spring.
Hester joined the Louisiana Tech program in June 2013 after Skip Holtz brought him on board. His credentials were impressive - Hester has trained three Heisman Trophy winners in addition to athletes from the National Football League (NFL), Major League Baseball (MLB), National Basketball Association (NBA), Major League Soccer (MLS), National Hockey League (NHL) and the NFL Combine classes as he worked as National Director of the D1 Sports Training Center in Nashville, Tennessee.
He brought an immediate swagger and intensity to the Karl Malone Weight Room and the student-athletes immediately responded to his workouts. Hester constantly talked about building a mind strong enough to build a strong body. Then this winter, he was forced to live what he had been preaching.
Numbness Strikes on Mardi Gras Break
It was Mardi Gras and quarter break for Louisiana Tech University with students and student-athletes alike heading home for break. Even Hester - whose family still lives in south Louisiana where his children are in school - was headed out of town for a brief break before everyone returned to campus for the beginning of the spring quarter and start of spring football.
As Hester was driving, he reached for his cup from McDonald's to take another sip of his soft drink when it spilled all over his shirt. He tried again and another spill happened. Putting his cup down, he felt his face and had a startling realization - he was numb on the left side of his face.
Hester hoped the numbness would go away after a good night's sleep but that wasn't the case. He eventually saw a doctor, who ran multiple tests before it was discovered he was suffering from Ramsay Hunt syndrome. But don't tell him that.
"Other than the facial paralysis, I felt fine," Hester said, a paralysis that is still noticeable today. "I don't consider myself to be suffering from anything. At that point, I felt great in every other aspect of my life."
Ramsay Hunt Syndrome
The Mayo Clinic describes Ramsay Hunt syndrome as occurring when a shingles infection affects the facial nerve near one of the ears. In addition to causing a painful shingles rash, it can also cause facial paralysis and hearing loss in the affected ear.
It is caused by the same virus that causes chickenpox. After chickenpox heals, the virus lies dormant in the nerves and can reactivate many years later. If it reactivates and affects the facial nerve, the result is Ramsay Hunt syndrome. It usually strikes people over the age of 60.
When Hester, now 50, called Holtz to inform him of what was going on, Louisiana Tech's head coach implored him to take some time off to make sure he was fully healthy as doctors worked to determine what was afflicting Hester.
"I told Kurt that his health was the most important thing," said Holtz. "I tried to tell him he could take a couple weeks off so he could relax and not over-exert himself but he kept refusing."
Wanting to live the life that he preaches every day to his student-athletes, Hester would hear nothing of it and why would he? He felt fine but then the vertigo struck.
Part of Ramsay Hunt syndrome is an exacerbated inner ear infection and often balance disorder's - commonly known as vertigo - are part of the symptoms. The National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD) explains that our sense of balance is primarily controlled by a maze-like structure in the inner ear connected to the cochlea (which is what enables us to hear) called the vestibular system. That works with the other sensorimotor in the body, such as our visual system (eyes) and skeletal system (bones and joints) to check and maintain the position of our body at rest or in motion.
In other words, it helps us maintain a steady focus on objects even though the position of our body changes. When that does not work correctly, just by taking a single step can make the world appear to spin around you uncontrollably, causing vertigo.
"I tell our kids all the time to be mentally strong and if they can be mentally strong, they can overcome any obstacle," Hester said. "I tell them they are going to get knocked down but they have to be and they are strong enough to get back up again and keep going. What would it say about me and what would they think of me if I immediately sat down and said `Woe is me' for no reason at all? I feel fine and can do anything I could do before the numbness hit."
He refused to allow the facial paralysis to slow him down but the vertigo did cause him some issues. Hester would be yelling at players in the weight room above the weights, encouraging them to keep working harder and then the vertigo would hit without warning. All Hester could do would be to grab ahold of something as quick as possible and wait a few moments until he could orient himself.
"With the inner ear aspect of Ramsay Hunt, vertigo is pretty common," said Hester. "The facial paralysis didn't bother me - I could figure out how to eat and drink differently. But there were times I couldn't orient which way was up and I would have to drop to a knee and grab ahold of the ground or something until it passed and I could figure out which way was up."
Embrace the Suck
Coaches everywhere turn to mottos and slogans to inspire their players and to create a theme for a season. When Louisiana Tech finished its first year under Holtz and Hester, the latter turned towards military jargon to encourage the players to not allow another season like that happen.
"Embrace the Suck" is an unofficial military phrase that is a sometimes polite, even forceful reminder from one troop to another that this life of theirs or their task at hand sucks and you only have two choices: embrace it, or roll over and die. It came into its own as a soldier's maxim in a 2003 article in The New York Times when Jim Dwyer quoted "a piece of military wisdom" from Sgt. Michael E. Murray of the 101st Airborne Division, "You've got to embrace the suck."
The Bulldogs have embraced the slogan of embracing the suck this offseason. The team has rallied around Hester's military motto and has spent their time in workouts embracing the moment, knowing the hard work they put in now will be reflected in the fall.
Again, wanting to live the life he preaches to his players Hester thought of nothing else but embracing the suck of partial facial paralysis and random bouts of vertigo.
Being back in the weight room with a slight speech impediment due to his facial paralysis with only slight pauses because of short bouts of vertigo was only step one of showing LA Tech's student-athletes that the mind is the strongest aspect of the human body. But Hester was still looking for a way to show the football team that in a manner that they would not forget.
Bobby Boucher (pronounced: BOO-SHAY)
The name Bobby Boucher has had a Louisiana tie ever since Adam Sandler suited up in pads and cleats for the movie The Waterboy. That was one of the reasons Hester decided to claim the name Boucher during one of Louisiana Tech's practices this spring.
In that movie, Bobby Boucher is a socially inept, stuttering water boy (the speech impediment made the name a stronger draw for Hester) who became the water boy for the (fictional) South Central Louisiana State University Mud Dogs (the dog mascot being another great draw for Hester).
The coaching staff and the players had no idea what was going to happen but during the team's ninth practice of the spring, No. 1 Bobby Boucher stepped onto the practice field, joining Jabbar Juluke's running backs.
"We have the best strength coach in America," Juluke said. "He is a remarkable individual. For him to have the illness that he has and to come back, to lead our young men, to push the team and to push our staff as well it says a lot about his character and who he is. It says a lot about how he has developed himself and the values he is instilling in our young men. He never says quit, never admits defeat."
During the practice, Hester/Boucher ran all of the drills with the running backs. Anytime a position group made a mistake or a side of the ball (offense/defense) messed up in team drills, they had to do up-downs.
The players took notice.
"To see Coach Hester practicing with us despite coming back from Ramsay Hunt syndrome, it proved that he is a warrior," Louisiana Tech wide receiver Paul Turner said. "Anyone that can come back from something like that so fast and be so positive about it, I just think he is somebody who is inspirational in my eyes. He is constantly a warrior."
While he wore white with the offense and was a running back, Hester/Boucher was with both sides of the ball in doing every single up-down that practice.
"I probably did about 1,000 up-downs that day in addition to running all of the drills with the running backs," Hester said. "Even if I was tired I couldn't show it. You can't think what you are supposed to be doing in this drill or this play if you are thinking about how tired you are. I kept thinking about finishing the drill and preparing myself for the next drill, something I try to teach all of our players. They had to see another example of that being done, no matter what challenges a person is facing."
"Some of our guys are perfectly healthy and some face soreness, tweaked ankles or strained hamstrings," Hester said. "I was paralyzed on one side of my face. I am 50 years old. I don't play football on a daily basis. I have a million reasons why I could not finish or even start any of those drills but I don't allow myself to think `I can't' and I don't teach our kids to think `I can't.' In the right frame, the mind is stronger than any muscle in the body and can prove to the body it can do far more than what anyone thinks is capable."
Navy SEALs Reiterate Hester's Point
Following spring practice, student-athletes are allowed to continue in off-season workouts with the strength coach. Those can include running drills, lifting weights and other activities provided they don't include a ball or specific instruction related to their sport. Rarely do the student-athletes expect guest lecturers but that is where Hester continues to work outside the box to continue to motivate Louisiana Tech's student-athletes.
When he lived in south Louisiana, Hester was approached by two former student-athletes for a very different type of training. They knew they wouldn't be able to make a career out of playing sports but thought another physical activity called to them - becoming a Navy SEAL.
Almost 10 years ago, they asked Hester to develop a training system for them to prepare for the initial Physical Screening Test (PST) just to qualify for the SEAL Challenge program. At the time, the internet was a far cry from what it is today so Hester turned to the local library for help.
"I remember just trying to find as many books as possible that talked about what Navy SEALs were required to do in their training program," Hester said. "Then I used my knowledge to build a workout program to get them as close to that as possible."
Now seven to eight years as Navy SEALs, those two came back to pay Hester a visit and spoke to the Bulldogs football team. They both constantly reiterated what Hester has told them time and time again - that the mind has a much greater capacity for achievement than one can ever dream. The two Navy SEALs explained to them what a typical training day entailed with trainees getting less than four hours of sleep after 20 hours of physical exertion in an attempt to join one of the world's elite military groups, the same group that took out Osama Bin Laden and was profiled in the recent movie, Lone Survivor.
Hester's face still shows some symptoms of paralysis but it has improved since March and he hopes to eventually recover fully. Doctors can prescribe antiviral drugs, corticosteroids and pain relievers to help with some of the symptoms of Ramsay Hunt syndrome but the paralysis carries a risk of being permanent. The vertigo is mostly gone but any lightheadedness - whether it be vertigo or simply a slight head cold - has Hester finding the nearest stable object to grab on to just in case.
Regardless of his recovery and treatment, Hester is determined to continue walking the walk that he preaches to Louisiana Tech's student-athletes in keeping his mind strong to keep his body strong.
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