“The warrior is indifferent to fame while relentlessly pursuing greatness. They see fame as what you do for yourself and greatness as what you do for others. Greatness is not the absence of humility; it is the absence of apathy. Just as you can be famous and not be great, you can be great and not famous. Although the warrior may gain great fame, it is never their ambition. Let fame be the food of lesser men.”The Way of the Warrior, Erwin McManus, pg. 52
In 1972, between my freshman and sophomore years at Hampshire College, I spent the summer with my parents who’d moved cross-country from New Jersey to Palos Verdes, California.
I was almost nineteen years old and knew next to no one.
I got a job painting houses during the day. After work, I studied karate at a studio in Torrance on Hawthorne Boulevard near my dad’s hospital.
The studio was part of a chain owned by Chuck Norris. That’s right, Chuck Norris.
Chuck was breaking out as a major film star beyond his reputation as the six-time International Middleweight Karate Champion. At the time, he’d returned from Hong Kong filming The Way of the Dragon, starring as Bruce Lee’s nemesis.
As a 163-pound, six-foot clueless 18-year-old looking for truth, justice, and the meaning of life, I threw myself into training two-hours, six times a week starting as a rank white belt. Six- weeks into the summer, Chuck appeared with a small entourage to teach our class. I disappeared in the back row of twenty-five students to escape attention.
After a short warm-up, Chuck reviewed the fundamentals, starting with the middle punch from a front stance. He eyed me avoiding eye contact and summoned me to the front to be the demonstration dummy.
Close-up: beet-red face.
Chuck is not a tall man, maybe 5’8,” but feels huge in proximity. Built like a fire hydrant, you sense he’s testing you as a potential threat at a thousand frames a second. And I’m telling you, the man is scary quick. He circled me while lecturing to the class in between two eye blinks. To this day the maneuver seems improbable to perform. But he did, within striking distance.
Lesson One: Proper bone alignment for a front punch.
He grabbed my forearm and held it up to the class lining the fist, wrist bone, and forearm in a straight line.
Lesson Two: With me standing in the fighting position, he demonstrated an efficient short-trike punch snapped into my sternum. In reality, he tapped my sternum, pulling the punch from full impact. But it felt he clubbed with a mace. Man, that hurt. But I would not allow myself to flinch.
I watched him, head tilted a few degrees, studying my resolve not to show pain.
When I didn’t flinch he dismissed me with a nod and half-smile to return to my place.
Three weeks later I drove to a dojo in Gardena California for belt testing. Students from his schools were testing for advancement. It was a diverse crowd: Ex-military, gang members, law enforcement, and me. Chuck sat in the center seat at a table facing the mat surrounded by a panel of distinguished Black Belt judges.
I executed Keecho Hyung Il Bu, basic form number one, in front of the judges and hit the zone performing the twelve steps. Nailed it. Practice pays off. It’s like mastering a piano piece, or improvisational drumming. You go into a zone.
As the dojo emptied after the belt and awards ceremony, I saw Chuck break off from a conversation and sprint like a cat across the mat towards me. Thinking it was impossible he wanted to speak with me I turned towards the exit. But he stopped from leaving, put his hand on my shoulder and said with an enormous weight of responsibility, “Son, keep applying yourself. You have it. You can be great.” He dismissed me with a crisp bow. And I left carrying my yellow belt in a daze to find my ancient VW bug and head into the future.
The Karate Champion of the World told me I could be great.
Chuck Norris said I could be great!
Jesus, knowing their thoughts, called them to his side and said, “Kings and those with great authority in this world rule oppressively over their subjects, like tyrants. But this is not your calling. You will lead by a completely different model. The greatest one among you will live as the one who is called to serve others, because the greatest honor and authority is reserved for the one with the heart of a servant.”
Matthew 20:25-27 (TPT)
It took decades to grasp Chuck wasn’t talking about the martial arts. He was calling out my vocation, calling me to greatness, calling me out of selfish insecurity to rise and serve by fighting for justice. He saw the fighting spirit in me.
Though I never advanced beyond the yellow belt, I became an attorney and spent three decades battling child and elder abusers, crooked and oppressive employers, wage thieves, human traffickers, and neo-Nazis in the California civil courts and other parts of the world.
I learned two things about greatness from Chuck Norris. First, despite his celebrity and real transcendence in the sport, he taught my class of rank novices as if our lives depended on what we learned. He was serious, inclusive, and efficient. Second, he gave us his undivided attention. He was not full of himself. He was full of us. And his bearing was noble, gentle, and authoritative.
I can honestly say that because of Chuck, I was inspired to become a better man.
He who has the power of comforting, let him do so; he who gives, let him give freely; he who has the power of ruling, let him do it with a serious mind; he who has mercy on others, let it be with joy. Romans 12:8 BBE
Chuck Norris didn’t get where he was on his own. At that time, Chuck was training the legendary actor, Steve McQueen.The word is McQueen encouraged Chuck to take acting lessons at the MGM Studios. I guess he did. In the past forty-six years, Chuck’s stared and appeared in over forty films and television shows.
God calls me and you to greatness. And He asks us to call others to greatness.
Who are the people in your life who’ve called you to greatness? A coach, teacher, parent or relative, a sibling, a neighbor, someone at work, a stranger? Have you thanked them? If not, follow-up. Let them know what they mean to you. Chuck, if you’re reading this, thanks.
And who in your life can you call to greatness? Your child, niece or nephew, a friend, someone you employ or coach?
Take it from me, a few timely and encouraging words will release the hidden warrior in your midst to do great things for others.