I was the Karate Kid

Editor's Note: This is part II of a four-part series on Thriving in the Martial Arts. Written by Chris Hershberger, he provides a first-person look at how he went from being a "poor punk kid" from Mansfield to an Olympic Taekwondo All-American coach.

Part I: You had me at crane kick

That I was now hooked on martial arts, goes without saying, but when you’re in the 80’s phrases like “totally awesome,” or “It’s the/da bomb” accurately described my newfound relationship with kicking and punching. 

“Don’t move! I won’t kick you in the face. I swear,” I’d say over and over again to any able-bodied friend who considered pressing their luck. My desperation reared its ugly head as my terms changed to what I thought was fairer — “If I accidentally kick you in the face, you can kick me back. I won’t even try blocking it.” 

“No way!” “You’re crazy!” 

My friends didn’t hesitate. “Can’t we just play Duckhunt?” The Atari 2600 was the quintessential video game console. I dreamed of having one. Though most kids in our neighborhood didn’t have the means, we all usually met up at our buddy’s house. His dad worked at General Motors and we all thought he was SUPER RICH. 

“Go ahead guys. I’m going home to practice kicking.”

Luckiness was not my strong suit at the time until I found one of my older brother’s friends at the house. He was into boxing. Big Mike was his name and punching people really hard in the face was his game. He said, “Go ahead, but if you hit me, imma pound you!” These guys were all five years older than me. They were bruisers. 

“This is it! I get to show off my crane kick,” I thought. I started to profusely sweat. I had easily thrown the crane kick a thousand times up to that point. My confidence was high and the possibility of missing didn’t seem real to me. I was The Karate Kid. 

I slowly raised my arms up. Wrists and hands were pointing down just like Danielson in his final match against Johnny. I whispered to myself, “No Whammies, No Whammies,” paying homage to the then popular gameshow “Press Your Luck.” 

As my knee raised, I focused my eyes just inches away from Big Mike’s chin. After a deep inhale and exhale, I was laser focused. 

I instantly felt frozen. There I stood on one leg. Ready to spring up into the most impressive crane kick ever seen. But before I could move, one thought quickly consumed my mind — “He’s really going to punch me in the face if I hit him!” 

Before that thought could completely paralyze me, I just let my leg go. It felt fast. I tucked my knee like Danielson. Just as I fully extended my crane kick of terror, I felt the top of my warn-Goodwill-issued-Nike clip Big Mike’s chin. 

After I woke up, Big Mike said, “You need to practice more punk.” I raced to a mirror to see the red fist tattoo on my forehead. My head was throbbing. This wasn’t my first fist-to-face rodeo however. “You need to practice more punk” ran incessantly through my mind. 

Richland County was home to only a few martial arts schools at the time. Problem is, I had no money to attend. I forged many a parental permission slip to gain access to free intro lessons. I walked all over Mansfield. For almost two years I bounced between martial arts schools trying my best to learn proper martial arts. Eventually, after cycling through all of them a few times over, I was no longer allowed to attend. My curiosity was still very much alive. 

Readmore Bookstore and Yesteryear Mart, at the WestPark Shopping Centers, were popular destinations for candy, ice cream and every magazine known to a Mansfield kid. I would spend an entire month collecting Coke bottles (back then you could recycle old bottles for money) to build my cash stash. I purchased all kinds of martial arts magazines. Karate Illustrated, Kung-Fu Magazine and Taekwondo Times were my go to mags because they had the most diverse and comprehensive how-to sections. The walls in my bedroom were littered with pictures of Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris punching and kicking. 

I ultimately felt defeated. I settled on the thought of becoming a great martial artists from books and magazines. 

The YMCA gave free swim lessons to students at Brinkerhoff. I had a lot of fun down in that dungeon of a pool. As I left the pool area on a Saturday morning and made my way to the upstairs lobby, I noticed a flier pinned on a board. 

“FREE KARATE LESSONS.”

Stay tuned for Part III.

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