Color me tough

"Violence in my house was as regular as traditional evening dinners in most other homes." - Chris Hershberger

Editor's Note: This is part IV of a 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
Part II: "I was The Karate Kid"
Part III: Showdown by the Coliseum

I couldn’t fall asleep due to my hyper-anxious mind. “He’s a freaking ninja,” I thought. My reference to any real ninjas rested squarely on Michael Dudikoff’s shoulders. He was the unassuming star of the 80’s straight-to-VHS-hit American Ninja. This was the gold standard for any kid who dared to jump on the mystical ninjitsu train. In the eighties, Hollywood pitted ninjas against everything under the sun from zombies, ghosts, drug dealers and in some cases, entire militaries. Ninjas were in fact, unstoppable. 

All I could think of after holding a kicking shield for Eddie Noble (to students he was Mr. Noble) was, “This guy could totally kill any ninja on the planet!” 

Imagine holding a nylon square about as big as your torso, filled with condensed foam, against your torso. Then you say to your friend, “Please grab the heaviest sledge hammer you can find and swing it as hard as you can at this shield.” 

That’s the best way I can describe the experience. 

Mr. Noble would have destroyed Mr. Myagi too. Suddenly, the martial arts mysticism that filled my imaginative brain came crashing down to a very serious realization — getting hit by a professional martial artist hurts! I survived weeks of what can basically be described as torture. But something in me said, “You got this. It will make you stronger.” I loved the training. It was intense, never easy, and pretty much brutal on all levels. The only thing that allowed this punk kid from Rowland Avenue to endure such hardships was my lack of a traditional upbringing at home. My brother punched me in face all of the time. Violence in my house was as regular as traditional evening dinners in most other homes. If we disagreed, we just fought. It didn’t seem like there were other alternatives at the time. 

Training in the martial arts was very different in the eighties than what we see today, for many reasons. For starters, it would be illegal today simply based on contact. I was hit with adult intention. Black eyes, broken fingers and bloody noses were par for the course every week. Don’t get me wrong, there were some crooks peddling “secret arts” to potential students out there too, but if you were given the opportunity to learn real martial arts from legitimate instructors at the time, bruises were like today’s colorful tattoos: plentiful, and most importantly, a badge of honor. I used to call them rainbow bruises, to signify all of the varied colors a bruise would take on over the course of a week. Months passed, until almost a year later I noticed a change in my mindset. 

The repetitive, intense barrage of ultra intense training wore me down like a lioness chasing her prey. My motivation started to wane. I started finding myself scheming for reasons to miss practice. What’s more, I violated the agreement Mr. Noble presented to me from the beginning. He said, “If you show up for practice every day, it’s free. You need to help clean up after practice too. If you don’t... you’re done.” In retrospect, pretty generous I think. I was on the daily bruises for lessons program. 

At the time he was working third-shift at his job. He’d pick me up at my house at 5:20 a.m. after finishing his shift. We’d go to the YMCA and workout until 7:15 a.m. It was like clockwork. He’d show up, lay on his horn outside of my house, and would run out, eye-boogers and all. I’d go to school after the workout. Run home to eat after school. Run up the street to the YMCA and workout from 4:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. Rinse and repeat, every single day of the school week. On the weekends we trained both Saturday and Sunday, usually 4-6 hours at a time. The average martial artist at the time trained 4-6 hours per week. I was doing it in one day, year round. It’s no wonder I earned a black belt in one year, whereas most took five. Using the word ‘accelerated’ didn’t do it justice. My body was tired. 

The martial arts provides ample opportunity for life lessons. Here is my most embarrassing to date. One day I decided to get out of practice the best way a moronic high school freshman could. In taekwondo you kick a lot. Without your uniform, which is designed to, you know, kick, it becomes a bit of a chore with casual clothes. Normal pants will grab your leg the moment it reaches waist height. So, in a stroke of genius, I found an old pair of jeans that basically resemble today’s skin-tight denim delights. I mean, it seriously took me 15 minutes to squeeze them on. My close friend, Chuck, who I brought as an accomplice to this egregious act of deceit, proudly walked with me to the YMCA to witness the performance of a lifetime. 

“Hey Mr. Noble. My uniform is dirty. I’m wearing what I had on at school (a t-shirt and the painted on jeans). I don’t think I can kick in these... they’re pretty tight.” 

“If they’re too tight, take them off,” he said as if the solution was just that simple. 

“I don’t have anything else to wear,” I said with confidence. 

He answered quickly. “You have underwear on, don’t you?” 

The class had just under 10 people in it made up of women and men. 

“I’m serious,” he said. 

I walked out to the hallway and thought to myself, “This really backfired on me, didn’t it?” 

I didn’t have much of a fashion sense. I often wore regular baggy shorts as underwear under my pants, because Goodwill had the coolest shorts, and my family shopped at real stores once a year. Clothes were in short supply at my house so my lack of a diversified wardrobe worked in my favor. They weren’t briefs for God’s sake! 

That dreadful two-hour practice will live forever in my mind. Each kick was painfully cautious. The red in my face radiated across the room, cooled only by the beads of sweat slowing falling down my face. I was humiliated. 

Lesson learned.

Stay tuned for Part V.

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