The Will Must Be Greater Than the Skill
Thomas Calabrese –Steve Leone was only five years old when his father, Marine Corps Staff Sergeant John Leone was killed during deployment on Okinawa, Japan. A massive typhoon had hit the island and many of the Marines stationed at Camp Hansen volunteered to help the locals during the emergency. The situation was dire, the winds were blowing at 90mph and the rain was coming down in blinding sheets.
Sergeant Leone was in the town of Chatan in the central part of the island. Two rivers ran through it, the Shiruhi River to the north, and the Futenma River at the south and both were overflowing their banks. He could barely hear screaming through the roar of the massive storm, but when Sergeant Leone looked down from his elevated position, he saw a man running along the bank of the river screaming frantically at a young girl who was struggling to stay afloat in the raging waters.
Ignoring his own safety, Sergeant Leone jumped into the water and fought with all his strength to reach the girl and keep her head above water. After what seemed like the longest two minutes in history Sergeant Leone reached shore and handed the exhausted girl to her father. Just as he was ready to crawl out, a massive piece of debris smashed into Sergeant Leone and pushed him under the water. His body was washed into the East China Sea and never recovered.
At the time, Steve and his mother were living in Camp Pendleton base housing when they were notified of Sergeant Leone’s death. Caroline Leone was not a very strong person, either emotionally or physically, so after the death of her husband, she went into a severe depression. When she realized that she could no longer care for her young son, she asked her deceased husband’s parents if they would assume custody of him. When they agreed, Caroline moved to Florida to live with her brother and her son went to Kansas City, Missouri. As the years passed, Caroline remarried and started a new life in Tampa, Florida and lost contact with her son.
Joe Leone and his wife, Elena did their best to raise their grandson, but the boy was definitely not his father. John Leone was a good person, kind and generous to others with a strong sense of what was right and right. Steve, on the other hand had a mean streak and often acted entitled, rude and condescending. His grandfather who retired after 40 years as a postal worker hoped his grandson would grow out of this bad phase of his life, but as the years passed, Steve only got worse. By the time he was a junior at Northeast High School, Steve had grown to be six foot three inches tall and weighed 225 pounds and was a star in football, basketball, baseball and track. He was a natural born athlete blessed with speed, quickness, strength, coordination and flexibility. The combination of these abilities only came around once in a generation. In fact, Steve was so talented that his physical exploits appeared effortless to the spectators. He also had no reservations about using his athletic prowess like it was a negotiable currency to get what he wanted. His teachers and coaches were willing to overlook a lot of Steve’s behavioral issues because he was so valuable to the team. At the time Steve was too immature to know that his inflated ego was writing checks that his heart and soul would have to pay for at a later time. He was young, naïve and the world revolved around him.
Joe lamented the situation to his wife about the lifestyle of their grandson, “How do you convince a young boy that will be eventually become a multi-millionaire because of his athletic abilities the value of hard work and a consistent work ethic?”
“I don’t know, I wish I had an answer for you. We both want Steve to be successful, but being successful isn’t the same as being happy. Everything has always fallen into place for him, but what happens when he has to face real adversity, I don’t believe he has the inner strength to handle it. I hate to say this, but he’s too selfish would never put his life on the line to save another.” Elena said.
“Like his father did?” Joe sobbed when he remembered his heroic son.
College offers were coming in by the dozens and Steve relished the adulation. Northeast High School was playing for the conference title and if they won, which they were heavily favored to do, they would play for the state title and be nationally ranked.
High School Coach Clyde Tate always wanted to move up to college athletics and if things worked out, he’d have the resume that he needed. He called Steve into his office for a little pep talk, “This is the biggest game of your career. Are you ready?”
Steve smiled confidently, “Coach, I appreciate your concern, but I was born for moments like this. Don’t worry, I got this.”
The stadium was full and the sound of a roaring crowd was like music to Steve’s ears. He needed a dose of reality, to be taken down a notch or two, but instead his legacy grew. Steve took the opening kick-off back 93 yards and from there it was his showcase and he shined brightly. He had six touchdowns, 397 yards in total offense and three interceptions while playing free safety. The Vikings won by 41 points.
After the game, Steve and four of his teammates decided to go out to celebrate. They got into a confrontation with a group of men outside DiMaggio’s Drive-in and one of the high schoolers was shot. The bullets shattered the right knee of All State linebacker Russell Brody and ended all hope of the young man’s future in football. It was Steve’s bravado and arrogance that escalated the situation and provoked the shooter. He and the other players were suspended for their part in the altercation and Northeast was easily defeated in the state playoffs. Coach Tate lost his opportunity to coach college football. While in the hospital, a distraught Russell Brody was placed on suicide watch and under restraints after he slit his wrists.
Steve was devastated by the turn of events and chose not to play any more organized sports for the rest of his senior year because his heart was not in it. He had his first dose of adversity and he did not have the mental fortitude to handle it.
Joe hated to see his grandson suffer, but was at a loss on how to rectify the situation so he called Monty Hancock for his advice. Joe was a squad leader with Lima Company, 26th Marines and Monty was a Navy Corpsman during the Vietnam War. They maintained contact over the years and Monty currently had a home near Lake Conroe, Texas.
“Maybe it’s time that you showed him to see what real sacrifice is like,” Monty suggested, “It might give him a different perspective.”
Joe asked, “Are you talking about John and Okinawa?”
“You said that your grandson never wanted to see where his father died…maybe now he does. It wouldn’t hurt to ask him… what you have got to lose.”
“You make an interesting point,” Joe responded.
“You said that you still keep in touch with the Japanese family?” Monty said.
Joe said, “They never forget to send a card on the anniversary of John’s death.”
“On more thing, don’t tell your grandson that you’re doing it for him. Go with this, ’I’m going to Okinawa to see where your father died. I’d welcome your company if you want to come with me. That way it’s his choice.”
“I like that. You’re a smart man, Monty.” Joe said.
“I don’t know about that, it’s always easier to give advice than to take it.”
“I’ll keep you posted,” Joe said.
When Joe brought up the subject to his wife, he asked her if she wanted to go. She replied, “Maybe another time, my instincts tell me that this should be between you and Steve.”
“Are you sure?” Joe asked.
Elena smiled, “I am very sure.”
Steve didn’t say much on the long flight and his grandfather didn’t push the issue. When they arrived at Naha Airport, the main point of entry for visitors to Okinawa, they were met by Sato Chibana and his daughter, Kumiko.
Sato smiled, “I speak for myself and my daughter when I say that we are deeply honored by your visit.”
“Thank you for your hospitality,” Joe responded.
A limousine was waiting outside the terminal and they entered. Sato gave instructions to the driver in Japanese. Twenty minutes later, the car stopped by the edge of the river. Sato commented, “There is something that I want you to see.”
They walked down a path lined with flowers to a stone monument that stood ten feet tall. At the base of monument was a brass plate. Written in Japanese and English were these words; September 18th, 2003. On this day Marine Corps Staff Sergeant John Leone gave his life to save another. The sacrifice of this noble and courageous warrior will never be forgotten. This monument is a small token of our eternal appreciation by the Chibana Family.
Joe placed his hand on his son’s monument and broke into tears. After leaving the monument, they drove to Hoshinoya, one of the most luxurious areas on the island. Sato Chibana was one of the richest men on the island and a descendant of Choshin Chibana, the man who named Karate. Sato was a 10th degree black belt and his daughter Kumiko was a 5th degree. Their spacious home sat on a hill with a panoramic view of the ocean.
The five course meal was a typical Okinawan feast that included several types of fish, meat, dairy, grains., orange sweet potato, purple sweet potato, seaweed, kelp, bamboo shoots, radish, bitter melon, cabbage, carrots, pumpkin, papaya, and mushrooms. Okinawa is renowned as one of only five Blues Zones in the world, where the population enjoys a particularly long and healthy life.
Kumiko turned to Steve during dinner and said, “Every day during meditation, I thank your father for the gift of my existence. I do my best to honor his memory by living a productive life.”
“Kumiko is a gifted student of Kanpo,” Sato said.
Steve asked, “What’s that?”
“Traditional Japanese medicine that includes acupuncture, moxibustion, herbalogy and traditional food therapy,” Kumiko explained.
Joe and Steve spent a week at the Chibana home. While Joe found the Japanese culture interesting, Steve was totally captivated by it, it touched his soul and brought meaning to his life. When it came time to return home, Steve said to his grandfather, “I’d like to stay a little longer.”
“I’m surprised as you are.” Steve added, “I feel a connection to my father for the first time ever. It’s hard to explain, but it doesn’t feel like it’s the right time to go.”
“Feelings are undebatable and I respect yours. I’ll talk to Sato and see what he says,” Joe said, “Is that good enough?”
“I appreciate it.”
When Joe met with Sato, he explained the situation and Sato responded, “Not everyone’s path is straight and narrow, something a few detours are required to reach a destination. Steve is welcome to stay as long as he wishes.”
Steve bid farewell to his grandfather at the airport and promised, “I’ll call regularly. Thanks for bringing me.”
“Good luck, I love you,” Joe embraced his grandson.
Steve was extremely aware that he was a guest and took nothing for granted. He began doing meditation with Sato and Kumiko every morning and began practicing karate. He was a natural athlete so the physical aspects of the sport came easy to him, the mental discipline was much harder. Steve followed the Okinawan diet and noticed a distinct change in his energy level.
Kumiko explained Kanpo to Steve and he was an eager learner. Since they were about the same age, they developed a close friendship and shared a lot their lives with each other. Steve loved to watch Kumiko work with patients.
Sergeant John Leone’s memorial was four miles from the Chibana home so after meditation and before karate practice, Steve would run to the location, touch the brass plate, look to the skies and say, “I’m doing my best to the kind of man that you were, but you set the bar very high.”
On his way back after one of his runs, Steve decided to take a different route and ended up on Black Dragon turf. This was a gang that did not like Westerners coming into their area. While running down a narrow street, Steve found himself surrounded by six men. He fought valiantly, but he was outnumbered and was beaten badly.
When he didn’t show up for karate practice, Kumiko became worried and went looking for Steve. She found him staggering along the road, bruised and battered. She brought him back to her clinic and gave him medical treatment.
When Sato saw Steve, he asked, “What happened?”
“I’m sorry, sir, I took a wrong turn on the way home and some locals didn’t like it,” Steve said.
Kumiko added, “He went into Black Dragon territory.”
Three hours later, Sato, Steve and Kumiko entered the Black Dragon gang headquarters and they immediately rose to their feet to show their respect for the Grand Master. When they saw a badly injured Steve, they quickly realized that they had made a serious mistake.
Sato spoke in Japanese, “This man was my guest. His father saved the life of my daughter and I will forever indebted to his family. I was entrusted with his safety and I failed. Under the rules of our culture, I have the right to demand restitution for this insult. Who are the individuals responsible for the attack?”
The six men who committed the attack were afraid of Sato, but they were more afraid of what would happen if they did not admit it. They exchanged glances, walked toward Sato and stood silently with their heads bowed.
Steve asked Kumiko, “What’s going on?”
Kumiko, “Your safety was my father’s responsibility and the attack on you was also an attack on him.”
“I don’t hold him accountable,” Steve said, “I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
“This is our culture, our tradition. It doesn’t matter if you hold my father accountable, he holds himself responsible. He has been insulted and these men must pay a price for their actions. In our world we never forget when someone does something right and honorable like your father did. We also must hold those accountable who act dishonorably. In our world forgiveness can only come after justice has been administered.”
One by one, the younger fighters came at Sato. Even though they were skilled fighters, they were no match for the Grand Master. Sato could have easily killed all six men if he had chosen to, but instead he inflicted very painful, but not serious or crippling injuries to the six men. As they lied moaning on the floor, Sato addressed the gang, “This man will be treated with the same respect that you treat me and my daughter. Do I make myself clear?”
In unison, the gang members acknowledged their compliance with the Japanese word for yes, “Hai.” They walked over to Steve and offered their apologies and allegiance.
Over the following months, Steve began training with several members of the Black Dragons. One of the activities that Kumiko introduced Steve to was the sport of free diving. They would often go to Yonaguni Island, maybe the most famous dive site in Japan. It is a geological wonder that stirred the imagination of an ancient alien civilization. They would dive to the bottom and meditate. Even with the water pressure of being 25 meters down, Steve eventually improved his ability to hold his breath for six minutes while Kumiko, who had years of experience could stay beneath the surface for almost 8 minutes.
It was a great experience for Steve being in Okinawa, but after 11 months, he came to the realization that it was time to return home. It wasn’t an easy decision because he was truly content, but he knew it was the right one. There was still more for him to accomplish so he bid an emotional farewell to Sato and Kumiko and promised, “I’ll be back.”
Kumiko replied, “Don’t make promises that you won’t keep.”
“I’ve learned a lot about life and myself being here and at the top of that list is meaning what I say and saying what I mean.” Steve reiterated for emphasis, “I’ll be back.”
Coach Clyde Tate was coaching at West Hills College, a Division 3 football program in Smithville, Missouri. It had a small budget and had not seen a winning record in over 10 years. The only reason the program existed was so that teams in higher divisions could beat up on them.
Steve showed up at practice one day and approached Clyde Tate, “It’s good to see you, Coach.”
Coach Tate replied, “Steve Leone, how are you doing?”
“I just enrolled and was thinking about trying out for the team.”
“You were the fastest, strongest, most balanced and explosive player when you were on the field, but off the field, you were irresponsible, reckless and a major distraction. It was all about you and never about the team,” Clyde said.
“You’re right.” Steve agreed, “I was an immature fool.”
Clyde then asked, “If you are anywhere as good as you used to be, there’s a lot better teams than this one that would take you in a heartbeat. Why here?”
“Because I want to play for you. Just give me a shot, I’m not the same person as I was. I’ll do my best not to disappoint you,” Steve promised.
“Talk to the equipment manager and he’ll get you some gear, a uniform and a number.”
Steve kept his word, he practiced harder and played harder than everyone else on the team. The Tigers had five Division II schools on their schedule and with Steve playing running back on offense and free safety on defense, West Hills College went undefeated. Steve averaged 290 yards and five touchdowns over a ten game period with ten interceptions.
Coach Tate said, “You did not disappoint, that’s for sure. Why the big change in your attitude?”
“I saw what real sacrifice is like and realized that I’d rather be a good person than a good football player,” Steve said.
“You’re both,” Coach Tate grinned, “I’ve been getting some inquiries from Division 1 schools about you. What do you want to do about that?”
“Tell them that I’m happy right where I am.”
When school got out for the summer, Steve went back to Okinawa to continue his training and see Kumiko and Sato. He spent 60 days there before returning for his second year at West Hills. Steve was even better than he was during his first season.
Steve consulted with Coach Tate, “I need your advice.”
Steve said, “I’m thinking about submitting my name for the NFL draft…what do you think?”
“Going from a Division 3 school to the pros is very unusual, but not impossible. I did some research just on the slim chance that you were thinking about this. I found that 10 players finished their career at the D3 level last year and are currently on NFL rosters. They make up 0.39% of the league.”
“Less than one per cent, I can live with those odds.”
Despite his glowing statistics and impressive showing at the scouting combines, Steve wasn’t drafted until the third round by the Las Vegas Raiders. Because of his success at West Hills, Clyde Tate was offered the head coaching job at San Diego State.
Russell Brody was studying pre-law at the University of Missouri, Kansas City and Steve asked if he would represent him during contract negotiations with the Raiders. Russell replied, “I don’t have any experience.”
“It’s a good time to learn. I’m not looking for any guarantees, Rookie contracts are four years with a cap and a ceiling. It shouldn’t be that difficult. It will get your foot in the door if you decide to be an agent.”
Russell accepted the offer and got Steve a reasonable contract consistent with other draft picks in the third round. Steve won the Rookie of the Year award and with his signing bonus, he bought a home and property in MacDonald Highlands, a gated community in Henderson, Nevada.
He had two guest houses built on the large lot, one for his grandparents Joe and Elena and another for Kumiko and Sato. A large greenhouse was also constructed so that Steve could maintain his healthy diet by growing his own organic vegetables and fruits.
After three years of being All-Pro, the Raiders offered Steve a new contract. Russell didn’t ask for a lot of guaranteed money, but one that was filled with incentives. If at the end of the year Steve was in the top three categories of yards gained, catches and touchdowns scored, his base salary would double and if he won Most Valuable Player, it would be significantly higher.
Joe Leone had a green thumb so he took care of the greenhouse and the family grew so much food, much of it was given away to the local foodbank. During the season when Steve needed to be in Las Vegas, Kumiko would visit regularly. In the off-season, Steve continued to spend months at a time in Okinawa. Steve and Kumiko’s relationship had reached a point where they considered marriage, but Kumiko had her medical practice and didn’t want to move to United States full time. They decided to wait until Steve was done with football before making any long term plans.
The Raiders had a home game on Thursday night against Denver which they won by 10 points. Steve had 121 yards rushing and 85 yards receiving in the victory. The players were given until Tuesday to be back at practice. By this time, Steve was a 6th degree black belt so when Camp Pendleton was chosen to be host of the Military Karate Championship, they invited Steve to a guest presenter. This has a lot do with his notoriety as football player, his connection to the Corps through his father and his high ranking in karate. Steve avoided publicity whenever possible, but this was one invitation he gladly accepted. Since he wasn’t playing on Sunday, the timing was perfect.
Steve left Las Vegas in the early morning hours, watched a dozen matches on Saturday and Sunday, he congratulated the winners and left Camp Pendleton at three in the afternoon. Steve was only 25 miles from home when a torrential downpour hit the area. The desert sand doesn’t soak up water quickly so heavy rains can produce flood conditions very quickly and without warning. Dry channels, ditches and lake beds will fill quickly and the water can be strong and violent — sometimes creating a wall of water 10 to 30 feet high.
Teri Walsh was a blackjack dealer at the Rio Casino and was on her way back from Encinitas with her daughter, Sophia when her Toyota was swept off the highway and into the river bed. Steve was about 40 yards behind her and saw what happened and he leaped out of his car and broke his record for the 40 yards dash. He jumped in the water and made it to the top of the car and could see the terror stricken woman and her daughter.
Up ahead he saw an area when the river made a sharp turn and slowed down dramatically. It might be just the opportunity he needed to pull them free. It was a slim chance, but there weren’t any other options. Steve used a powerful punch to break the driver’s side window and water rushed into the vehicle. Steve ordered, “Grab your daughter and hold on.”
Teri complied and Steve literally tore every ligament in his shoulder pulling them against the powerful current. The car was stuck momentarily against a boulder. “Jump!”
Teri and her daughter made it to safety, just moments before Steve and the vehicle was swept away.
For three days, an intense search of the area turned up nothing and the search and rescue was officially changed to recovery. Luckily for Steve that he had been practicing his breathing techniques because he was often required to hold his breath for several minutes at a time as the water rushed into a canyon. Steve was trapped behind a stone wall with the only opening blocked by tons of sand and debris.
The Leone family was devastated when they were notified. To lose their son and grandson in basically the same way was too cruel to comprehend for Joe and Elena. Kumiko and Sato flew in from Okinawa and they were equally heartbroken by the disastrous turn of events. Teammates and friends came by the Leone home to offer their support.
Four days passed and Steve was still digging his way out. He was badly injured, but as long as he had one breath left in his body, he would not give up. Steve began to hallucinate about his father, “C’mon son, I’m right here with you. You can do this…one inch at a time.”
On the sixth day, Steve finally saw a sliver of light.
It was almost sunset when an eighteen wheeler came rolling down the highway. The driver saw an image up ahead and wasn’t sure if it was a man or an animal. When he got closer he saw that it was human so he stopped and looked down at the individual who was covered with dirt from head to toe.
The driver asked, “What happened to you?”
Steve grimaced, “I got caught in a flood. I hate to get your truck dirty, but do you think I could get a ride? I’ll pay to have it cleaned later.”
Joe, Elena and Sato were sitting in the kitchen and Kumiko was crying in the guest house. The heard the sound of the truck’s diesel engine and the loud air horn and went out front to see what the commotion was. It took them a few seconds to comprehend what was going on. When they saw Steve struggle to exit the truck, they were overcome by joy and rushed to his side.
Steve smiled, “I’m sorry I’m late, but I had an unavoidable detour on the way.”
Steve’s injuries were numerous, but the one that ended his football career was a neck injury. Doctor Jim Hardie told Steve, “You’ve got neurapraxia, an inflammation of the cervical nerve roots. You’ll make a full recovery, but a hard hit or tackle could paralyze you.”
Russell Brody had negotiated a 50 million dollars insurance policy in the last contract with the Raiders in case Steve was injured. That turned out to be a very wise and prophetic move. Steve was a gifted runner, but his greatest highlight was the one when he ran to a legacy and found out that to be a true champion in sports or in life, the will must be greater than the skill.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, business, events and incidents are the products of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.
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