As he sat in front of Chandler High administrators in 1974, John Carlson remembers telling them during the interview process that the most important thing he wanted was to have a positive impact on everyone he coached.
They were a bit surprised by the response.
“They said everyone else mentioned winning championships first,” Carlson, 70, recalled. “I said, ‘Oh, we will win championships but I want to put an emphasis on building relationships.’”
About 43 years later, many of those relationships were very evident Monday.
A “Fiesta” benefit was held in Carlson’s name at Nello’s Pizza on Alma School Road in Mesa after Carlson revealed he had been battling cancer that was so severe that he had his left leg removed at the hip joint on May 11.
The foundation he set up as the Chandler wrestling coach and many years as an ambassador of high school sports, Carlson had a chance to see what all those relationships meant. Those he coached, befriended, competed against and had a hand in keeping focused, in school instead of quitting and helped guide the Wolves to back-to-back state championships in 1989 and 1990 showed up to help him out.
The greeting line never let up for four hours as everyone patiently waited to see the man who clearly made that impact he spoke of back in 1974.
That’s what happens when you ask for help from two very tight-knit groups – Chandler High School and the Arizona wrestling community – and someone is in need.
So, the 1965 Mesa High graduate sat in his wheelchair, much like he’d done for four decades at wrestling meets, Chandler High football games and track meet for all these years, on Monday meeting everyone he came across with a smile, handshake and a story to share.
Members of the Arizona Interscholastic Association staff showed up in support, while the Chandler Fire Department and Chandler VFW made donations.
“John has been there for some people in so many ways over the years,” former Marcos de Niza coach Jim Weed said. “There’s no way everyone could pay him back for all he did, but this is something we can help with and this turnout just shows you what kind of an impact John had on the people around him.”
The parking lot at Nello’s, which graciously opened its doors on a day it is normally closed to volunteer their time and provide the food, was overflowing, the alcoholic beverages were tossed back and stories were told about Mr. Chandler.
“It’s overwhelming to see these people here to support me,” Carlson said. “You don’t always realize the impression you made on someone until years later when they tell you. I can’t believe how fast word spread and everyone is willing to help. I am forever grateful.”
As are the people that Carlson has touched over the years.
It was clear once Rosales spearheaded the idea of raising money for the Carlsons, who need to purchase a van equipped with a wheelchair loader because he doesn’t plan on slowing down, how many people wanted to help.
“I had to get John on board,” Rosales said. “He didn’t want to ask for help, but he gave it a thumbs up. People came out of the wood work and everyone wanted to know how they could pitch in.”
Carlson kept his battle quiet for as long as he could but once his trademark Hawaiian shirts weren’t visible at the state wrestling and track meets too many people notice.
There was a void; a chasm that couldn’t be crossed without his presence.
It’s why everyone showed up to honor the man this week. They wanted to give him the words of encouragement he shared with so many and the positive approach to coaching he brought to the kids.
His coaching mantra “I Can” could be seen on T-shirts or heard all throughout the benefit.
Former wrestlers and coaches all recalled the clipboard he carried to the matside. When a wrestler was in a tough situation and the possibility of doubt would settle in, Carlson would flash his clipboard with those two words printed on it.
It is so simple and yet powerful at the same time.
Now, Carlson faces a similar situation in life where those two commanding words can be applied.
His world has changed; his leg removed after they found a tumor that stretched from his hamstring to his ankle. His ability to get up and go to a sporting event has now become a project that requires thought and planning.
“I guess I will be going with him to everything now,” his wife of 43 years, Carol, said. “He says I can sit with the coaches’ wives or in the press box. It’s what he loves to do and he doesn’t plan on slowing down.”
Carlson struggled mentally after the surgery. Carol wouldn’t describe it as depression, but said it was the lowest she had ever seen him as he came to grips with the amputation.
Then at some point Carlson started to acknowledge this was his new reality. Unless he wanted to stay in the house and feel sorry for himself, he had to embrace the wheelchair and his new way of life.
“It’s been hard, but at some point, I started to come to grips with it,” he said. “The leg is not coming back, but I am still here. All of these people have inspired me. I know I can do this.”
There are those two words again.
Only this time the proverbial clipboard is facing inward.
“It’s a new challenge; one I never thought I’d be facing,” he said. “It’s here and it is the next chapter.”
– Jason P. Skoda is a senior writer at MyNewsMesa.com. Send story ideas, human interest stories to firstname.lastname@example.org.
EDITOR’S NOTE: There is a John Carlson Donation Account, 459227794, set up at Chase Bank and donations can be made at any Chase branch location.