Inside the Making of “The Man Behind the Mask”

(New book available here, as seen on American Ninja Warrior, with a portion of proceeds benefiting Barbara Sinatra Children’s Center in its fight against child abuse.)

When the July 18 episode of American Ninja Warrior featured The Man Behind the Mask – a book I crafted in collaboration with Flip Rodriguez and Noah Kaufman – I felt like I’d “beat that wall” and hit the buzzer. Pardon my slip into Ninja-speak here. It’s what I had to do to land the book gig in the first place.

Skeptical of a reality-TV sport, I initially resisted an introduction to these Ninjas. I soon knew they spoke my language, and I soon started speaking theirs. Therein lies the first of several lessons I learned en route to the making of The Man Behind the Mask, shared here to help other entrepreneurs, especially in the creative fields.

That first lesson: Listen.

Listen
Amy Manson, a colleague when I led marketing communications at Positive Coaching Alliance, asked me to explore partnership with a group called Wolfpack Ninjas. She offered to connect me with the group’s leader, Noah Kaufman, the physician who starred on American Ninja Warrior as “The Ninjadoc.”

Accustomed to partnership with Hall of Fame athletes, coaches and teams from the major pro sports leagues, hearing a name that sounded more like a WWE character stopped me cold. As the saying goes, “Nevertheless, she persisted.”

I relented when Amy explained that the Wolfpack Ninjas were “making the world healthier one kid at a time,” and Noah practically had me at hello. Within minutes we found that we hailed from neighboring suburbs outside of Chicago and that his group and ours both focused on youth-friendly principles of sports and educational psychology.

Noah said he could demonstrate this via video he would send me. Most such promises from other partnership prospects over the years were never kept. But when Noah’s video arrived the next day, I was glad I listened to Amy and glad I listened to Noah.

His well-produced minute-long cellphone video featured him speaking in voice-over shots of his son repeatedly failing to scale a Warped Wall until he finally succeeded. Noah’s video nailed our PCA principles. When I asked how he’d done such a good job so quickly, Noah said, without irony, “I’m a Ninja.”

Throughout that partnership, we discovered similar values and skill sets, often finding the other answering emails at 2 a.m. While co-promoting and attending Wolfpack Ninjas events, I connected with many of Noah’s team of about 30 Ninjas. But that phase of our work abruptly ended when PCA laid me off in August 2017, leading to the next lesson in the making of The Man Behind the Mask.

Say Yes
Phoning Noah to explain my departure, he thanked me and said, “This layoff must be sad for you, so I don’t want to seem overly opportunistic, but would you consider contracting with us?” I answered, “Thanks. It is sad for me, and I also don’t want to seem overly opportunistic, but honestly, that’s part of why I’m calling. So, yes.”

Over the next two-plus years, our group worked hard, traveled together, stayed up late, and sweated out mission-critical assignments, quite literally, in the case of a playground build with KABOOM! on a 95-degree day in San Antonio. We forged the sort of bonds that uniquely arise from those circumstances.

The rewards of friendship, achievement, and adopting the mindset of these world-class athletes made me happy I’d said, “Yes,” especially because our San Antonio team included Flip Rodriguez, who is The Man Behind the Mask. One other reward was learning more lessons.

Sometimes Work for Free
The pandemic halted our live events. Noah’s financial backers ended our contract. With their blessing I contacted the Ninjas individually and landed a couple sweat-equity-only gigs.

Though I never saw cent one, I enjoyed the work and continued growing, which reinforced the lesson to “Say Yes.” I have no doubt that is why Noah contacted me late in 2021 with an offer of paid work on The Man Behind the Mask, a process that taught me one more lesson.

Play to Your Strengths, and Help Your Collaborators Do the Same
Noah Kaufman knows business. He runs it for our collaboration. Flip and I stay out of the way.

Another of Noah’s strengths is that he knew Flip well enough to help him open up in the eight hours of conversation they recorded for the core of the book. Flip’s story is so agonizing that he sometimes had to stop talking, and Noah, The Ninjadoc, masterfully supported and encouraged Flip as he would any trauma patient in the ER.

Flip’s strength is his honesty and courage. It’s not fearlessness. It’s his ability to overcome fear. That he endured his trauma is evidence. That he purposefully re-lived his trauma in the telling of his story shows the strength of his conviction to “get comfortable being uncomfortable” and the depth of his commitment.

Me, I know words. I edited theirs into a coherent narrative, wrote the book’s afterword, and this marketing copy for our Amazon page: “Read the real and raw story of Flip Rodriguez, the ‘Man Behind the Mask.’ In this inspirational story, the American Ninja Warrior star explains how he overcame years of sexual abuse during his childhood and lifted himself from the depths of despair to unimaginable heights.”

Sweetness

Walter “Sweetness” Payton (pictured on my shirt) famously ran hills in the heat, first on a sandbank of the Pearl River outside his hometown of Columbia, MS and later on the landfill in Arlington Heights, IL now known as “Payton’s Hill.” As part of the sports and fitness fantasies sustaining me for nearly 58 years, I draw inspiration from trying to replicate my heroes’ feats, albeit with age-and-ability-appropriate modifications.

So, on the hottest day of the year, I wear Walter to the local landfill at Seal Point Park to run my own version of his workout. Sweetness called his hill “The Widow-Maker.” I call mine “Motherfucker.”

On the dirt trails up from the parking lot and/or the stairs cut into the bay side of the hill, the workout is sprint up (about 30 seconds) walk down (about 90 seconds) x 10. On a good day, allowing for a few extra steps at the end of each lap, I finish that HIIT (high-intensity interval training) workout in 23 minutes.

Spotify plays my Run list from the phone in my pocket. Other distractions from the pain include pelicans gliding low above the bay, the rare hare bounding along the trails, and even a snake slithering across my path.

Then there is the human wildlife, the regulars who inhabit the hill, all given secret nicknames for their attire, their physique, or their other bodily adornments. On any given day there’s Beanie, Lefty, Sideboob, Osama, Chihuahua, and Ab-Tats.

To keep myself going on those 10 laps, self-talk:

1. “Get one done.”
2. “That’s two for you.”
3. “Feeling it now.”
4. “Starting to sweat.”
5. “Halfway.”
6. “More than halfway.”
7. “Just three more.”
8. “There’s that one-mile buzz on my smartwatch.”
9. “I can’t breathe.”
10. “Come on, Motherfucker.”

In that last one, I address both the hill and myself as opponents. Throughout my “athletic” career, that 12-letter word has always issued challenge. It’s the gauntlet thrown by pick-up basketball foes and anyone ready to fight or at least find out if you’re ready to fight.

Like Sweetness, every day that I run hills in the heat, yes, I am ready to fight, at least against myself.

D.C.’s Hot Days and Nights

After dark on May 2, D.C. wasn’t overly hot, walking from my de facto headquarters at The Hamilton back to Hotel Harrington. The night held just a hint of humidity, a soft blanket that subtly alluded to the city’s notorious sweat soakings.

Nothing even happening at Harry’s, the often-rowdy dive bar in the Harrington, which is a dive hotel like the one where Robert Blake and Tom Ewell lived in the old Baretta TV series. But it’s worth staying there for the old-school “charm” at half the price of anywhere else such a short walk from the White House and even more importantly The Hamilton.

But up in my room, where the blackout drapes almost met closely enough to keep the light out, CNN let me know we’d feel heat the next day. The news broke about the Supreme Court’s draft opinion re: Roe v. Wade.

Sleep with CNN spicing my dreams segued into waking surrealism. The candidate’s team communications platform overflowed with internal messages, mostly of the wailing-and-gnashing-of-teeth variety. I would have to directly phone the candidate back in Houston to sort this out.

And it would have to happen while walking to the day’s destinations, familiar haunts from my past D.C. visits. I refused to forego the pilgrimages I’d planned on top of a two-day out-and-back from San Francisco to D.C. built around representing my client, Fit Kids, at the Aspen Institute’s Project Play Summit.

The call came at 10 a.m. from the candidate — Cameron “Coach Cam” Campbell, known for the #GridironGrit he brings from his football coaching career to his campaign to “go to state” as the representative for Texas House District 132. Yes, in Texas, it takes nothing less than #GridironGrit grit for a Black man to turn a red seat blue.

Between Coach Cam’s infant and toddler in his office and the street shouts and sirens that started to wane when I walked the gentrified U Street Corridor, we somehow managed to mostly understand each other. I would duck into Busboys and Poets, the progressive bookstore/cafe, for inspiration…

…and I would take my findings — which this time included The Trayvon Generation by Elizabeth Alexander and Create Dangerously: The Power and Responsibility of the Artist by Albert Camus — to a proper office to compose a statement on SCOTUS for Coach Cam’s consideration.

In my booth at Ben’s, fueled by the vibe and an Original Chili Half Smoke, I wrote: The Supreme Court opinion that came out yesterday demonstrates the vast overreach and ruthless power grab of the political right, reaching right down into the most intimate and personal aspects of women’s lives. The right, embodied by the Republican Party, does this against the will of the people they are sworn to represent. It is up to us as individuals — politicians and constituents alike, starting at the local level — to use our voice and our vote to protect our legal rights. The Supreme Court stands poised to trigger the worst of what Texas Republicans already have decided. Our best defense against the violation of our civil rights and human rights is to remove Republicans from power, and I intend do so in HD 132.

With Coach Cam more or less signed off on that, a long, hot walk had me hit the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian an hour before closing. On the way there, and then to happy hour at Off the Record in the famous Hay-Adams Hotel, glimpses of the Washington Monument, the U.S. Capitol, and the White House had me feeling some type of way.

The sight of the buildings themselves are so iconic, so burned into my brain as a patriot-in-training from earliest memory, that they raise a reverence. But knowing what their residents and honorees perpetrated is just as breath-taking.

Sitting in Off the Record — elbow-to-elbow crowd clamor drowning out CNN’s continuing coverage of the not-yet-24-hour-old SCOTUS news — I wondered who around me shaped policy in which ways. In those surroundings, politics feel real.

It was nothing a stop at headquarters couldn’t cure. So I walked back out into higher heat and humidity than the night before.

Coronavirus Diary: Opening Day

It’s been decades since baseball was America’s national pastime, but the sport still speaks volumes about America. The state of our nation was on display Thursday night at Nationals Park, which was almost entirely empty due to the Coronavirus crisis.

Even with no fans in attendance to boo him as they did at the 2019 World Series, Trump did not throw out the ceremonial first pitch and likely will leave office as one of the few U.S. presidents in the past 100-plus years never to participate in that tradition. Similar to Trump’s abandoning the fight against the Coronavirus crisis, leaving Dr. Anthony Fauci as the trusted public face in that battle, Fauci supplanted Trump on the pitcher’s mound.

Unfortunately, Fauci’s toss displayed all the quality of Trump’s approach to the virus.

The rest of the evening wasn’t much better. The awful rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at Nationals Park had some fans longing for the Roseanne Barr version. The fake crowd noise and cardboard cutouts representing fans in the stands at Dodgers Stadium for the evening’s second game reminded the nation that next to nothing was normal.

Still, there was hope. For just a few minutes in the seventh inning the game itself took over. Watching Mookie Betts’ breathtaking baserunning reminded us of baseball’s beauty. Lost in the drama and athleticism as Betts slid headfirst into home plate for the go-ahead run, we remembered how to forget.

Next in series: Coronavirus Diary: NBA Restart

Series starts at Coronavirus Diary: Introduction

Coronavirus Diary: Re-Opening

It’s been more than two weeks since my last diary entry. The main reason is that news, thinking, talking, and writing about protests stemming from the murder of George Floyd have consumed my days and nights. I’ve also focused on selling copies of Az Der Papa and worked extensively with students from my “On Point” class at The Writing Salon.

I could not have imagined anything usurping my mindshare from the Coronavirus crisis, but because of who I am, where I’ve lived, and how my friends are, the anti-racism concerns take precedence. I won’t comment further here on anti-racism to keep this diary as purely as possible about Coronavirus.

As to that, signs (or lack thereof) indicate that much is re-opening. Most importantly, the stairs at my running hill shed their police tape and detour signs about a week ago. It has been a blessing to return to running, now mixed in with cycling as much as 20 miles at a time, to keep me as physically and mentally healthy as possible.

Some live televised sports have resumed, notably boxing, golf, and European soccer. More restaurants, shopping, and other services are now available. We have even seen a few friends in recent days as well as light at the end of the tunnel…at least for now.

Next post in series: Coronavirus Diary: Funeral

Series starts at Coronavirus Diary: Introduction

Coronavirus Diary: Busy Week

When the Coronavirus crisis closed classrooms, it seemed my work for Citizen Schools would end abruptly. But the organization asked all of us volunteer Citizen Teachers to create a three-minute video about our career paths and another, shorter video wishing students well and sharing some brief guidance.

To my surprise, Citizen Schools featured my videos in their national e-newsletter!

As the above video mentions, this week also marked the introduction of my new novella, Az Der Papa. Here is the second video from the Citizen Schools newsletter.

This week, I also led a three-hour online Writing Salon course for a group of design professionals, plus my new online writing program for Citizen Schools. It’s a thrill to re-connect with students and colleagues, but “distance learning” feels so distant from what we experienced when I introduced this class in February with words that seem even truer today:

Speaking of Donald Trump

Have you heard the new word
From absurd orange bird?

The cock of the walk
Who can squawk
But can’t talk

Who frowns
On the brown
Holds them down
What a clown

Whose wall-building bombast
Blasts outcasts
He thinks he outclasses
But can’t outlast

Vile defiler,
The liar, denier
Of climate fire
Heats our air
Doesn’t care
It’s not fair

We can’t bear
But we swear
We will tear
Your orange hair
If you dare to declare
You are heir to the rare

You are square
So prepare
And beware our despair
When it’s time to compare
We’re the real billionaires

Next in series: Coronavirus Diary: The Last Dance

Series begins at Coronavirus Diary: Introduction.

Coronavirus Diary: Korean Baseball

The desperate search for live sports on TV reached a new level today as the Korean Baseball Organization debuted on ESPN2. A Zoom call kept me from the first 15 minutes of coverage, and I did not DVR the game, because the quest is for live sports. So, maybe I missed something, but after an inning with none of the KBO’s vaunted bat flips or cheerleaders and the stands as empty as a Marlins game, there was just no buzz.

In terms of finding any compelling sports programming in recent weeks, the NFL Draft was not bad. At least the event itself was newsworthy, and we were spared the spectacle of draftees boating across the fountains of the Bellagio, per pre-Coronavirus crisis plans. This Thursday’s three-hour Schedule Release ’20 on the NFL Network? No, thanks.

Just about the only game in town now for quality sports TV is The Last Dance.

Next post in series: Coronavirus Diary: Signs of Life

Series begins at Coronavirus Diary: Introduction

Coronavirus Diary: Streaming Consciousness Bay Path Bike Ride

Press play on Spotify.
Start Strava.

Push off the asphalt.
Pedal true north.

Slalom through Covid warning signs.
“Social distance,
Breathe at your own peril,
Etc.”

Skirt the shore fishermen,
Chattering Tagalog through their masks.
Warm up into the wind,
Face frozen,
But heart warming.

When the breeze allows, go fast.
When it doesn’t, go hard.

Weave through the oblivious.
Kids know no risk
Because the world revolves around them,
And parents blessed with precious child time still screen-stare,
At the center of their universe.

A family frolics on the beach,
Where windsurfers used to launch.
The golf course is closed.

The tide is out.
The stench blows in.

The sky howls.
Cold eyes drip hot tears.

Next post in series: Coronavirus Diary: Korean Baseball

Series begins at Coronavirus Diary: Introduction

Coronavirus Diary: Fit Kids

Inkflow client Fit Kids released its new series of Home Workouts via the e-blast below. School closures during the Coronavirus crisis limit even further the scant fitness resources in the disadvantaged communities where Fit Kids operates.

Each workout uses bodyweight only, providing a fitness solution for underserved youth who live in crowded housing conditions. The pursuit of fitness — with its physical, mental, and social-emotional benefits — is critical to people living in the most vulnerable communities, where COVID-19 has disproportionate impact.

Next post in series: Coronavirus Diary: Streaming Consciousness Bay Path Bike Ride

Series begins at Coronavirus Diary: Introduction