It’s one of the most iconic underdog moments in movie history: In the final scene of “Rocky,” reigning champ Apollo Creed knocks down Rocky Balboa in a brutally exhausting fight. Our hero? He’s done for. But, spoiler alert, Rocky reaches deep, somehow summoning the will to get up off that canvas to finish the bout.
Sure, Rocky ultimately loses the fight in a decision. But retired Master Sgt. Cedric King wants you to know that when you’re down, and you make the choice to get back up again, that’s when you become a true champion.
“We might not all have a lot of money, and we might not be the smartest or the fastest or the strongest or the biggest or the wisest, but everybody in here can get back up again.”
—Master Sgt. Cedric King
King shared his message of resilience during the 2023 NCSL Legislative Summit session “The Courage to Come Back” in Indianapolis. On July 25, 2012, he stepped on an IED during his second tour in Afghanistan and lost both legs and suffered permanent damage to his right arm and hand. But he learned to find peace in the storm and now refers to that moment as his finest hour. Among other feats, King went on to finish the Boston Marathon five times, the New York City Marathon twice, and a 70.3-mile half Ironman Triathlon. He published his book, “The Making Point,” in 2019.
King knows, perhaps better than most, that life will continually throw you curveballs that knock you to the ground. But we can all get back up again, he says.
“When you get back on your feet again … not because you are so strong or wise, but because you would not quit, the opposition throws his hands in the air and says, ‘Enough with this person. I’ll go find somebody else to fight,’” he says. “It’s not just me. It’s not just Rocky. It is you who will not quit on your dreams or your family. It is you who will not quit when times get tough.”
King says learning to fight—without throwing a punch—is essential for times in life when you want to give up.
“When I lost these legs, I thought that I was getting beat every day,” he says. “I thought, why did this have to happen to me? … And this is what you may feel like from time to time. It feels like going to war. A battle—not against another person, but against yourself.”
But when you get knocked down in life, King says, is when you are at your most powerful and gain the upper hand.
“We can all get back up again,” he says. “We might not all have a lot of money, and we might not be the smartest or the fastest or the strongest or the biggest or the wisest, but everybody in here can get back up again.”
When King was recovering at Walter Reed Hospital, he says he was ready to quit, thinking, if things were this difficult now, how tough would they get down the road? But one pivotal night, when he was feeling especially down and out, he began rummaging through a care package sent to the hospital. In it, he found a frisbee, a chia pet, a comb. Random stuff. But then he saw a brand-new pencil and a notepad. Perfect. He would write down all his feelings, express his anger—get it all out on paper.
But there was no pencil sharpener.
Then, a revelation struck: “I am the pencil,” he kept hearing a voice say. The analogy: A shiny new pencil may look perfect and unblemished on the outside, but that’s only when it’s unused. For the pencil to be of service, you must put it through a sharpener—where it’s cut and turned again and again until it’s ready for its intended purpose.
And, he says, that’s a gift, not a punishment.
“When I sat in the hospital for three years, I had a lot of days (feeling like that pencil in a sharpener),” he says. “Shoot, I still have days like this. But because I know I am being prepared on the tough days as well as the good days, I now appreciate the struggle.
“The strong man is not always he who never quits. Sometimes the strong man is he who quits and comes back for more again and again.”
Lesley Kennedy is the director of publications and digital content at NCSL.
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