A Brush with the Infinite

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When you get to be 58, 35 years after graduating from Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, certain things that were opaque your whole life come into focus. It’s a time for distilling, crystalizing, and reducing to first principles, to the elemental building blocks of our identities. Who am I? How did I get this way? Who and what shaped my life? What inspiration do I still hold dear?

One special man answers all those question for me. A man who took over a losing Division Three rowing team that no one gave a shit about.  An imperfect man whose chewing tobacco made him puke behind the boathouse more than once, often ate junk food and drank Mountain Dew before practice in his yellow Datsun pick-up truck – dented and strewn inside rock and roll cassette tapes, newspapers, and food wrappers. A man who grew up with the greatest coach of all-time, Alabama’s Bear Bryant living in his house.  A southern boy who went to Harvard thinking that football was going to make him popular with the ladies. A man who had a chance encounter with Harry Parker, Harvard’s legendary rowing coach, that changed his life.

I am talking about Will Scoggins.

During the summer of 1985, Wesleyan crew was without a rowing coach.  The lightweight team had had some success, but the heavyweights had been losing for years.  Our teams were adrift.

Alex Fowler and I were the co-captains of the team at the time.  Along with Associate Athletic Director John Biddiscombe (he was to be Athletic Director from 1988 to 2012) I interviewed two candidates.  One had a strong record, was earnest and seemed not to want to rock the boat.  The other sported a wolf-man jack beard, slicked back hair, wearing a bright yellow suit.  He was clearly insane.  And he wanted to rock the boat.  Big time.  He had deep blue eyes that were so intense, it felt like he was looking right through you.

In the interview, Will talked about how to build fast boats. How to win boat races. Not just the physical aspects of successful crews, but the mental and even spiritual aspects of the sport.  To be honest, I wasn’t sure what to even think of him.  I am not sure Alex did, either.  But we both agreed we wanted to go fast and win.  And a conservative approach would never work given how much we sucked.  We needed a gunslinger, a maverick.  Will was our man.  Biddiscombe, to his great credit, left the decision to us.

On Labor Day 1985, the returning members of the men’s crew team sat on the stairs of the Fayerweather Gymnasium.  Will stood on the field and introduced himself. The team had no idea what hit them.  Beard, tobacco chew, John-Lennon sunglasses, talk about standards of behavior, about trusting in the integrity of your boat mates.  It might as well have been Latin.  But in time we as a team learned.  This was going to be a matter of faith.  There would be months and months of grueling effort fueled by faith, before there were ever any results.

Will preached using diverse sources of inspiration, including the Larry Bird Celtics, Zen Buddhism, The Rolling Stones (we played “Sympathy for the Devil” at maximum levels in Nicholson Lounge during winter workouts). He recalled the Spartan mothers and wives who were reported to have said to their warriors, “Come back with your shield—or on it.”  Before every race, he would look into each of our eyes just before we climbed into the boat with a single question:  “You ready to die, MoFo?”

Our theme song was Bowie’s “Changes,” a song about transformational change in the soul – change our very being as humans, how we thought of ourselves, how we treated each other.  How we passed through the world.  Challenges, obstacles – things going completely wrong –were to be viewed as opportunities: Opportunities to come into our fully realized selves, to face our demons and kick their asses, to take a walk on the wild side.

In the next two years we never lost a dual race. We won the New England’s, and we finished second in the country.  In those days, each race involved betting the shirts on your back, spoils to the victors.  We all ended up with a huge pile of shirts.

Our success was great at the time.  But in looking back, success on the water was never the true point of what Will was trying to teach us.

The point was the look in one another’s eyes deep into ninety minutes of excruciating pain in a dirty dormitory lounge with homemade cement bar bells over our heads, doing lunge jumps, the Stones blaring, puddles of sweat at our feet — when every single fiber of our physical bodies wanted to give up, to stop, to lay down.  It was those moments that Will cherished most.  The moment of maximum teachability.  He might get in your face, he might cajole, or he might just stay silent and let us discover what was on the other side.  In that caldron, we each found our way to one another.  We would often pair up, staring deep into a teammate’s eyes.  Seeing his pain.  And knowing that together we were building something of value.  Together we would never back down.  Together we could move mountains.

Will taught us how to live life with integrity.  To prepare for battle.  To never have regrets.  To trust and be trustworthy.  To be poised. To approach life as if we were about to die, making the most of each remaining moment.  To believe. To burn completely until there is nothing left — not a trace. To seek out pressure for a heightened state of awareness, and opportunity to practice relaxation.  To win not for winning’s sake, but as a spiritual experience. To look directly at the cliff’s edge of our perceived limitations and have the courage to jump off.  In all things to feel joy and a very different, deeper, kind of fun than any of us had ever experienced before.  And to love unconditionally.  He loved us fiercely.  And he taught us to love each other the same way.

Will would frequently ask us about the back alley.  “Who you gonna take down the back alley, boys?  If it ain’t the guy next to you, we got a huge fuckin’ problem,” he’d say like a possessed pastor at a born-again mega-church.

He told us about the crew that won the gold medal in the Olympics, pulled up to the dock and beat the living shit out of each other.  They did not like each other, but they loved each other.  If they hadn’t, they never would have won.



Will is the most important mentor I have ever had in my life.  If you ask any member of our team, I’m sure they will tell you exactly the same thing.

For many years, I thought what Will had taught us gave me superpowers in business.  And it was true.  At moments of maximum intensity during business deals, I would remember those winter sessions in Nicholson lounge with my teammates.  Or I would think of the deep calm that would come over me at the starting line of each race, knowing that those winter sessions had prepared us for anything.  That we would row as one.  We would walk through the wall of pain ahead together taking on all comers.

Whatever deal heat was in the room was nothing.  I was at perfect peace while everyone else was emotionally melting down.

At thirty-one I was the CFO of a large media company. In September 1996, I was hiding in a tiny, darkened office just off Park Avenue about to pull the trigger on the biggest transaction of my life.

We had taken the company public in June of 1996 for the stated goal of growing. But within 90 days, we had the opportunity to sell the company at twice our IPO price. I had hashed out the framework for this sale in an Atlanta hotel room, under strict secrecy with my counterpart from the Dallas company.  We were a newspaper company in an industry destined for the trash heap.  It was the right thing to do.  In the fullness of time has proven to be a remarkably lucky opportunity to monetize an asset at the last possible moment before the curtain came down. But we were also a 176-year-old company woven into the fabric of the city-state where it was located.  It was a public trust which I was about to destroy by selling to a bunch of cowboys from Texas.

It was the most stressful moment in my entire business career.

I picked up the phone and dialed Will. He never picks up. This time he did. He laughed his ass off at me, repeated a few of the central tenets of our faith and hung up. That was all I needed.




Over time, though, I realized that using what Will taught us to rough up opposing players in the business world was a bastardization of his intent. He was training our souls, and my transactional life was skin deep.

I began to better understand that when my first wife kicked me out for being a drunk. We had two baby children that she made clear I would never see again unless I earned that right by getting sober. I knew that Will did not drink and had some vague understanding that he was involved in a recovery process.

On December 28, 1996, three months after getting kicked out of the house and after not seeing my kids on Christmas, I finally found the courage to get sober. THIS was what Will had been talking about.  And he was right at my side, loving me unconditionally.

I have not had a drink since.

Will taught me how to handle the instantaneous death of my beloved sister-in-law. Being the first one on the scene. Holding my brother. And helping him call my nephews to tell them their mom was gone.   How to handle the 90-seconds I got in a West Point auditorium before I gave my son over to the Army.  How to handle a dear friend in the ICU an inch from death who went to Betty Ford to get sober and came home and relapsed. How to handle a son far more successful at rowing than I had ever been without putting any pressure on him whatsoever.

But one moment stands out–the moment that I needed what Will taught me the most. It occurred five years ago.

My life had come apart at the seams. I realized in a flash that I had built a house of cards; and I couldn’t face it.  I tried hard to fight off the anxiety and panic attacks, but they kept getting worse until I became highly suicidal. I was hospitalized once and was no better when I came out.  After that I checked into McLean Hospital in Belmont, MA, and spent over a month there receiving ECT treatments.

Will was in my heart in that dark hole.  “A length up or a length down, we row the same stroke.  We have faith. We give everything. And we know we will receive everything in return.”

Two weeks into my stay at McLean something shifted. I realized Will was right all along. By not killing myself, by asking for help, by completely letting go of my former self, I had given it all, the hell with the consequences.  And in return, I received something so magical that it took me years to even understand what it was.

I initially resented the nurses who safety checked me (to make sure I hadn’t killed myself) every 15 minutes, 24/7. Their visits made it impossible to sleep.  After about two weeks in McLean, it suddenly occurred to me that these nurses were keeping me alive. They were taking care of me. They were angels in my life.  From that moment on, I was greatly reassured when they came in.  It felt like God was pulling up my covers. And I stopped wanting to kill myself.

There was a long period of reconstruction ahead. I was no longer suicidal when I got out of McLean, but I was still highly medicated and a complete train wreck. I was showered in unconditional love and held by the men in recovery. Will’s men.

And things got better. Before McLean, I had been full of self-pity, terror, and morbid reflection. When I left, I gradually began to feel true joy for perhaps the first time in my life: Joy, deep down in my soul.  This wasn’t doing a billion-dollar deal fleeting joy.  This was joy for being on this planet.  And love, deep and unflinching love for my wife, my kids, and my friends. Before I always felt hollow inside.  I was running on ego, which it turns out is a losing strategy devoid of the love which Will taught us was to the key to unlock our potential as human.

When I completed the structured self-examination of recovery, I finally realized my calling in life.  To stay sober and help other men get sober too.  Each one who succeeds, realizes slowly, and then all of a sudden, that he has a bright future. He can be happy where before all he knew was horrific pain.  Witnessing that moment in another man is the best feeling I have ever experienced in my entire life.  It never gets old.

Sometimes, I imagine this feeling must have been what Will felt when he watched us race Coast Guard.  We had never beaten them in the history of our program. 17 years running. We hit a thousand meters (halfway point) a length down.  We went on to win by open water.  I am sure Will was thrilled with the victory, but what he really cared about was the demonstration of faith under maximum pressure, in each other and ourselves.



During these past 35 years I have been the clearing house for updates on Will to the rest of the team.  He and I have maintained a close relationship.  Will has not had an easy time of it.  He’s had his own demons to slay, and they sometimes got the better of him. Sometimes didn’t know what to do to be helpful.  I worried about him, but I was not always strong enough to show up for him in ways that in retrospect I wish I had.

Eighteen months ago, my teammate and close friend John Gannon and I were talking about Will. Many years ago, the team had donated a boat to Wesleyan in Will’s honor. Gannon was thinking bigger.

His idea was to establish a foundation large enough to buy a shell in Will’s honor in perpetuity.  We brought Peter Sallick into the loop, who had been captain of the team our final year together.  The idea gained steam.  John got Paul DiSanto (who had been Will’s roommate), and Karen Whalen from the development office involved. They spoke to Phil Carney, who has been doing an amazing job as the Wesleyan Men’s crew coach ever since Will left.

The first step was to organize a Zoom call with all our teammates to catch up and to raise the question about a possible foundation for Will (which would require big money).  I regret that we did not have the foresight to tape that first call. We had no idea that every single member of our team would show up.  And that every single member, no matter what boat they rowed in, carried the same experience that John, Peter and I had.

Will had been their guiding light throughout their lives too, through massive achievements and incredibly challenging circumstances alike.  The love amongst us was just as strong as it was 35 years ago. And in many ways, it was a relief to be back together, to be with people who viewed the world in the same way.  The way Will views it.  Living with no regrets, coming back on top of our shields not with them, and always believing that if we gave everything, we would receive everything.  Living with fierce love and faith in our hearts.  With faith.

Within months we had raised enough money to be confident that we would reach our goal. We were ready to tell Will about our plan. The idea was to have a Zoom call.

You could tell how much Will enjoyed seeing everyone. To this day, when you talk to him about our team, he uses the present tense. It’s as if for him, we are still on the Connecticut River.  He was overwhelmed when we told him about the perpetual endowment for a boat in his name.  But he understood and felt the intense love behind what we were doing. You could see that in his eyes.

As October 8, 2022, the date for the planned dedication ceremony approached, I got very nervous.  I wanted Will to feel comfortable, and for him to be able to accept the outpouring of love from my teammates whom his words and love and faith had helped and carried for 35 years.

A group of us met for steamed Cheeseburgers at Farrell’s across the Connecticut River in Portland before the official ceremony for steamed cheeseburgers (an establishment we had frequented when rowing).  My teammates started to wander in with huge grins on their faces.  Hugs all around. Just pure joy.  Then Will came in. You could see how excited he was to see everyone.  We sat down and ate and told stories.  At one point, Christopher Swain (who had been a freshman rower and has gone on to be an epic marathon swimmer and coach himself) looked into Will’s eyes and told him how much he loved him.  It was like Will had cloned himself into the next generation. Neither man looked away. They understood each other perfectly.

At the boathouse we all inspected the slick new boat.  The rest of our team arrived.  Phil and the current team arrived in coat and tie.  You could tell how excited the current team was to meet the legend himself.  Phil gave a speech, I made a short speech, and then it was Will’s opportunity to give one last boathouse talk.  He talked about love, brotherhood, faith, and the meaning of what we had achieved together, not just on the water but in our souls.  The current team was transfixed.  It was a religious experience for them.  And for us too.

Finally, Will took a bottle of champagne (to pour on the boat, not to drink) and passed it around the crowd packed inside the boathouse. Man to man and woman to woman.  The point was clear.  This wasn’t just about him.  It was about all of us.

“You did come!” Will said with palpable emotion when he saw John Biddiscombe in the crowd, long since retired but still “the best athletic administrator I ever worked for,” according to Will.  And the guy who let me and Alex hire Will to begin with.

We christened the boat, with Pete, John and many members of our team and the current captains getting a chance to pour champagne on the Will Scoggins. There were a few more toasts.  The current team tried to suck as much out of Will and our team as they could. We had a huge Italian dinner.  And then it was over.

On the way home I was absolutely beaming: All lit up. There are so few opportunities in life to come full circle, to do something with such pure intent, to acknowledge not just the importance of those two years, but of how those years shaped everything that came after.  For all of us.  Will made that possible.

I don’t regret anything that has happened in my life. But I never would have gotten to where I am now if I hadn’t gone to Wesleyan and met Will Scoggins.

The new Will Scoggins crew shell will be raced for the first time this spring, under Phil’s watchful eye.  And forever more the Wesleyan crew will race in a Will Scoggins, from this spring into eternity.




Six months later Will came to Dedham to go to a Bruins game with me, Elena, and Cole and stay overnight with us.  On the way home from the game, we drove along the Charles River, where Will last rowed for Harvard 53 years ago and Cole rows every day.

Will talked about his first coaching job at Brown, where Cole will be rowing next fall. Then Will asked Cole about the catch, when the blade enters the water, with the new technology used in oars these days.  Cole described how they use the very first portion of the stroke to set the blade because it has flex, like modern hockey sticks, giving it a whip-like action.  Will asked about the finish of the stroke.   Cole described at his club where they are taught that the oar handle should come into and away from the body at the same speed, and the national team where he is taught a microscopic pause once the blade is out of the water.

Will asked about rowing with their feet out of the shoes. Cole said they warm up with their feet out all eight, blades square.  “That is good rowing,” Will said almost to himself.  And then Will, my mentor, told my son, “Cole I’ve seen videos of you.  You would make a pretty good stroke man.”




Tom Matlack writes daily at https://www.linkedin.com/in/thomasmatlack/ please follow or connect with him there about this article or get future work.

Tom has organized a Men’s Sunday Speaker Series every Sunday night @ 8 pm EST.  You can join the private FB group associated with that meeting here: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1361992037943173

Or simple join any Sunday Night here:  https://us02web.zoom.us/j/9687597534?pwd=WWdIWXpGTXJYcnhvVGJMV2JjSjZJdz09

The format is 30-minute speaker then 30-minute audience response.  Always just one hour.  The Men’s Sunday Night Speaker Series was formed to bring in inspirational speakers and allow men to connect in a supportive, non-threatening space.  Guys, bring your friends!!!

Finally, Tom puts out a daily inspirational text message.  If you would like to be included on that (coed) you can text him at 617-513-2734



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