STEVE FLAIRTY: Former UK Track Star Josh Nadzam Beats Poverty, Plans on Life of Service
By Steve Flairty
(Editor's Note: This article, which recently appeared in KyForward.com, is included in Flairty's upcoming book, "Kentucky's Everyday Heroes #4," which is scheduled for release in 2015. Flairty is a Lexington writer and author whose stories have appeared in several media outlets.)
The fact that Josh Nadzam (pictured below with UK president Eli Capilouto) is still walking is close to a miracle. The fact that the 26-year-old has such a positive attitude and productive life after what he experienced while growing up, well, comes even closer to being a providential act.
Josh’s story might best be divided into four parts: poverty, tragedy, triumph and purpose. That’s because it’s the way he characterizes it. In a talk he made at a conference on philanthropic giving in Lexington in the fall of 2013, he captivated a large audience with a riveting account of a chilling, poverty-stricken youth in housing projects near Pittsburgh—and how he was able to overcome with willpower and just enough support from a few to make it possible.
Soft-spoken, unassuming and with a quick smile, the slender recent college graduate shared the difficult odds that faced him and his single-parent mother while he was growing up. “Together, we epitomized everything that is condemned by certain groups of society,” he said. “We were on food stamps. We were on welfare. I was on free lunch.”
He explained that his neighborhood was surrounded by drug abuse, crime, and violence. He spoke of a prevailing sense of hopelessness, that poverty isn’t so much in the pockets as it is in the individual’s face--a feeling of being “less than” and often considered a “leech on society.”
Josh believes that many misunderstand the poor as a “substandard sect of citizens, living in the underclass world with no work ethic or morals.” That characterization, he says, is usually wrong.
“My mother fought hard every day to provide for us despite many people telling us that the chances of overcoming our situation were highly unlikely,” he said. “She worked inconsistent hours at miserable jobs and inconvenient times just to ensure we could have food on the table and a roof over our heads. Things got so bad that my mother had to save up money to declare bankruptcy. Through her hard work and the assistance of various governmental programs, we managed to scrape by as we clawed our way through life.”
A dysfunctional marriage was influenced by his father’s alcoholism problem, and it sent his mother and Josh, only five, to live with her mother for a while. When enough money was saved, the two were able to move back to the projects and into an apartment. At age ten, another major interlude came into his life that messed with his fragile sense of self-worth. His father tried to take his own life.
“I thought this attempted suicide meant that I was so inadequate as a son that my own father didn’t even want to stay alive to watch me grow,” he explained. Two years later, Josh’s mother became ill and spent five months in a hospital. At that point, a tremendous burden settled hard on the eleven-year-old’s shoulder. “I had to step up and be an adult,” he said. “I began writing checks, balancing the checkbook, and paying the bills.”
And most things in his teenage environment didn’t get a whole lot better after his mother was released from the hospital. Within those surroundings, some bad decisions were made, though Josh made some good ones, too. His father made two more suicide attempts, and Josh was regularly kicked out of classes and had multiple school suspensions. His neighborhood was infested with drug abuse. Sadly, an incredible number of kids he knew during that time—eight—later died of drug overdose. Josh managed to avoid personal use, but it was not easy to do.
“The vast majority of my friends would try to get me to try things,” he said. Behind a building near the neighborhood basketball court, drug deals were done regularly. “I’d be there shooting basketball by myself and I’d try to focus on that while they were getting the drugs,” he said. “Peer pressure is no joke. I took a lot of pride in the fact that I kept saying no, no, no.”
And just when one might think “enough is enough,” Josh suffered another tragic loss during those high school days, though not related to peers’ drug issues. While on a three-car summer trip to Myrtle Beach with eleven friends, 17-year-old Josh was a passenger in a car that flipped over twice, killing his best friend, J.C. Lansberry.
Devastated, the grief Josh experienced continues to a degree today. “I try to always live on in J.C.’s honor,” he said, “and carry his name with me as a tribute to him and his parents. I never had any siblings so he was like a big brother to me. I can try to be the best person I can for as my tribute for him and his family.”
In the midst of those most difficult times, an event one night in a high school basketball game had a dramatic effect on his life’s course. His coach, Tom Karczewski, aka “Coach K,” tells the story: “Josh was struggling,” he said. “A player from the other team stole the ball from him and made a layup. Josh head butted this kid in the back of the neck.”
Angered at Josh’s actions and also his team for playing poorly, the coach made the next day in practice extremely hard, with lots of running. “However, I knew Josh could run all day and night,” he said, “so we had an alternative punishment for his actions.” The customized punishment was much tougher for Josh, but afterwards, Coach K and an assistant made a point to reach out to the troubled teenager. It was obvious that much more than basketball was bothering him.
Coach K recalled Josh’s response: “He totally fell apart. I remember tears streaming down his face as he told me that he was all alone at home with almost nothing to eat. His mom was in the hospital. He was so frustrated with life that he had to take his aggression out on someone. He told me about his father and all of the issues with him. He was just hopeless.”
The difficult conversation between the coaches and Josh served to put him on a more positive path. There would be help on the way, and Coach K would be leading it.
“I told him there was a reason this happened. I was there to help him, to take the role of his dad, and teach him what I could about how to deal with life—be a good son, husband, father, etc.” The coach invited him often to his home to eat meals and see what it was like to interact in a positive way with family. They did house projects together, and all the coaches made sure he had enough to eat. The highly stressed youth changed before the eyes of all concerned.
“You could see the relief in his demeanor over the next few months,” the coach said. “I feel like just that little bit of stability for him was able to open his eyes to what he could really become. I could always see the soft heart that was hidden behind all of the anger and aggression.”
Josh speaks highly of Coach K today, and the two remain close. It is a relationship that “dramatically changed my life,” said Josh.
There are other “angels,” too, that have played a role in rescuing Josh Nadzam from his early ordeals. As mentioned, his earlier acts of frustration got him kicked out of classes and suspended while in high school. But his grades, ironically, remained good and he excelled in several sports: basketball, football, track and cross-country running. Much of his success in those areas, he says, was because his mother pushed him to do his best, even with all the distractions of poverty.
Besides his mother and Coach K, he also kept afloat with the steadying force of his “Uncle Brad,” actually a person who dated an aunt. “He stepped in and was a huge mentor,” he said.
As Josh completed his high school graduation, he looked for a way, as he termed it, “to survive to 18 and escape.” He figured that using his ability in track and field competition was a possible avenue to make it happen, but few colleges showed serious interest. “I believed I had the potential to compete at the top level in college, so I sent out many emails to Division 1 coaches…and got many pleasant rejections in return,” he said.
Just when that path to his escape seemed blocked, the assistant track coach at the University of Kentucky told Josh that he might have a chance to walk on to the team. “Basically, he was saying I ‘might have a chance to have a chance’…but that is all I wanted,” explained Josh. “Not even someone to open the door, but just someone to unlock it…and I would kick it in myself. I applied, got accepted, and showed up in August with my bags, ready to work.”
The first several practices at UK went quite poorly, but, said Josh, “each time I finished a little closer and a few seconds faster.” That was the start of success in college, both athletically and academically …and, it is fitting to use the proverbial “the rest is history” when describing Josh Nadzam.
He eventually received a full scholarship and became one of the top milers in the Southeastern Conference, running on both the track and cross country teams. He gives high praise to UK coach Don Weber, who “gave me a chance when no one else would.” His list of athletic, academic honor recognitions and community service awards is long, with likely the signature one being the UK Sullivan Medallion in 2012. The award is given to one male and one female at the University for “outstanding community service.”
Josh graduated from UK in 2011 with the Bachelor of Arts in Social Work. He followed by receiving the Masters Degree in Social Work in 2013, also from UK. Now living in Lexington, he is regularly involved in positive community initiatives. Fueled by his own earlier struggles, he most passionately is seeking to organize a strong local program that utilizes the arts to empower at-risk youth.