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Pushing Beyond What is Comfortable

DSHA Director of Fitness & Performance and Health & Fitness Department Chair Brian Calhoun has been at DSHA since 2015. His goal is to challenge students to live by the motto has that shaped his life — push and work beyond what you think you are capable of, beyond what is comfortable, because the struggle opens room for growth that can only be uncovered in the challenge. 
Brian Calhoun learned early on what it meant to be uncomfortable. He lived a large part of his childhood on the move; his father was a chaplain in the Navy. “As a military kid — it could be really tough to form bonds,” he shares of trying to find his place as an elementary-aged kid. “I played football, basketball, and baseball growing up — and was just trying to fit in.”
Yet he pushed — even as kid he had an awareness of what this meant. And rather than giving up a sport he loved for a lack of connection with other kids, he kept showing up. By middle school, Calhoun’s family landed in Oak Creek, WI where he began to feel an established sense of community.
“I am so thankful we moved North to Wisconsin (from Memphis, TN),” Calhoun shares. “I fit in right away as I met new people and friends. It was home.”
He graduated from high school in Oak Creek with all-state honors in both track and field and football, and was named the Wisconsin (Football) Gatorade Player of the Year in 2000, an honor that acknowledges “athletic excellence, academic achievement, and exemplary character.”
Out of high school Calhoun was recruited to play football and run track at several Division I schools. He landed at the University of Colorado at Boulder where he received all-Big 12 Conference honors in football by his sophomore year. Yet he had a desire to move back to Wisconsin and continue his career as a Badger.
Along with this came another opportunity to practice being uncomfortable.
“I came back to be closer to home,” he shares. Yet due to standard NCAA transfer rules, Calhoun was required to sit out for a season. “It was the hardest year. It was humbling to come back to the place I said ‘no’ to and be on the scout team. But this was also one of the most rewarding years I’ve ever had.”
During this redshirt year mid-way through his college career, Calhoun was forced to live in a space that he now challenges and encourages his DSHA students to regularly encounter; this space included pushing beyond what was comfortable as he experienced a reset of nearly everything in his world: new campus, new classes, new teammates, new coaches, new playbook. Yet he was completely driven by discipline, grit, and goals. “As hard as it was, it forced me to improve my game in a way that would not have happened had I stayed in Colorado. I was determined to work the hardest of anyone in camp.”
Eligible to play in 2005, Calhoun had an All-American-worthy season, leading Wisconsin to a 9-4 record and a Capital One Bowl victory against a top-ten team — all with his friends and family present. Totaling over 2,200 yards of offense and 24 touchdowns, he became the second player in both the Big Ten and NCAA history to finish a season with over 1,500 yards rushing and 500 yards receiving. In addition to 2nd-team All-American recognition by both the AP and Sports Illustrated , Calhoun was named First-Team All-Big Ten and finalists for both the Maxwell Trophy (best player in the NCAA as named by sports media and industry professionals) and the Doak Walker Award (given to the NCAA’s best running back.)
Calhoun was poised for success in the NFL after being drafted in 2006 by the Detroit Lions in the third round. “It was a pretty unique experience — playing football as your job. And I got to play with some really great guys,” he shares reflecting on his three years of playing professionally.
Great teammates and a dream come true also came with some unexpected hardships — another scenario where Calhoun was able to practice how to handle the uncomfortable challenges that life is bound to throw. His NFL career started differently than he hoped: an ACL-tear his rookie year, followed by a quad injury and an 0-16 season, followed by a major shoulder injury. Yet his perspective is remarkable and has built the person that DSHA students affectionately refer to as Coach Cal.
“It was tough — you set forth to do something and you want to do it right — especially at the highest level,” he shares. “When you’ve had success in the past and you have multiple injuries it can be humbling and frustrating.” Yet it was during some of these challenging times — the transitions earlier in his life and career, and the injuries toward the end — that he grew to understand the value of a great coach and felt destined to become one himself.
“I’ve had lots of great coaches — all different. And you learn something from each of them. If I can push kids to work beyond what they are capable of, and if my experience can help them achieve beyond their own goals, it’s all worth it.”
Even before his playing days were over, Calhoun felt called into coaching and mentoring young people. He discovered this passion while running summer football camps in Madison. Over a decade later he coaches Dashers daily in the Sarah M. Hegarty Fitness Center and will serve as the assistant track and field coach at DSHA in the 2020 spring season.
“Our goal (at DSHA) is to motivate kids to understand that there is more inside of them than what they think there is — both physically and mentally,” Calhoun shares of the premise that guides his philosophy. “As they push through barriers, girls grow leaps and bounds when it comes to confidence.”
“Yes, you can,” is a common reminder from Calhoun when girls are struggling to achieve a goal or rehabilitating from an injury. He has been there, and he understands the benefit of the push. “It works because they know I care about them as people,” he says. “I’m trying to pour whatever I have in me into them. Grit and perseverance come from the difficulties in life.”
And the all-girls environment at DSHA allows Calhoun to push kids in a safe environment — an environment that encourages confidence building through taking healthy risks and where students are not self-conscious of what they can or cannot achieve. On the surface, it may seem a peculiar choice to move from the NFL to coaching at a an all-girls school — a school without a football program. But it is precisely the benefits of the all-girls environment that align so perfectly with Calhoun’s coaching philosophy. Pushing beyond one’s pre-conceived limit works when students feel cared for; when they are not scared to fail or succeed; and perhaps most importantly, when they are not worried about what others think when they set their mind to simply respond to the call of “yes you can.”
Megan Novotny, DSHA ‘20, is just one of the many students that have been affected for the better by Calhoun’s influence. “I’ve grown up being raised by just my mom. Coach Cal has been a fatherly figure in my life since freshmen year,” she shares. “I told him then that I wanted to get better at push-ups. He was constantly asking me how I was progressing and helped me find the right ways to go about getting better.”
But it wasn’t just about the push-ups for Novotny. “He would always tell me, ‘Do not let people thinking you are small mean that you are not strong.’ And because I was improving and getting better, my confidence grew. And that strong-mentality carries over into everything — academics, how I encourage younger students now — it affects everything.”
Novotny is now working on pull-ups as a senior, but more importantly, she is a leader on the Student Diversity Council and has big dreams for her post-college future that include law school and becoming a published author. And while there are many people that she attributes to her growth, “I would not have the confidence I have now without Coach Cal’s encouragement and pushing me to get better.”
When entertaining the position at DSHA, Calhoun knew quickly that it would be the right culture fit even beyond the all-girls environment. Now in his fifth year, he has “felt the closest thing to being a part of family since my playing days. I love being a part of this team.”
And the girls love him. He is referred to by his “Coach Cal” nickname more often than not. On the designated game days that DSHA athletes get to pick a faculty member to “Back-a-Dasher,” he is nearly always present representing someone. He can also be found playing drums at Mass or assemblies, or attending and participating in Dasher Dialogues, run by the Student Diversity Council.
He is present. And he makes a point to connect with students — all of them. He has a goal to connect with every student at some point during her four years — to find common ground in conversation, understand her goals, or work side-by-side to help her achieve beyond what she thinks to be possible. It is not uncommon for that to happen in a discipline or scenario outside of the world of fitness.
Calhoun is a man of faith which offers him another area in which to connect with and encourage students. “Having a dad as a pastor made the transition here easier. We were always in church growing up and I’m so thankful my parents raised me that way.” From weekly Bible studies and attending Mass before games when he was playing for the Lions in Detroit, to being involved with organizations like Athletes in Action (a non-denominational organization for Christian athletes) his faith — and the community he has found through his faith — have been something consistent he has leaned on over the years; thus, he is able to encourage students along the same lines.
“Every student is on a different journey and needs to be pushed or supported in different ways,” he shares. “The mental toughness we talk to students about, the benefits of hard work and discipline are possible when you have something to lean on,” Calhoun shares of how his faith has directly shaped his own navigation of the challenges life has thrown at him.
Calhoun’s passion for his job is real — he is highly motivated to see students succeed and loves the updates that tend to arrive after graduation. “They thank me for the things they didn’t understand at the time. They’ll say things like, ‘I’m not lost anymore and I feel confident and capable.’ That’s why I do what I do.”
When asked about his goals for the Health & Fitness Department he shares that he hopes to improve every year and to leave the department in a better shape than when he started. But he quickly points back to students and their worlds beyond fitness. “I want them to achieve whatever their goal is — in athletics or beyond.”
Throughout the year, that “beyond” extends into another area of passion for him: that every student of every race, ethnicity, and background, experience a sense of belonging and equal opportunity; that they have a place at DSHA. “We are doing a lot to improve diversity here — we’re moving in the right direction and I’m proud to work here,” he says. “I want to be a part of this effort and anything I can add to the conversation — my experience and values. Our job is to close the achievement gap as much as possible — for every kid. I find more value in this than being a coach in the fitness center. Ultimately this is what my job is — to be a leader and a mentor through building relationships. It is in the challenges that you’re able to pull the best from kids.”
And every kid matters to him. And most of these kids have no idea of the success and accolades that their beloved Coach Cal has accomplished. They may have heard he played in the NFL, but most have no idea that he set Big Ten records and was in the Heisman trophy conversation in 2005; or that he was invited to serve as the honorary captain at the Badgers’ home opener this fall as a former all-American. His accomplishments are vast, and the same work ethic that allowed him to reach the NFL is the same drive that motivates his day-to-day work with Dashers.
To answer the question, Coach Cal is more than a coach, more than a former elite athlete. He is an influencer, shaping Dashers’ ability to navigate that which is difficult, to push beyond their limits, and get after whatever it is, wherever they may strive to go. And when they get there, it presents an award far greater to him than a championship ring or place in a record book could ever provide.
    • Calhoun coaches Megan Novotny, DSHA ‘20, in the Sarah M. Hegarty Fitness Center; they’ve been working regularly since.

    • During Calhoun’s 2005 season at Wisconsin, he became only the second player in Big Ten and NCAA history to finish with over 1,500 yards rushing and 500 yards receiving.


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