Most teachers don’t advocate fighting.
But Ryan Mlnarik encouraged graduating Bergan students to do just that.
Mlnarik wasn’t talking about a physical fight with fists or feet, but the life battles graduates will face once they’ve left the arena of high school.
And for these kinds of fights, the Bergan math teacher encouraged the soon-to-be graduates to call on their sense of purpose and their faith — using a heavyweight boxer, two students and a rubber ball as examples.
Mlnarik was the keynote speaker during the 2019 Archbishop Bergan Catholic High School graduation on Saturday evening.
Family and friends gathered at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church, where 30 students took part in the commencement ceremony. As of Saturday, the graduates had a total of $3.6 million in accepted and offered scholarships — a figure expected to go higher after the numbers are finalized.
Both valedictorian Zoey Hurst and salutatorian Jack Wilmes mentioned in their speeches that eight students in the Class of 2019 were part of the original first grade class that was taught in Flynn building before the current elementary school was built.
The graduating seniors thanked parents, teachers, administrators and staff for their help throughout the years — and students chose Mlnarik to give the commencement address.
Unlike most previous speakers, Mlnarik stood in the church aisle and faced the graduating class.
He began with an illustration involving former Heavyweight Boxing Champion Mike Tyson and his opponent Buster Douglas.
Mlnarik talked about “Iron Mike” Tyson’s 37-0 record with 33 knockouts — and how he was considered to be possibly the best boxing champion on the planet.
By contrast, Douglas was rated seventh in the world and given only a 2.33 percent chance of winning.
“But from the beginning of the fight, it was obvious that Douglas was not afraid,” Mlnarik said.
Douglas dominated the fight until the final seconds of the eighth round when Tyson landed a big, right uppercut that sent Douglas down to the canvas.
Douglas had 10 seconds to get to his feet or the fight would be over.
The referee began counting and Douglas rose to his feet with just one second left.
And in the 10th round, Douglas knocked out Tyson to win the heavyweight championship.
Douglas broke down in tears when asked how he managed to win a fight no one thought he could.
“Because of my mother, God bless her heart,” he said.
The boxer’s mother had died just 23 days before the fight. Yet prior to that, she went everywhere telling people her son was going to beat Tyson.
Therein was Mlnarik’s lesson for the graduates.
“When Buster stepped into that ring, he had a purpose. His purpose was so big that night. It was greater than Mike Tyson’s best punch,” Mlnarik said.
Mlnarik asked students if they had a purpose.
“I can guarantee that it’s not going to be a matter of if — but when — you are going to get knocked down,” he said.
And if the graduates don’t know their purpose, it will be very hard for them to get back into the fight.
Mlnarik cited examples of two seniors who’d already demonstrated their sense of purpose — who overcame injury to participate in athletics.
Although he didn’t name them in his speech, Mlnarik later told the Tribune those students were Lexi Langley and Caleb Villwok.
Langley dislocated her knee.
“But it didn’t take long before she got back into the fight,” Mlnarik said. “She worked extremely hard and was driven to not only be where she was, but to be better.”
Villwok injured his knee in a kick-off return and watched from the sidelines during his junior year. Villwok was determined to play his senior year.
And he did — in three sports.
“He played every game and practice with great purpose,” Mlnarik said.
Mlnarik urged graduates to remember these stories — as well as their own experiences of getting back in the fight.
The teacher — also a Bergan graduate — recalled some of his own high school opportunities, which included sports and singing in the choir.
“And I couldn’t even sing,” he said.
Mlnarik lauded teachers and coaches, whom he said profoundly impacted his life and said that — most importantly — Bergan gave him the foundation of his faith.
He spoke about Sister Liz, a religion teacher, who had eighth-graders close their eyes and listen to relaxing music. She would help them pray.
“We would reflect and even journal about our prayer,” Mlnarik said. “And I can’t tell you exactly everything or how, but that was the first time I could feel God’s love and that God wanted to have a personal relationship with me.”
Mlnarik said his relationship with the Lord hasn’t been perfect, which he believes is typical.
“But as I get older and hopefully wiser, I can tell you the sooner you truly understand that you need the Lord in your life — a personal relationship with Jesus — the better your life will be,” he said.
Mlnarik told students their needs would change as they got older, but said they must take time to pray.
“If you can’t find time to pray and read Scripture, then you’re a lot busier than God ever intended you to be,” he said.
Mlnarik managed to squeeze one more lesson into his talk.
He said — in math — seeing is believing.
“But when we believe and don’t have to see, that’s called ‘Having Faith,’” he said.
Mlnarik asked Villwok to hand over a small rubber ball that the student had bounced throughout the course of the year.
That ball became part of an object lesson.
Mlnarik crumpled a piece of paper, noting that it doesn’t return to its original shape after pressure is applied.
The rubber ball is different. It does return to its original shape even after it’s squeezed.
It bounces back up after it’s thrown down — because it has a strong inner core.
“That’s you,” Mlnarik said. “Your inner core, your faith and your relationship with the Lord is always going to allow you to bounce back.”
Mlnarik got a little choked up as he shared some parting words, adding that he believes the graduates will do great things in the future.
“We’re going to miss you,” he said. “And we love you guys.”