When H.D. Weddel stepped into the packed Bend High School gymnasium, it was as if he were setting foot on a mountain peak.
His 35-year career in education had reached its pinnacle. At an assembly last month, Weddel was honored as Oregon's 2014 High School Principal of the Year.
A journey that reaches a lofty summit often begins in obscurity below treeline. Weddel's was no different.
Trace his steps and you'll eventually reach an Oregon State University wrestling practice in 1975.
Weddel, who graduated from Fort Vancouver High School the previous spring, was getting slammed to the mat ... over and over and over.
"I got beat more in that practice than I did my whole time in high school," he said. "I called my dad and said 'I don't know if I can do this.' "
Weddel stuck with it. He gathered more bruises and burns, but kept coming back. He eventually wrestled for three Pacific-8 championship teams.
"We all like to remember success," Weddel said. "But the bigger value is learning to get past the failures that everyone has to face."
Weddel has seen many classrooms. He says none offer lessons like those learned on a field, hardwood or mat.
We live in a society where individualism is rampant, if not celebrated. Weddel says youths' exposure to teamwork, character-building and overcoming adversity needs to be more than slogans on motivational posters.
"There has never been a more important time for sports and the lessons they teach than today," Weddel said in a phone interview last week.
Those who work with Weddel say he has brought a team-like feeling to the halls of Bend High. Assistant Principal Christopher Reese described the atmosphere as warm, inviting and secure.
"Each student is well-known by at least one staff member," Reese told the Bend Bulletin.
That camaraderie was tested in February when a student, Zachary Leyes, walked into a classroom and fatally shot himself in front of classmates.
Weddel presided over the student's public memorial, which hundreds attended. His message echoed what's said in a locker room, but remained relevant when real life burst in — Acknowledge the difficulty and pull together to overcome it.
Sports have always been Weddel's favorite canvas for painting life's challenges and solutions in stark relief. Wherever his teaching career took him (Tillamook, Tigard, McMinnville, Bend) he always coached wrestling. Last year, he was inducted into Oregon Chapter of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame.
Weddel will retire after this academic year. But his days as a mentor are not over, as he will become the Oregon State football team's full-time chaplain.
Weddel's eyes welled up while being honored in that Bend High gym last month.
Those tears of joy were sweet distillation of years of sweat ... and the lessons learned along the way.