February 10, 2020

High School Legacies & The Resonance of Cobra Kai

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Al Mallen, #30

The following article is a journey. It starts with The Karate Kid and its latest sequel, Cobra Kai, and delves into the life and suicide of my brother, Albert John Mallen, Jr. Along the way, I touch on his fame in youth sports, the sudden death of our father, and my brother’s multiple exposures to trauma as a first responder with the Atlantic City Fire Department. It is my hope that this journey inspires reflection and conversation.

I was seven-years old when The Karate Kid was released in 1984, and like many others I grew up with it being a touchstone movie of my childhood. I certainly saw The Karate Kid Part II in the movie theater and I enjoyed various callbacks to the series in pop culture over the years such as Sweep The Leg by No More Kings and the video essay presenting the case that Daniel was the real bully in the original film. And I still get fired up whenever I hear “You’re The Best Around” by Joe Esposito.

Resurrecting those characters and that franchise over 30 years later should not work. As Randal remarks in Clerks, “Let the past be the past.” And yet, Cobra Kai works on multiple levels and I remain delightfully dumbfounded by how effective it is.

How do they manage this feat? And why did this show resonate with me?

Cobra Kai would collapse if William Zabka did not bring a rich humanness to Johnny Lawrence – last seen congratulating Daniel after the historic 1984 All Valley Karate Tournament[MM2] . Nowadays, Johnny is making ends meet as a handyman while trying to deal with an ex-wife that has substance-use concerns and a teenage son veering toward a life of truancy and crime. He pounds Original Coors, cannot shake thoughts about the high school girl that got away, and ponders how things might be different if Daniel LaRusso had never entered his life or illegally kicked him in the face.

Now, you might be asking, “Do people really get that hung up on events that took place in high school? or, “Wouldn’t Johnny be well over that already? It’s almost 2020 for god’s sake!” I can only offer a response from my point-of-view as the brother of Albert (Albie) Mallen, high-school athlete extraordinaire – a high-school identity can persist for better and worse for decades.

I have spoken openly about my brother’s suicide over the past two years including what it was like for me to absorb A Star Is Borna film that wrecked me for a few days. The void in my life from my brother’s absence is never going to be filled. I like to keep his memory alive, and part of my appreciation for Cobra Kai is watching Johnny Lawrence try to figure out what being an adult means in the context of past athletic triumphs and failures.

Perhaps seeing parallels between Johnny and my brother, Albie, is a stretch. And maybe the kinship I feel for Johnny as I watch him navigate the present while being constantly reminded of his past is silly. Let me tell you about my brother, and you can decide.

I cannot remember a time when my brother was not fueled by sports. Even when we were young children, he was always outside playing football, basketball, or whiffle ball. I cannot emphasis enough how important sports and competition were to my brother and his friends. Football in the street, basketball in a neighbor’s court, and certainly games on the field through leagues – it dominated the conversations. We watched sports on television all the time; it was a shared language. And my brother was good at sports, and I knew I could never replicate his abilities.

Not with my heart condition.

I could never do the things he did. And that grief was difficult to deal with as a child. I loved him, I was jealous of him, and I was his biggest fan. Our father was killed suddenly in the line of duty in 1985 while raiding a methamphetamine lab as a New Jersey State Trooper. And just like that, my brother took on the role of “father figure” to me as well. He wasn’t even a freshman in high school at the time and on top of losing his father, he was now figuring out how to take care of his little brother. The one thing he clearly excelled at was sports, and that structure and his coaches provided him with a nurturing and safe environment.

My brother did not lose often. He played multiple sports in elementary school, and eventually focused on football and baseball in high school. It was on the football field that he became a local legend. He played quarterback with a swagger. He threw the ball fast, hard, and accurately. He scrambled around and shrugged off defenders. He was difficult to play against, and he did anything he could to win. I sat in the stands and ate it all up. I supported his high school team with a passion and fervor that matched my devotion to professional sports teams.

I wore a tiny version of his jersey and cheered on all his accomplishments. He always wore #30 because that’s the number our father wore in high school. My brother’s sons wear #30 in their sports now, and #30 remains a source of pride and deep meaning in our family.

People loved and revered my brother.

Al Mallen, #30

He led a charismatic football team to back-to-back State Championships in style. He played for Holy Spirit High School, a Catholic school with colors of blue and gold. It felt like Notre Dame every Saturday. His weekend exploits were in the local and regional newspapers. My mother kept scrapbooks of all the press clippings. There were shirts and signs reading AIR MALLEN in the stands. He got “The Mailman” nickname because he always delivered. When he got his driver’s license and first car, our mother got him a personalized license plate: AL QB 30. There were games, parties, and celebrations, and I lived vicariously through his glory.

After my brother’s death, Bill Sprouse, a waterboy on my brother’s high school football team (and someone that graduated high school with me) wrote about those years and his impressions of my brother. It’s a wonderfully bittersweet article that illustrates how powerful that football team was to the community, my brother’s role in leading that squad, and how it continued to have a life of its own. The following passage rang so true to me:

“Over the years I’d sometimes bump into Albie out at a bar or restaurant. Usually I’d be with my family. My dad coached for Spirit for about 20 years so they would sort of reminisce. The Spartans had been through any number of dynasties that contended for Greatest-of-All-Time status by that point, but Albie always wanted us to know his team was the G.O.A.T. of all G.O.A.T.s, the best in school history.

‘Sprousey, these kids don’t know,’ he’d say, or something like that.

“He was unabashedly competitive. But he also had a sense of humor. And he was right. Holy Spirit did have some great teams. But for sheer joy and the spectacle it brought to the community, nothing came close to the Air Mallen Spartans.”

The legacy of my brother’s achievements was a constant in his life, which he was often reminded of by others and he would not let you forget.

My brother graduated high school the same year I graduated the eighth grade, so we never overlapped at Holy Spirit. When I started my freshmen year, my brother had just spent years shattering records and winning state championships as a highly-recruited football quarterback. Walking into high school was intimidating to begin with–for all the reasons you can imagine for an awkward teenager with chronic health issues. I also felt saddled with being “Albie’s little brother” and I resented that dynamic. High school was stressful for me, and it would take me another 5-10 years to truly carve out my own identity and sense of confidence.

Meanwhile, my brother seemed to have a clear direction and purpose heading into college; he was going to excel as an athlete. The world had been his oyster for the past two years as he was courted by many colleges for his talents in football and baseball. He was compared favorably to another quarterback in New Jersey at that time, Glenn Foley, and it was common to discuss which one would have the better collegiate and possibly professional career. Mr. Foley went on the have a successful college career at Boston College, finished in fifth place for the Heisman Trophy in 1993, and played for two teams in the National Football League in the 1990’s.

My brother was not so fortunate.

I imagine his story is one shared by countless high-profile high school athletes. He did not exactly take a crane kick to the face, though that is a useful metaphor. Albie took a scholarship at Rutgers because he wanted to stay close to home and play right away instead of sitting through a redshirt year at a more-prominent football program. During his first year at Rutgers, the entire coaching staff that recruited him was fired, and the new regime informed my brother they did not think he had the skills or size to play for them. My brother only played a few snaps in college, which seems bizarre given how successful he was in high school.

I recall sitting in the old Meadowlands stadium in East Rutherford, NJ while Rutgers was getting blown out by Michigan State, 34-10. The weather that late-September afternoon was miserable; cold with relentless wind and rain. I was one of the few fans left in the near-empty stadium as my brother checked into the game with under a minute left in what can only be called garbage time. He dropped back and threw two passes. One was a short pass over the middle to his tight end, which was dropped. The other pass was also incomplete. It was the only statistics he’d put up as a college football player – two pass attempts and zero completions.

Since he did not have the confidence of the football coaching staff, my brother switched gears and played baseball for Rutgers as a pitcher. He enjoyed some success as a closer on a team that won the Atlantic 10 Tournament and reached the NCAA Tournament. He never completed his college degree, and when the sports flamed out, he left Rutgers and returned home as I was finishing high school.

When things started to go sideways for my brother in college, we started to have more clashes. For the first time in my life, I saw him stumbling. I wonder what it was like for him to experience losing on that scale, told he was not good enough, and cast aside from the sport he truly loved. It’s something that we do not address enough as a society. Youth sports have mutated into an all-encompassing lifestyle for some families and their children. All-star teams, travel teams, specialty camps, year-long participation in the same sport…. it’s a far cry from how youth sports previously operated. There are benefits to participation in youth sports though what happens to folks like my brother that enjoyed the peak of success in high school and structured their lives around sports only to discover there is no path forward with athletics?

My brother was intelligent, sharp-witted, and managed decent grades in high school though academics were never a passion and coursework was tailored to athletes to help them stay eligible. He went to college to play sports, and the degree was never a priority. I was confused by this, and we argued about it at times. I thought my brother was tossing away an opportunity to get a degree that would open more doors for him. He was not going to be a professional athlete, but there were a lot of other options out there. I felt like he was wasting an opportunity, and it frustrated me.

I wanted him to be something else – something beyond Albie Mallen the athlete. Maybe that wasn’t fair, but I was worried about him. He was drinking a lot at that point, and the cultural cocktail of sports and alcohol remained prominent throughout his life. I told him the amount of alcohol he was drinking was unhealthy and not normal. He replied that he was fine and had everything under control.

“This is what we do.”

He’d say that often, as if that was the final word on any number of conversations. And to some degree, I could see his point. He was surrounded by other young men that functioned in a similar way. My brother was in his 20s at that point, and it felt to me like his life was getting stuck in a rut. I imagine he was annoyed that his little brother was lecturing him about such things!

I thought he was depressed. I cannot imagine the anguish my brother carried with him between the death of our father and the loss of his athletic career in college. He experienced so much in his life up to that point. He dealt with a strict father that rode him hard to be his absolute best. Our father had been a massive presence in our lives, and he was killed suddenly just days before Albie started high school. Through the support of teachers, coaches, family, and friends, Ablie had a stellar career as a high school athlete and earned a scholarship to college. And within a couple of years, all that earned glory and success was gone. He was back in his hometown with the rest of his life ahead of him and no clear sense of where to go or what to do. And outside of some coaches, he lacked a father figure to mentor him through the rest of his life.

I lived at home during my college years. I was slowly getting out of the bubble of my family by being exposed to new people and ideas. I remember telling my family I was planning to move to Minnesota for graduate school. My brother’s reaction was very close to the following, “Minnesota?! Why would you leave South Jersey? You have everything you need here.”

That was his thought process. His map of the world got fuzzy the further you moved away from Atlantic County. I had lived in that world with him all my life, and I needed something different. While I was leaving South Jersey to pursue my goals, my brother had a newfound focus for a career. One option that was often discussed was joining the Atlantic City Fire Department, which offered good benefits and stability. It also was a family tradition as our grandfather and two uncles (all on my mom’s side of the family) had long careers as Atlantic City firefighters. After a long application process, he was sworn into the ACFD in 1998, my first year of graduate school in Minnesota.

I truly believe ACFD added years to his life, though it also exposed him to horrific trauma. The fire department offered an environment to use his skills and talents. He was a physical specimen and a natural leader; the firehouse gave him another locker room (literally) to shine in. He took his work seriously and treated the job with reverence. He brought the tenacity that made him famous on the field to the firehouse where he arrived early and left late to each shift because, “It’s the right thing to do. I’m not a shitbird like some other guys.”

He quickly formed friendships with other firefighters, some of whom he had played against on the field at various times in his life. He spent his working hours surrounded by other men that he shared much in common with, and he loved it. I recall coming back home from graduate school and my brother gave my girlfriend (now wife) and I a tour of his fire department. It was clear he was knowledgeable about the different components of each truck and piece of gear. He was proud of the job he had, and he earned the respect of his fellow firefighters – even the old-timers who had been in the department for decades. I was truly happy for him.

The firehouse was not all fun and games. Sure, he would tell me funny stories about his role in organizing meals and busting balls with the guys. But he was also trained to run into burning buildings and be a first responder to accidents and crises. Much like my father and his service in the military and work as a police officer and detective, my brother was exposed to multiple traumatic experiences during his professional work. He traveled to Ground Zero days after 9/11 in New York City to assist with rescue and recovery efforts. He responded to a parking garage collapse in Atlantic City that resulted in four deaths; he was one of the responders crawling through debris to remove bodies. He responded to countless car accidents and, in recent years, more drug overdoses involving opioids. He once jumped into the bay to rescue someone after an accident landed their vehicle in the water; he almost developed hypothermia as a result of his unsuccessful efforts to save the person trapped inside the car.

And sadly these life-and-death situations were not limited to his work as a firefighter.

Like many firefighters, he took on a second job. He once again put his physical abilities into action while working for a landscaping company, Marrone Lawn Sprinklers, which required him to dig holes or squirm around in crawl spaces under houses all day. During one of his days landscaping, they were working on a lawn and a woman ran out of a nearby house screaming that her child was drowning in a pool. My brother immediately ran into the yard and tried to save the child through CPR. The child did not respond and died. I remember talking with him about that situation and offering support. It sounded like a horrible scene, made even more distressing as the child was around the same age as his sons.

I’ve known cops, firefighters and first responders all my life, and have the privilege of working with military veterans in my professional role. Exposure to life-threatening situations can change the way one looks at the world. It can change the way we experience emotions and bodily sensations. Repeated exposure to life-threatening situations can amplify these changes. The fire department gave my brother structure. It gave him a community of co-workers that loved and supported him. It gave him an environment to be himself. It also brought more trauma into his life. Dead or mangled bodies, burnt-out homes, wrecked cars, structural disasters – it became another part of his routine.

It wears on a person, and it can be a challenge for anyone to cope with all that trauma. For the most part, my brother functioned well. I have primarily written about tabletop roleplaying games, and I always told my brother that he had a high Constitution score, which represents the amount of health, stamina and vitality one possesses. He worked year-round as a firefighter, and for many months during the year also worked for the landscaping company. He never seemed to run out of energy. I marveled at it often. Even when he drank too much alcohol one night, he was the first person up the next morning. If I ever had too much to drink, then I felt banged up for most of the next day (if not longer); he just kept going. He was relentless.

I didn’t understand how he could keep up that pace.

I never stopped thinking alcohol was a problem, and we would argue about that from time to time. He’d reply, “How do I drink too much? I work two jobs and provide for my family. This is life. This is what we do.”

In addition to alcohol, another coping strategy common in these circles is dark humor. You cannot fathom the conversations these people have, and they were side-splittingly hilarious and completely inappropriate. My brother was the ringleader and would say the most outlandish things you’ve ever heard to anybody including our mother. This tone of humor was present well before he was a firefighter. Even close friends who knew him for years would stand slack-jawed while observing his antics and respond at times throughout his life, “Did he really just say THAT?”

He did, and then he moved on to his next target. He always had something to say. He was attentive and didn’t miss a thing. I told him that he might make a good clinician if he used that keen insight for a positive end. If someone had a weak point, an insecurity, something they seemed hesitant about – he’d jump all over it. He did this with his closest friends and sometimes to people he just met. Many times when he was surrounded by people he knew well, it was funny and did not cause much of a scene. Other times when he was out of his environment, it could cause problems.

He had the ability to be a real asshole.

And he could also be the kindest and sweetest person you’ve ever met. It was a duality that kept the people close to him extremely loyal and likely prevented him from branching out too far from his local base of support. I once called him “myopic,” and he responded that for whatever my “liberal education” was doing for me, I didn’t know how “the real world” operated. His exposure to the real world on a daily basis through his job with the ACFD meant he saw a lot of poverty, a lot of crime, and too much death.

He claimed I was sheltered. He wasn’t entirely wrong.

Life Worse Punishment Than Death

Cobra Kai certainly is not about my brother’s suicide, though a hook for my interest in the show is knowing that guys like Johnny exist. There are limitless reasons why I wish my brother was still alive, and just one of them is to learn his thoughts about how Johnny is presented in the show. I have a similar conversation and exploration with military veterans returning from deployments that were exposed to intense and exhilarating life-and-death situations in their late teens and early 20s. I’ve heard a variety of veterans explore the following questions, “What if the best, most meaningful and exciting moments of my life happened when I was like 18- or 20-years-old? Nothing is ever going to compare to all that. What the fuck do I do now?”

I know my brother struggled with his identity after all the success in high school sports. He figured it out for a while. He earned a good job, excelled at that career, got married and raised two wonderful sons. In more-recent years, his marriage did not last and his body started to break down. There are many reasons he decided life was no longer worth living, and one of them was the crushing sense of failure he carried. I watched my brother wrestle with depression and that sense of failure in the final years of his life. He had hundreds of people that loved him, was respected at both his jobs, had two beautiful sons that adored him – and it wasn’t enough.

He wasn’t good enough – not for his standards.

So watching Johnny Lawrence ruminate on his past glory and subsequent fall from the spotlight resonates with me because it’s genuine. It’s real. It’s legitimate. Johnny channels his grief and pain into opening a new dojo to rekindle the past glory. It’s important table-setting for the rest of Cobra Kai.

Without getting into spoiler territory, the young members of the cast go through a variety of allegiances and disputes; some undergo a metamorphosis. Cobra Kai gets you invested in Johnny and Daniel (that’s the easy part) and also their children – Robby Keene (Johnny’s son), Samantha LaRusso (Daniel’s daughter) and Miguel Diaz (Johnny’s surrogate son of sorts). Throw in their respective circles of friends and certain plots play out like a Shakespearean tragedy.

Feuds, warring dojos, changing identities, overlapping allegiances and conflicts, love quadrangles, and ghosts from the past all make an appearance. There’s even a character named Stingray!

Cobra Kai offers a look into how high school events and identities can persist and shape our adult years. Daniel is the face of the successful LaRusso Auto Group where he runs the business with his wife and films cheesy commercials with a winning smile about “kicking the competition.” Johnny gets by with his day-to-day job and still has people that ask him, “Hey, aren’t you the guy LaRusso kicked in the face?” Maybe you think it’s silly that the events of a high school karate tournament would linger and define two guys decades later. Consider this, my brother ended his life on June 26, 2017 and here is the first sentence in the article on the front page of our paper the next morning:

“Albert ‘Albie’ Mallen Jr. overcame serious tragedy before becoming one of the best athletes Holy Spirit High School has ever seen.”

That was his identity to everyone, “one of the best athletes” the area had ever seen.

Looking back at it now, it’s somewhat infuriating that the first sentence and the majority of the article about his death focuses on the sports he played 25-30 years ago.

I get it…. we look back and celebrate someone’s achievements and what they were best-known for when they die. I can only imagine how living in the shadow of his own small-scale fame influenced my brother’s depressive symptoms; he wouldn’t let you forget it – and no one would let him forget it.

On Christmas Eve, I was sitting with my wife on the couch after we set up the presents under the tree for our son, Hugo, and left cookies and carrots out for Santa and Rudolph. We were talking about the stress of the holidays and basking in the still quiet of a moment of shared exhaustion. As we hugged looking at the lights on the tree, she asked, “What are you thinking.”

I replied, “I miss my brother.”

Hugo is a wonder and my brother died by suicide when he was less than six-months-old. They met twice, and we’ll have those pictures forever – though my son will never know how alive and boisterous his Uncle Albie was, and I’ll never know the embarrassment and irritation that would swell inside when my brother would bust my balls in front of my son to get a rise out of all of us.

The author, his brother and their children, months before Al Mallen’s suicide

I wish my brother was not so beholden to who he was in high school. Christ, that shadow continues to loom after his death! The golf tournament his friends organized to raise money for his sons and other suicide prevention resources (a fantastic effort and greatly successful cause) is labeled the Air Mallen Open Golf Tournament. Leading up to last year’s tournament an electronic billboard mislabeled the event: Air Albie Open Golf Tournament.

One of his best friends and I were laughing thinking about his reaction, “He’d be so pissed.” My brother would have put his hands out wide, rolled his eyes and asked, “Who the fuck is Air Albie?”

For some, high school never ends.

Michael Mallen, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist and can be reached for inquiries or comments at: theiddm@gmail.com. 

2 thoughts on “High School Legacies & The Resonance of Cobra Kai

  1. So very well written… Michael, you are a very brave young man and a terrific younger brother. I was fortunate and honored to have coached Albie at Spirit back in the day. To be around him was a treat…that’s the best way to describe it! I think about him everyday.

    Your love for your brother is inspiring and so special. Your words honor him him so many ways. God Bless you and your family.

    Another outstanding article by RtForty.

  2. Pingback: My brother was a firefighter for nearly 20 years and died by suicide. I wrote this about him. – Finest Fighters of Fire