Brumage’s ‘Mindfulness’ Teaching A Big Part Of Will Grier’s Success At WVU
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — His love affair with West Virginia football started on a cloudy November day in 1965, and that it was the 13th of the month probably should have been an omen to Mike Brumage, for it would not be a great day for the Mountaineers.
“My dad took to me old Mountaineer Field against Syracuse and they had this running back named Larry Csonka who ran all over us,” Brumage recalled recently.
Csonka, of course, ran for 216 yards that day, a record rushing performance for a Mountaineer opponent that would last 35 years before Pitt’s Kevan Barlow broke it, and it would be one of Csonka’s first steps down the road to the Hall of Fame.
Brumage, who is from Fairmont, authored his own illustrious career in medicine and the military, but who would ever have imagined that he would have wound up last year a key element in quarterback Will Grier’s quest for the Heisman Trophy and in the success of so many other WVU players over the past half decade?
Brumage’s career path took him into the military, where he attained the rank of Colonel and attained three Legion of Merit medals and a Bronze Star while serving in the Balkans and Tikrit, Iraq, before retiring after 25 years.
You can imagine what Brumage saw in the battle zones and it left a lasting impression on him, an impression of often troubled men and women whom he instinctively knew could be helped to find a way through their problems. He did not know how until a chance meeting.
“I had learned about this thing called mindfulness as a way to deal with all the soldier suicides, high risk behaviors and things like that,” he began in explaining how he got into this area of his work. “So we knew that soldier and their families were facing rough times due to the rapid deployment cycle.
“I was really interested in something that would make a meaningful difference in their lives.”
Then one evening he stumbled across an entry way while at dinner with an Air Force colleague.
“She told me about this thing called mindfulness. At the time I thought it was just a bunch of baloney, but I was respectful of her wanting to share something she thought was a solution,” he said.
So Brumage began reading articles, still not convinced until he came across Jon Kabat-Zinn, whom he calls “the godfather of secular mindfulness in the United States” and preached it from his position at the University of Massachusetts.
Brumage dug deeper and “noticed it was making more of a difference in my life,” he said. “I had a greater sense of equanimity [calmness, composure and evenness of temper] and was more present with my children than I was normally.”
By that he meant he wasn’t nearly as distracted as we all get.
“The plague of modern existence — television — and now we carry these smart phones, which I call weapons of mass distraction,” Brumage said. “We’re training our brains to be constantly distracted so that when we have time we get easily bored so we create distractions aren’t particularly wholesome for ourselves … using substances, for example.”
Becoming A Teacher Of Mindfulness
Now into mindfulness, Brumage was transferred from Hawaii to Japan, where he was telling a health educator about this practice.
“Why don’t you teach it?” she asked.
“Because I can’t, I haven’t gone through the formal training,” Brumage answered.
She pressed him to try it, so he did with a small group, just meditated and sent out a survey and they really liked it a lot. They said ‘W’d like you to do more of this.’
So that is how he was, as he put, “cajoled and prodded” into doing this.
Before he could get started he was distracted … a distraction that mindfulness could do nothing about — for Japan was struck by the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami which registered as a magnitude 9.
So devastating was this that 120,000 buildings were destroyed and another 278,000 were said to be half destroyed with more than $200 billion in damages.
“I’ll tell you, I was in Iraq for a time but I was more frightened by what happened in Japan at the time because there were so many unknowns,” Brumage said.
Once he retired and returned to West Virginia, he wanted to return to teaching it, but where?
Sometimes It Takes Luck … Named Oliver
That’s when another improbable chance meeting from long ago provided a means of opportunity.
“When I was a senior at WVU I ran into a guy in my German play class — we were going to put on a play in German at the Creative Arts Center — and his name was Oliver Luck. I’d seen Oliver driving around town in green Porsche with a Germany banner in the rear window,” he recalled.
Normally, you don’t take German unless you have some connection there, so I asked him about it and it turned out his grandfather and my grandfather were fraternity brothers in Germany.
“Oliver and I stayed friends ever since. When he became athletic director I was watching. You know, all across the country some football player gets a DUI or throws a punch at someone, I told Oliver about mindfulness and how it works.
Luck, like Brumage in the beginning, wasn’t very receptive but his wife, Kathy, was
“Kathy is a mediator and she was encouraging him to pay attention to some of the things I was saying,” Brumage explained. “Finally six years ago, he was a guy who took chances, and he said he’d bring some of the coaches in and during our presentation Mike Joseph was there in the crowd.”
Joseph, also from Fairmont, is West Virginia’s coordinator of strength and conditioning, and is always on the lookout for waves of the future and felt it could be added to the WVU program.
They started in summer camp and he worked with players from different positions, different backgrounds.
Just What Is Mindfulness?
But what where they doing?
“The idea we are trying to impart is that life is inherently unpredictable,” Brumage explained. “We always believe you have to get into a certain state mentally to perform at your best. What mindfulness teaches us is that things are changing constantly but we can still perform if we can re-center ourselves to what’s happening at that moment.”
Think about if for a moment. You’ve heard a hot hitter talk about the baseball looking a beach ball coming to the plate and when he’s in a slump it looks like a Tic-Tac. Football players have similar slumps, throwing interceptions, missing blocks, missing tackles. Basketball players likewise, canning a string of 3-pointers one day and throwing up air balls the next.
This isn’t a physical thing in most cases.
“They talk about flow. Athletes say they are in the moment … the game slows down … the game comes to them. Those are all examples of flow states where the athlete is just performing well,” Brumage said.
“In mindfulness we train the brain — and this is a training, not a magic trick. You actually rewire your brain so you can become more calm, more present,” Brumage continued. “My goal is when a player goes on the field and gets a bad call, an interception, a missed tackle, trash talk from an opponent is a distraction … how do you re-center yourself, even just using a few breaths to come back into the present.
“What’s past is past. You can’t recover it. Thinking is the enemy of high performance. You learn how to re-center yourself. It isn’t that you are not thinking, but that you can go back to where you were before the bad things happened.”
Where There’s A Will
How does mindfulness work? Grier let the world in on how he used it with Brumage while at WVU. He told ESPN he kept notes on the daily habits he wnted to focus on, mostly daily meditation at the stadium for 20 minutes before workouts.
During his senior season, before each game, Grier would meditate with Brumage and Brumage told ESPN that he found Grier was unique.
“I’ve worked with many players who were very engaged,” he said. “There were players that would never miss a session before a game if I was available. But Will has kind of done this on his own, to a degree which I didn’t think was possible.”
They would sit on a veranda overlooking the Monongahelia River outside the team hotel for home games and Brumage would have Grier shut out the outside world and simply concentrate on him, the way his feet connected with the ground, his breathing.
Then he would take him through the game, thinking of the crowd, the sights and sounds.
“It’s next-level stuff,” Grier said. “Life-changing. I should’ve done it a long time ago. It would’ve helped … everything.”
Brumage hasn’t yet had a chance to meet with new WVU head coach Neal Brown, who has been going through the hectic stage of starting up his program in new place, to see if he is interested in keeping the mindfulness program intact, but if he were to ask Grier rest assured the answer would be a strong ‘Yes’.