By MARILYN TINNIN
One colorful member of the Mississippi Legislature who took on the challenge of signing up for Fit4Change, a Paul Lacoste sports camp, a few years ago described Paul as “an absolute freakin’ tyrant.” That’s one of the kinder things people have said of the “old” Paul—the person he was before his almost Saul-on-the-Road-to-Damascus conversion. In his drive to single-handedly move our state out of its first place rank in obesity, he once caused grown men to tremble and grown women to cry.
Paul Lacoste had a well-deserved reputation for being intense, passionate, and 100% devoted to his goals. He had pushed himself to overachieve in almost every aspect of his life for as long as he could remember. He expected nothing less of those he trained.
The most intimidating drill sergeant imaginable could not be more demanding than Paul Lacoste in the old days. There was coarse and abusive language at times. There was no sympathy for quitters, no rule bending in attendance requirements, no days off for inclement weather—unless, as Paul says, “It was lightening on my head.” Even now the slogan is, “Sleet, rain, or snow, Paul Lacoste Sports will always show.”
Despite the fear factor, those who endured the rigors had great testimonies of weight loss and a much-improved quality of life. The old adage, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” would be applicable here!
Almost ten years have passed since Paul launched his Fit4Change boot camps. The decade has brought a number of personally devastating events to the once invincible man. Along with a few Job-like challenges, God has tamed the grizzly bear and demonstrated, as He always does, what can happen when a person lays down his stubborn pride and surrenders to the Creator God whose purposes are always higher and more satisfying than his own.
The Driven Work Ethic
The youngest of four brothers, Paul came into the world determined to do whatever his siblings did and to do it even better. The tales of family competitions—from Ping-Pong to basketball games in the driveway to school report cards shared around the dinner table—are rich with memories of boisterous scuffles, occasional bloodshed, and more love, laughter, and sheer entertainment than a 1950s sitcom could create.
There were ten years between Paul and his oldest brother, Jace. In Paul’s eyes, Jace could do no wrong. When a neck injury in junior high school prohibited future contact sports, Jace poured his energy into running, becoming an All-SEC and All-American decathlon standout at MSU.
Brothers Lash and Ken, eight and four years older, found their niches, too. All were fine athletes and excellent students in the classroom as well. Although Paul showed strong athletic talent from his earliest days, he also demonstrated severe hyperactive tendencies, Attention Deficit Disorder, and Dyslexia. He could be disruptive in a classroom setting or even at the family dinner table. “I could drive everybody crazy,” Paul says. Those behaviors could have been his downfall except for the consistent discipline of a loving but very firm mother whom Paul calls “the backbone of our family.” Vivian Lacoste was never going to let those weaknesses be an excuse for academic failure.
Paul says, “She took me under her wing, said ‘these are the rules.’ She knew how much I loved sports, but the rules were that I had to have all my homework done, all my studying done before I could do anything else.” From first grade forward medicine helped his hyperactivity, but his mother kept on task, too, pushing and challenging her youngest son to give his best effort.
Paul’s father, Jay, had been a track star at LSU in the 1950s. An architect by profession, he was also passionate about competitive sports. He even incorporated the team concept in his very intentional parenting. With his 6’ 4” size and a booming voice, he commanded all the attention a head coach deserves. The boys adored their father but definitely had a certain healthy fear of him. He was their dad, not their buddy.
Breakfast and supper were team meals in the Lacoste family. Everyone sat in the same place day in and day out. At night, Jay would start around the table giving everyone an opportunity to share a story of their day. Paul loved hearing his older brothers’ stories. At the very end of the meal, his dad always had something to share. Quite often, it would be an article clipped from the day’s newspaper. It might even be a poem or a Bible verse, but there was always a character lesson in it.
Those lessons stuck with young Paul. One of his first important defining moments occurred because of a poem his dad shared at dinner one night. “The Man in the Glass” by Dale Wimbrow speaks of integrity in one’s life choices. Regardless of accolades or the world’s applause, the message is that a person cheats himself if he fails to give his best to every endeavor. It reiterates the scripture in Luke 12: 48, “…to whom much is given, much is required.”
A Defining Moment
Paul was bigger and taller than most of his classmates in elementary school. He was also far more athletically gifted than most. Jay Lacoste asked a renowned Olympic weightlifter, Berlyn Wedgeworth, who at that time worked at River Hills Club, to work with thirteen-year-old Paul one summer. It was Paul’s responsibility to get himself there on time via his bicycle.
Paul was sure he would be lifting big weights and heading back to junior high school after summer vacation as a hulking giant. Training, however, involved endless drills learning the proper stance and practicing the lifts with a broomstick. Paul decided this was boring and uninteresting and simply did not show up one day.
Berlyn appeared later at the Lacoste home, asked to speak to Paul and gave him a severe tongue-lashing. The chewing-out ended with Paul being told to never show his face to Berlyn again. Paul says, “If it was his intent to make me feel awful, he did a great job.”
Humiliated, but angry and indignant, Paul stretched himself across his bed and stared at the ceiling for the next few hours. It was late afternoon when he stood up, walked across the room and caught a glimpse of himself in the bathroom mirror. His first thought was that often-quoted and much-discussed poem, “The Man in the Glass.” He was suddenly over being mad at Berlyn. He knew then, what he had to do.
The next day he rode his bicycle to River Hills, walked into the office and apologized, telling Berlyn that if he would give him a second chance, he would never miss another workout. It is a promise he made to himself that he has never been able to forget.
Through high school, college, the pros, and the Canadian Football League, Paul has missed only ONE required workout. It was when he had the flu in college. Perseverance. God was building that into Paul. It would serve him well in later years.
Losing His Hero
After graduating from Jackson Prep in 1993, Paul headed to Mississippi State on a football scholarship. For Paul, there could be nothing more special than following in his brother Jace’s footsteps at his alma mater.
Division I schools give very few academy scholarships. That Paul got a scholarship at all says a lot about his drive, effort, and innate ability. However, his gung-ho 100% adherence to following the training requirements to the letter of the law rubbed some of his teammates the wrong way. He was the “Goody Two-Shoes” in the locker room.
He worked hard; He got decent playing time his first two years, but he was eager to get his first starting position. That milestone was to happen against Memphis his junior year. Jace called mid-week to tell Paul he would be there a day early to have a little brother time before Paul had to report to the team hotel. Paul thought this was definitely going to be the best week of his young life.
When he came in from class on Wednesday and headed to the cafeteria for lunch, one of his coaches told him he needed to call home because his brother Jace had been in an automobile accident. He rushed to call his dad who gave him the details they had at the time. Jace was at the Winston County Hospital. He had broken both arms and both legs, but, according to Jay, “He’s okay.” Jay instructed his son to go to the hospital to be with him because he was closer and could get there sooner than his mother and dad.
It was the next bit of information that Paul began to worry about. “I believe they are going to fly him home by helicopter.” Paul had worked out the previous summer with a medical student who had once told him, “Paul, whenever you find that helicopter, you know it’s bad.”
Paul began to think there was more than what his dad had been told. By the time he arrived at the Winston County Hospital, he had worked himself into such a frenzy he was ready to fight the truck driver who was in the other vehicle. A calm and compassionate doctor pulled Paul aside, told him Jace had already been airlifted to Jackson and that he needed to go home and be with his parents. The fact was that Jace had fallen asleep at the wheel. He had run into the path of the 18-wheeler, and his injuries were beyond critical.
Jace had to be okay. Paul could not imagine that the brother who had guided him, encouraged him, set the bar high for him, and told him often how proud he was of him could possibly be taken from him? God could never let that happen.
Paul raced to Jackson and arrived at Baptist Hospital only to find his heartbroken family waiting for him. Jace was gone. The grief was beyond description.
Paul robotically functioned for the next two days, surviving the funeral for his brother on Friday and immediately driving back to Starkville in order to make his first start in the football game against Memphis the next day. How different this day was going to be than the way he had envisioned it such a few short days before. Even so, the Bulldogs pulled off a stunning victory, and Paul had a stellar game. His grief had become anger, and his anger was energy.
If Paul had been a bit on the fanatical side previously, he was even more disciplined in his athletic preparation after Jace died than ever before. He excelled on the gridiron setting record numbers of tackles game after game and was named MSU’s Most Valuable Player in 1996.
Off the field, however, he was a train wreck. He drove his truck 100 miles an hour wherever he went and he didn’t care if he or anyone else lived or died. The angrier he got, the better he played and the harder he chased success in whatever he set his mind to achieve.
In his apartment, there was a little box his mother had given him—The Precious Promise Box. Inside were small cards with a single Bible verse on each one. He had read them daily during his freshman and sophomore years. He had believed the Scripture then. But he never opened the top again after Jace’s death.
Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places
Paul aspired to play professional football. He had great success in the Canadian Football League where he was named “Rookie of the Year” in 1999. He had short stints with the Indianapolis Colts, the XFL’s Memphis Maniax, and the Arena Football League’s Dallas Desperados. For someone who was as goal oriented as Paul had always been, it was a great disappointment to accept the fact that a long NFL career was a dream that was not going to come true.
Another grief to heap on top of the grief over his brother’s death, another issue he did not really work through. A tad more hurt to pile onto the hurt that was already there.
But then, he met someone and they married in 2006. Still, it did not “fix” all the broken places in Paul’s life.
After two beautiful baby boys, and several separations and reconciliations, she left for the last time on Christmas Day in 2012. Paul thought his world had collapsed. Little did he know he had a few more rungs on the ladder before he hit bottom.
He describes that first marriage as one in which, “I was not the Christian leader in my family that I should have been. That was my mistake. I was so insecure within myself.” Despite his perceived failure as a husband, he had been an involved and committed father. He knew how to love his two sons, and despite his brokenness, he had been a steady and loving father.
It was completely inconceivable that he might lose his children.
West Nile? Really?
All the while his marriage was falling apart, his training camps were taking off. He devoted the same passion and drive to developing them that he had devoted to every endeavor since first grade. The last professional coach who delivered the “you’re-cut-from-the-team” news had said to him, “It’s time for you to become a coach.”
When he came back to Mississippi in 2004, he began training one person at a time at the Courthouse on Lakeland Drive. Jackson native and Seattle Seahawk, Porkchop Womack was among Paul’s first clients. Other regulars in the gym began to notice Paul’s dogged determination and effective training skills. They began asking if they could join the training sessions.
It wasn’t long before the group had to leave the Courthouse. What began as one-on-one has, over time, evolved into training groups of 100-125 people an hour. It takes an outdoor stadium to accommodate the Paul Lacoste Training Camps these days!
Being outside all the time was essential to building the program. Mosquitoes are a known hazard of Mississippi summers. Paul paid little attention to them although they paid lots of attention to Paul.
In the summer of 2012, he noticed a growing number of small hematomas all over his body, but by the time he began to feel weak and sought medical attention, he was in a downward spiral. He was quarantined at the end of a hall at St. Dominic Hospital, with a team of infectious disease doctors asking him all sorts of questions. He had lost all use of his legs and he was getting worse by the hour.
A blood sample sent to the CDC in Atlanta revealed a severe case of West Nile Virus, so severe, in fact, that if he had not been in the prime physical shape he was, he would not have survived at all.
His doctor was somber as he delivered the diagnosis to Paul adding that his life would never be the same. Rehab would teach him to walk again, but he would never run or train at the level he had prior to this illness.
This was not the first time someone had underestimated Paul Lacoste.
The road back to health was a steep climb, but he did rebound to a degree that no one—except Paul—had expected. Word of his training camps was spreading. He had secured two respected sponsors, St. Dominic’s and the MS Beverage Association, as sponsors for his Fit4Change program, an arm of the Foundation he had begun in his brother Jace’s memory.
Outwardly, he was pushing forward just as he always had, but inwardly he was far more broken than he had ever been. He describes himself as “empty.” And the pain that had characterized his life since Jace’s death produced a demeanor that totally alienated many people.
After a particularly contentious game of golf near Starkville one afternoon, one of his foursome said to him, “Paul, you need help. You need God in your life.” Paul chewed him out.
Three weeks later he took a look at himself and thought, “That man is right.” He was hungry for a healed heart. Although he had been in church his entire life and knew the answers to all the questions, he was sure there was something more.
He began to read his Bible for the first time in at least a decade. He also began to slip quietly into Word of Life Church on Lakeland Drive every Sunday morning. He sat in the back and had no desire to talk to anybody. He just wanted to soak up the peace that was there and to find hope and direction in Pastor Joel Sims’ sermon. Sims did not disappoint.
A new Paul Lacoste was gradually emerging.
Ron Aldridge is one of several key people who had been involved with Fit4Change since its beginning in 2010. He had winced more than once at Paul’s language and verbal assaults on his trainees. A devoted prayer warrior who became a huge mentor to Paul, he saw in Paul a very conflicted and wounded young man who had great potential. He says, “Paul needed a God-sized fix in his entire life—faith, family, finances, and future.”
The “fix” did not occur overnight. Sometimes it seemed like Paul took three steps forward and two steps back. Ron continued to let him know that certain words and behaviors were simply not right, but he also let him know that he was praying for him. Paul did not take offense. He now appreciated all the help he could get!
In the midst of Paul’s efforts to tame his tongue, he would wake up at night and have flashbacks. “I would see faces of all these people that I had done wrong and I had spoken to improperly. It took me going through my own dark depression to understand and realize what those people might be going through.” Invariably, Paul would walk into the Kroger or the post office the next day and see the very person from his replay the night before. He began a series of personal apologies asking forgiveness and telling those people, “I’ve been humbled and I’ve changed.”
Ron has watched God work through others these past two years. One of the most significant of those has been Lizzie, who came out to summer training and eventually became Paul’s wife.
Because each had been through a painful divorce, they have been committed to keeping Christ in the center of their relationship from the start. Aside from enjoying the physical challenge of a tough workout together, they enjoy reading aloud to each other from the Bible and from books on successful marriage. On Sunday, you will find them teaching a second-grade Sunday school class at Pinelake.
Despite their obvious joy in each other, life has been anything but simple since they married in 2015. Paul has suffered this summer with a severe infection attributed to lingering effects of the West Nile virus. He has undergone three surgeries to remove dead muscle and fluid in his right thigh. He also has regular rounds of antibiotic infusions pumped through a PICC line in his upper arm.
A New Perspective
Paul’s passion for fitness has not diminished. If anything, it has increased and expanded in scope to include wholeness in body, soul, and spirit.
Paul tries to incorporate inspirational tidbits along with the physical discipline a bit like Jay Lacoste used to do around the supper table. As Ron Aldridge says, “He is a truly changed man of God and he’s daily working out to strengthen his life to God’s ‘next level.’ That’s the new mission.”
When The Clarion-Ledger did a piece on Paul last year, Frank Montgomery, whose daughter had graduated from Jackson Prep with Paul, picked up the telephone and invited Paul to have coffee with him. Paul had been a little nervous about putting the story out there, knowing that many would be skeptical. Frank just wanted to encourage him and tell him how proud he was of him.
Paul mentioned to Frank that he had been praying for months for a man to mentor him and teach him the Bible. It just so happened that Frank had been mentored years before in exactly that one-on-one way. His mentor’s only request was that Frank would take what he had learned and pass it on to another younger man one day.
As Paul says, “Mr. Frank has a whole series he goes through and I have learned to memorize Scripture so that when I go out to training I start praying, ‘God, control me. Help me with my words. Help me to be the best coach that I can be for these people.’”
“My goal is to help people in our state, but now I look out there in training and I see these people trying so hard. What I feared I was going to lose in my softer training methods was the effort, but you know what? I think they try harder now than they ever did when I was yelling and screaming.”
It used to be about fear. Now, it’s about love, loyalty, and pleasing Jesus.