The doctor told him to count sheep in his head.
Fernando Silva sat on a cot in a hospital room, and the only thing that could keep his mind off his impending surgery was the imaginary sheep that were bouncing around in his head. He started his countdown at 100.
Now a senior wrestler at IU, Silva had grown accustomed to laying in the hospital over his wrestling career. The first time, he squirmed with uneasiness.
Silva was competing in a national tournament before his junior year of high school when his leg was twisted in a match. Pain shot through his right knee, and he had to withdraw with an injury default. Later, he learned that he tore his right meniscus and needed surgery.
Silva wasn’t daunted with the reality of rehabbing his injury. He knew it wouldn’t stop him from reaching his goal of wrestling in college.
Silva wouldn’t allow second thoughts to fester in his mind. It’s a characteristic that Silva has carried with him throughout his whole wrestling career, from his two years at Notre Dame College in Ohio where he was a DII All-American, to when he found a home in Bloomington, after transferring to IU for his final two years of eligibility.
After almost every practice at IU, Silva stays in the wrestling room to get in extra work, which is how he earned significant time in competition so far this year.
He has always been that way. Before college, he was in the wrestling room until his coaches kicked him out. He still went home and trained more with his brother.
“He’s such a big piece to the program,” IU head coach Angel Escobedo said. “He’s showing guys how much he’s putting into the program and making everybody better. So now, that sets the expectation for when new freshman come in, upperclassmen are helping them too.”
Escobedo says that three or four times a week his phone will buzz with messages from Silva on Instagram. He sends Escobedo wrestling videos. “Did you see this?” the messages read.
While he was still in high school, he built his work ethic by rehabbing from injuries. Silva didn’t let himself get discouraged.
“I was taught that whatever you’re doing, there’s always someone doing more,” Silva said. “I always wanted to be the guy that was doing something more. If they’re prepared, I wanted to be more prepared.”
Silva’s mother, Jennifer Silva, always saw her son working at his craft.
“He’s such a hard worker,” Jennifer said. “If he was asked to do 50 sit ups and 50 pushups, he would do 100 of each.”
One time, Jennifer got a call from the school office. Fernando was supposed to be at lunch but couldn’t be found in his assigned area.
“Guess where he was?” Jennifer said with a laugh.
Silva was in the gym.
“I couldn’t even get mad,” Jennifer said.
After successful surgery, Silva was eager to get back on the mat for his junior year at Hononegah High School, in Rockton, Illinois.
Silva was always the first to arrive in the wrestling room for practice, and he had a routine when he entered. He would hop on the stationary bike with the lights off. Everything was dark, and all he did was pedal.
His legs churned back-and-forth, as he focused on the window and the light that filtered through it. The plum and gold colored walls in the Hononegah wrestling room were swallowed up by the darkness.
On his road to recovery, Silva’s family, coaches and friends kept his spirits up.
Once he was healthy again, Silva returned to practice with one of his coaches, Bryce Givens. Givens, who also had wrestled at Hononegah, took Silva under his wing and helped to improve his technique. The two worked out together and formed a tight bond.
One time, a song blared in the wrestling room during a workout. Silva broke out in a spontaneous dance. Givens started laughing.
“When you win the state finals, I want you to dance like that,” Givens said with a wide grin.
Silva remembers the energy that Givens would bring everyday.
“He was always smiling, cheek to cheek,” Silva said about Givens. “Our emblem for him was a thumbs up. Win or loss he would say ‘we got this’ and had a thumbs up.”
Another important figure in Silva’s life was Jozie Pobjecky, a girl that Silva met in middle school and became close friends with. Jozie was involved with the high school wrestling program and radiated positive energy. Over the years, Silva developed a relationship with her family too.
Earlier in the year, she had been diagnosed with cancer and underwent chemotherapy.
Despite her own obstacles, Jozie’s positive influence on Silva didn’t falter.
Silva would visit her whenever he could. They would talk about their family, wrestling or school gossip.
“She was always happy and excited when I was doing well,” Silva said. “Even when I was doing bad, she was still there. She would tell me that I’m going to go in there and practice better the next day.”
Through his rehab, when he was pushing through the pain, she encouraged him.
“They would hang out when Fernando would have some time away from training,” Jennifer Silva said. “Her mom talked to me all of the time and she appreciated how gentlemanly Fernando was and what their friendship meant to Jozie.”
Fernando and Jozie stayed by each other’s side, even when times were tough.
Tragedy spun Silva’s world.
It was November of his junior year, and he was finally healthy. One day during practice, Givens was right beside Silva, participating in one of the drills. A group of four wrestlers, including Givens got tangled up, and Givens was kicked in the head.
The paramedics were called and Givens was rushed to the hospital.
At school the next day, all the wrestlers were asking each other about Givens. No one had received any updates.
In the afternoon the Hononegah principal pulled Silva out of class. He told Silva that Givens had passed away from the incident.
He was only 24 years old.
Just one day ago Silva was standing right next to Givens. Now, he was gone.
No more workouts together, no more dancing, no more joking around.
“The kids looked up to him a lot because he was younger; he was always giving them good advice and bringing positive energy,” Jennifer Silva said. “He was always the go-to person for the kids to talk to. He was a great mentor.”
That day, the wrestling team just sat in the practice room. The black cushioned mats didn’t provide any relief. They all talked. And grieved. And hung up Givens’ headgear as a memorial for him.
A plaque sits outside of the wrestling room to remind the next generation of Honenegah wrestlers of his influence.
Silva and the rest of his teammates wanted to make sure that Givens wouldn’t be forgotten, so they had “BG” embroidered onto their singlets, and had the letters stitched into their sweatshirts.
Silva was also in a digital media class at the time. For a project, he uploaded a Superman shirt and designed a “BG” into the middle of the shirt, in place for where the “S” usually resides.
The whole team was at the funeral, and they all sat in a group with the Givens family. Silva and his teammates donned the BG superman shirts.
To the team, to Silva, Givens was their superman.
“It was nice to see all of the people show up for him,” Silva said.
From then on, before each match, Silva laced up his wrestling shoes with a special tribute. The black trim cut through the mustard yellow base. On the left shoe “RIP” was penned in sharpie. On the right, read the letters “BG”.
It was as if Givens never left him.
Silva didn’t need to count sheep anymore.
He made two more trips to the surgical center before his senior year. Silva tore his left meniscus as it caved in to the status of his other leg. His left leg required surgery after another wrestling incident.
Then, he put too much stress on his right leg, causing it to be inflamed for the second time and sending him back to the hospital. This time, when Silva was prepped for surgery, he wasn’t nervous anymore.
Silva was eventually able to get healthy for his senior year. Givens still motivated him, and Silva held him in his mind — and on his shoes.
Jozie continued her treatment, but her health was steadily declining. She wasn’t able to come to any wrestling matches and wasn’t attending school anymore. Eventually, she entered hospice care.
They still stayed in contact. Jozie sent him a message of encouragement before the state tournament. The competition Silva had been working towards since his first surgery, since Givens, since his next two surgeries. They checked in on each other, even when there seemed to be no light.
In the Illinois state championship, a long black tunnel welcomes the wrestlers onto the mats, and lights flash at the end.
Before practice, he pedaled on the bike in the dark knowing that it would prepare him for his goal — a state title. He advanced through each round, inching closer to the vision that repeated itself in his head.
He stood at the end of the long passageway. This time he wasn’t on a bike but rather in his wrestling shoes.
It felt like another day to him when he raced through the tunnel for the state championship. He had visualized this situation through his mind so many times that he wasn’t nervous or scared.
Silva was determined to come out on top. And he did, as he pinned his opponent.
The first thing he did was throw off his ankle bands and start dancing.
It was for Givens.
Silva pointed up to his family in the crowd and leapt into his coach's arms. He was supposed to be interviewed right after the match, but he raced passed the announcers. His father jumped over the railing, past the security guards to hug Silva.
Jennifer Silva was in the stands for her son’s triumph.
“I always believed in him,” Jennifer Silva said. “I always said what you put in is what you get out. It was surreal. It was something that we were so extremely proud of him, after going through all of those adversities. Every bit of sweat paid off.”
Jennifer Silva didn’t want to pick up the phone.
She didn’t want to dial her son’s phone number. She didn’t want to tell him that his friend died. She didn’t want her son to hurt anymore.
Fernando Silva’s phone rang.
“I know that Jozie would love it if you’d carry her casket,” Jennifer said.
Jennifer comforted him and told him to do what Jozie would be proud of. It was another death, another hardship, another friend taken away.
“He is a very strong person,” Jennifer said. “You could tell that it hurt him. But, as a parent, I just told him that you have to appreciate life and do things right because you don’t know when it's your last day.”
Just a week before, Silva had promised to visit her.
Jozie Pobjecky died on April 7, 2016. She was surrounded by her family in her home. It was just one month before she was set to walk across the stage in a cap and gown.
Even though she didn’t walk across the stage, the administration at Hononegah wanted to ensure that she was an official graduate. The principal visited her house with a diploma, and she became an alumna. When photos were being taken after, Jozie struggled to keep her head upright.
Silva was down, but he knew how to escape, how to get back on his feet and lunge for the takedown. He thought about what Jozie, and Givens meant to him and what they stood for.
“I realized that they wouldn’t want to see me being sad because that’s the way that they were,” Silva said. “They would want to see me being happy.”
He carries them with him, by the way he acts, the way he competes and the way he lives. Through strife and struggles, Silva continues to strive for greatness.
As he competes in his final season at IU, he still does.
It’s his tunnel vision.