Story 24

From Lonely, “Sad Clown”
to Clowning with Pals
and Getting Yoked

Illustration by Vince “Pixar” Palko at AdToons

They say most men live lives of quiet desperation. I could relate to that…a ton! 

It was the year 2007, like a frigid dousing of water  slapping me in the face, I sat in my favorite chair in the living room…stunned. 

Where once there were three girls under the age of 6 screaming, laughing and carrying on…there was now nothing. Feeling the cold leather armrest under my hand while I gripped it tightly, “What just happened?” The silence was deafening. Cursing all those days that I wished for silence in the house, I pleaded to an invisible shrink across the room to have it all back. 

This was the first night spent without my family. My wife (ex, now) took our three girls and moved into another house. A clear marker when my life began a slow downturn. Then the questions…“How could a Division I, mentally-tough-Butkus-award-nominee fail at the most important event in this chapter of his life? How could this happen to a two-time captain who led championship teams to victories?” 

Tears welled up in my eyes like someone filling buckets of water under a spigot.

Life after that grew lonely. Fast.

Many of my friends at the time were married. That’s the lie I told people who asked, “why don’t you go out now that you are free?” The reality — I had about a total of two friends who were divorced and available to “hang out.” Kiss your married friends goodbye. Have you ever tried to cajole a married man away from his wife to grab a beer? It’s not easy. And I get it. When I went to school functions, I had a few acquaintances to walk up to. But there were times when I’d be at these same functions feeling isolated and heading for the door as soon as I could because I maxed out time with those few friends.

Did I ever go out with other groups besides these two pals. Yes.

However these two were my homies. The challenge is that our topic of conversations were mainly about the nagging ex-wives. And nothing really productive. Nothing wrong with these guys; I’m still pals with them today. However, I always secretly wanted more friends. More options. More people who were aligned with achieving more out of life. Pushing ourselves to be better and not just slug brews in a bar or golf on weekends. 

My college football buddies for the most part faded with my divorce. Hey, I get it. We didn’t have much in common anymore. 

I remember clearly a few prayers sent up to the heavens. Lord, I’d like to have a couple more friends. Ones that are more aligned with my values. I know there are more fellas in this community with whom I can connect. I recall praying for this several times over the course of the last several years. There has to be a group I can get involved in. I looked on Meetup a couple times. That’s not for me. You never know who will show up at those spots. When I don’t have my children, life is pretty boring. The last thing I wanted was to be that guy who has two friends show up at his funeral several years down the road. 

Fast forward to last year in April. While at work in our production studio at the office, a call came in.

And it was a guy I recognized as a gent who I met back in 2015 at a cross country practice for my daughter. I was kind of hanging out by myself. Never really could make small talk with the other parents. But this guy, he was different. He was go-getter. Personable. A former athlete. We had a few things in common, and we hit it off from the start. 

The name came across my phone as Jared “Bielinski’s friend,” who was a mutual acquaintance of ours. And I didn’t know Jared’s last name. 

I set the phone down. “What the heck does he want?” We always said we’d stay in touch to maybe grab a beer, but I was in the middle of something. Five minutes later, I picked up my phone and listened to an audio recording, “Vince, this is Jared. We met at cross country. I’m not here trying to sell you anything. But I have something you might be interested in.”

Those few sentences changed the course of my life forever. I furiously called him back curious as hell. And after we spoke, I was hooked. We did three or four workouts pre-launch teamed up with the other regulars Bryan (Klinger) and Jason (Brute). 

Early on, the group of 3 invited me to “clown car” to Cleveland at 4am for a workout!!! I politely declined. I also declined the first time Jared (Colonel) asked me to go to grab bagels with him and Bryan. Hey, you gotta break me in slowly. 

The week before our launch, Colonel, myself, and Klinger were in Barry Bagels. Colonel asked Klinger, “Do you think you can really get 8 guys there next week?” 

Klinger replied, “Nothing has changed since you last asked me that 30 minutes ago…Yes!”

Colonel was nervous and anxious that no one would show up. I asked him, “Let’s say only 5 total show up, are we going to stop doing this?”

“No,” he said, “We are doing this!”

“Exactly, then let’s not sweat it. We are good,” I replied.

Then May 13, 2017 hit and everything changed. We had an amazing turnout of 46 guys. Picture a tailgate before a football game with a lot full of cars, but this group of men were all ages and sizes — stretching and warming up. That workout, like the previous pre-launch ones, blasted me. I felt spent, but I felt elated to have gone through a tough one with these new friends. And ever since my health and my outlook on life has drastically changed. 

Ever since that Saturday morning, I’m active in some way shape or form. I’m more health conscious. I no longer look in the mirror in disgust. Exercising with the PAX cures the loneliness of living in my empty house when my children are not with me. My girlfriend helps with that as well. 🙂

If you have ever run a marathon, you understand the feeling of 40,000 people snaking through a city, all with a common goal – cross the finish line! The energy you feel along the way is one of camaraderie. It’s one of pure positive energy that pulls you thru the race by the kind gestures and feedback from other racers along the way.

And that’s kinda the feeling you get with F3. But not really. There’s more. 

Imagine walking into a breakfast joint and half the people in there notice you and call you by your name. 

I used to crave something to do to get out of my house when the girls were with their mother. Since joining F3, there is always something going on. I have lunches with the fellas 1-2 times a week. We have breakfast every weekend. When you walk into one of these settings, everyone knows you and you feel a kinship, a belonging to a tribe that makes you feel great. 

My business is better because I’m always distracted with something going on in F3 instead of sitting around stressing about typical small-business stuff. Plus, this is an amazing networking tool. But in a way that naturally happens…it doesn’t feel forced. Leaving the office to have lunch allows you to meet someone who knows someone who needs what you do. And there are other opportunities to get to know one another. In our 2nd F (fellowship) events and the workouts themselves. Take a workout for example. One morning, I was out on a ruck (special forces style training with a weighted backpack while walking). Modell and I struck up a conversation. We shared what our jobs were. Turns out this meeting had synergistic energy, and we decided to have his people meet with my people. It’s led to some interesting possibilities on the business front. You never know who you are standing next to or what their connections might be until you ask questions about your F3 brother. 

And that brings me to one of the most important reasons I’ve stuck around in this group. 

That important reason for staying the course in F3 is the men. Good quality, trash talking, solid men who are liking to be and do better things. They have taken me in like one of their own. I’ve shared some very personal stuff with several of them, and they always have my back. 

What I appreciate about this group is every time we finish a workout we end in a COT – that’s code for “circle of trust.” We pray for families and individuals big and small. We share things we don’t typically share in a normal setting. This is your time to get things off your chest. And this is something we don’t share outside the circle. 

Let me tell you another aspect of F3 that always amazes me. Picture a brotherhood expanding outside your city limits. One that is nationwide and one day worldwide. I traveled back to my hometown of Stow, Ohio around Memorial Day. My brotherin-law, Bundy, was in town and always up for a workout. We set out to travel north (an hour) to workout with the F3 Cleveland chapter. We showed up and met guys like Mr Kotter, Magoo, Buchanan, and Patton. These guys took us in like their own… provided a wonderful beatdown (exercise) and then invited us for some 2nd F (fellowship) afterwards. We truly felt we were one of their tribe too. And we had only met one time before at our Toledo launch. I’ve worked out in Chicago as well and have realized if you travel, you will always find an AO (area of operation) to start your day off the right way. F3 and its network of fine men make you proud to be one of them. 

We have donated toys to children at Toledo hospital. We have sponsored families at Christmas and raised money for charities. I have a feeling this is just the beginning for this group. 

Bottom line, F3 is about something bigger than you and me. These men have honor, discipline, integrity, leadership, and a thirst to be more — that in turn makes you a better man. I don’t know about you, but that sounds like men I want to be around, because iron sharpens iron. 

Are all my challenges gone and life completely fulfilled? No. However, I’ll tell you that life is a ton easier to navigate when you are surrounded by outstanding men. And you can share your challenges in a non-judgmental arena. I’m grateful for God answering prayers. And I am grateful  for this fine group of men. 

When you join up with us, my goal is to make you feel welcome…that’s part of my role as 2nd F Q (facilitator of our fellowship gatherings). Even deeper than making you feel welcome, I want you to feel essential to our group…just like a guy named Jared (The Colonel) did for me and many other PAX members! 

Expect one more thing working out side-by-side with me in the gloom…“Good stuff, mang!”

Vince “Pixar” Palko

Check out other #Miracle stories.

2020 Winter Challenge

GOAL: Commit to F3 Toledo and your fellow PAX to live all three F’s. As the name clearly states, this is meant to be a “challenge.” We have upped the required point totals across the board. Don’t be intimidated. Embrace the suck with your brothers, get better and earn a badass t-shirt only a select few will ever be able to wear.

DURATION: January 1st through March 31st

COST: $15 – If you complete the challenge you will earn a custom F3 Toledo shirt designed by our very own world renowned artist, Pixar. You’re going to want this shirt! For those that do not finish, your money will be donated to Cherry Street Mission on behalf of F3 Toledo. 

Payment can be made via PayPal or cash to Ticket.

***For sizing purposes shirts will be similar in fit and quality to GoRuck t-shirts (Next Level 60/40 blend). These shirts won’t suck!

Submit your shirt size using this form.

REQUIREMENT: Accumulate 65 points over the 13 weeks and you will receive the shirt.

POINTS – (minimum requirements in each F)

  1. FIRST F – (30 – point minimum, 29 points from workouts, 1 from Q-ing)
    1. 1 Point for showing up to a regularly scheduled workout
    2. 1 Point for Q-ing a workout
    3. 1 Point for attending a workout at a “non-home” AO

**SO if you Q a workout at a non-home AO you will achieve 3 points in one workout**

  1. SECOND F – (5 Point Minimum)
    1. 1 Point for attending a Coffeeteria or Q-source after a regular beatdown
    2. 1 Point for attending a larger planned social gatherings of 5 or more PAX (i.e. lunches or evening events). Please give fellow PAX 48-hour notice with an event post
  1. THIRD F – (3 Point Minimum)
    1. 1 Point for attending a Cherry Street event
    2. 1 Point for attending a Bible Study
    3. 1 Point for participating in a cause of your own that pushes your comfort zone in involvement and community service. Contact Geppetto via GroupMe once complete.


  1. The SITE Q for the TOP 3 AOs (in total attendance) will earn a yet to be determined award.
  2. The SITE Q with TOP SITE OVERALL (in attendance percentage increase over 2019 average) will earn a yet to be determined award.
  3. TOP 3 PAX in POINT TOTAL will earn a yet to be determined award.

So rack up those points and sell your AO!

You can keep track of your stats/points here all winter long!

Story 23

Strength Through Brotherhood

Illustration by Vince “Pixar” Palko at AdToons

My story begins several years before F3 came to Toledo. When my second child was born in 2009, I was 60 pounds overweight and in poor condition physically. I was 30 years old but felt much older than that, like my best years were behind me. I successfully lost about 25 pounds by his first birthday through diet but without any exercise. Three years later, I had regained 15 of those pounds, and so began another round of weight loss, this time with some moderate exercise thrown in. Finally, I was no longer obese – just overweight! Unfortunately I regained some of this weight but not all of it. 

In January 2015, my wife and I decided to separate. It was an amicable separation, and we parted as partners and co-parents in raising our children. This life event pushed me to once again improve my body and to channel some of my stress and emotions. 

For several years, I wanted to run a 5K. I did track and cross country as a child, but I didn’t continue it through high school or as an adult. I did two 5Ks in the previous 2 years, but I was unable to run the entire race, easily becoming winded due to lack of cardio stamina and conditioning. My company was hosting a 5K on the campus and encouraged all the employees to download an app called C25K (couch to 5K) for training. The week before the 5K, I ran 4 miles during a training run. I completed the 5K in May 2015 easily in a little over 27 minutes. One of my friends encouraged me to train for a marathon which sounded crazy to me at the time.

Fast forward 18 months later, and I ran my first marathon, the NYC Marathon, in November 2016. NYC is my hometown and the excitement and energy during the race was incredible. I injured myself during my training and didn’t complete all of it. A combination of determination, Ibuprofen, and divine intervention propelled me and my strained calf muscle to finish the marathon in just under 5 hours. It was one of the greatest feelings of accomplishment in my life. Additionally, I lost another 35 pounds during this time, and I was finally at a normal weight and BMI for the first time as an adult. 

However, my physical transformation was nowhere close to being complete. I lost a lot of muscle in addition to fat during my weight loss and running. I was looking for something to take my conditioning to the next level. I began seeing a personal trainer at my company’s gym to start lifting weights. I was also doing HIIT (high intensity interval training) classes there as well. 

Then, I received the very unfortunate news in March 2017 that I was being laid off. My employer provided the inspiration and kick start to my running 2 years earlier, and the support I received really encouraged me, especially whenever I hit a roadblock in my training. I became depressed and started to lose focus, especially after I reinjured my leg and couldn’t run for a couple of months. Then a friend introduced me to a new exercise group starting in Toledo, F3. 

The first F3 workout in Toledo was Saturday, May 13, 2017. Several men drove from 2 hours away in Cleveland to lead our first workout. These guys were intense! Full of energy and brotherhood, I was in awe of their determination and fun leading the workout. It astounded me that they would drive 4 hours round trip, leaving home before 5 AM, to help us workout. I completed the workout excited and drained physically. I had a lot of work to do to keep up with many of the men there. Afterwards, we had fellowship at a local restaurant. The bonds the Cleveland men shared reminded me of my fraternity days in college which were the best of my life. 

During the summer, I looked forward to those Saturday morning workouts. They kept me distracted from being unemployed as I continued my job search. Some of the men I already knew from church or work. Many new friendships were made. Several job interviews were outside the Toledo area, and I knew I would miss my new F3 brothers if I took one of these opportunities and moved away. Luckily, I found another job in the area and began working there at the end of July. 

F3 grew tremendously that summer and fall. The single Saturday morning workout grew to six in the Sylvania suburb of Toledo. Workouts began in another suburb, Perrysburg, and in downtown Toledo as well. I would split my week between my running and my F3 workouts. I gained confidence in many workouts that previously intimidated me. As the weeks progressed, I could feel myself getting stronger, both physically and with the quality of my new friendships and connections. 

Then winter came. Winters in Toledo can be cold and brutal. The previous 2 winters were mild, but the Arctic cold came in early December. For my first cold weather workout, I didn’t dress appropriately, and one of my F3 brothers lent me his gloves as my hands were numb. It happened again a couple of weeks later. The men gave me tips on how to dress and prepare myself for the cold. 

Soon, I was looking forward to my outdoor workouts, and I began running in very cold temperatures as well. Previously I would not run below 20 degrees F. One morning I ran 4 miles in -4 degrees F temperature and got a thrill from the challenge of conquering the cold. While other people were spending the winter hibernating indoors, I was still able to enjoy being outside, thanks to the tips taught to me by my F3 brothers. 

My first accomplishment of 2018 was doing an unassisted pull-up. For some of the strongest men in our group, they could do ten or more pull-ups during a workout. For me, however, pull-ups were always something I can never do – not even a single one. During one of our cold weather workouts in the snow, I managed three consecutive pull-ups. For me, always one with thin arms, this was a major achievement. 

I achieved a lot before F3, but this special group of men helped me during a low time in my life and helped me reach another level of physical strength that I previously thought was unattainable.

Less than a year into my F3 journey, I can’t wait to see how far this group can take me.

Tom “Bagels” Russell

Check out other #Miracle stories.