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March 17, 2020

A Rare Conversation With “Laser” from American Gladiators on Mental Toughness

Did you ever watch American Gladiators growing up? I used to LOVE watching that show.

So when “Laser” from American Gladiators reached out to me, I was like whaaaaaat?

Laser was half all-American and half brawler. Shit, I used to cheer for him when he would get DQ’d for being a little ‘extra’!

Turns out, all of America loved Laser. He ended up being the longest-serving Gladiator on the show…

… and also one of the most injured.

He fought through physical injuries while filming but still put on entertaining performances episode after episode.

Prior to being on the show, Jim played for the LA Rams in the NFL and won a bodybuilding title as Mr. Montana.

When I think of tough guys, Jim is definitely someone who exemplifies that image which is why we decided to talk about mental toughness.

I describe “mental toughness” as getting yourself to do something even when you don’t want to, because you committed.

As I learned, Jim’s entire story is about mental toughness but…

… there’s so much more to him. Within minutes of our conversation, we went to some very vulnerable places, unearthing emotions and times in his life that he rarely speaks about.

Our stories related on so many levels and he taught me a lesson I’ll never forget.

One that I hope you’ll use in your life if you find yourself in a situation where you want to heal a relationship.

By the end of our conversation, Jim had become a friend. 

I still admire his accomplishments and will always be a Laser fan, but more than anything, I see the man that Jim is, and feel nothing but love.

As you dive into this interview on mental toughness, please also see that without love, Jim’s life would be incomplete. A lesson for all of us.

If you’re into throwbacks like me, then you’re going to love this interview.

Without further ado, I bring you Jim “Laser” Starr… 

What’s your story? How did you cultivate mental toughness? 

Discipline is something we learn somewhere along the line of our lives. 

But I’ve always lived by my motto, “Never surrender.” 

It’s what I try to instill in all aspects of my life, including my family. I try to live by this attitude every single day. 

Where it really started was with football and my dad.

I was born and raised in Great Falls, Montana. I came from a poor family. My dad was a contractor but was one heck of an athlete. He went to Washington State on a full-ride for boxing and football. 

But he had a bar fight, and they kicked him off the team. He had to come back to Montana to work for his dad in construction. He basically just hated his life because he was cut short of his dreams.

As a result, alcohol consumed him.

It was tough as a little kid having my mom drive me to the bar as an eight-year-old and telling me to go get my dad. The good thing was my dad was a pleasant drunk.

But for most of my life, I was always looking for his attention and affection. I loved sports, especially football, so by playing hard and being better than anybody else I was trying to get his attention. I was just looking for a hug or a “Jim, you’re great.”

But I never got that. 

So I focused all my energy and toughness in sports trying to earn my dad’s affection. I was the leading rusher and had quite a few scholarship offers for football by the time I graduated high school.

What did your football coach see in you that got you to the NFL?

Well, I choose to go to Montana State University, where they recruited me as a fullback. Doug Graber was the coach, and he saw that I had incredible mental toughness during winter conditioning; That I could handle the brutality of getting up at 5 AM in January in Montana and work out till 6:30 AM every day during the winter. Not only toughing the workouts but leading the team during the conditioning as well without really knowing it.

I never showed weakness and encouraged my teammates to keep driving. You know, “balls to the wall.

And that’s when Doug approached me and said, “Hey, I think you have mental toughness or a defensive mindset. What do you think about switching from running back to linebacker? I think it’ll give you better chances of going to the NFL, because I know that’s your life long dream.

So, I gave it a shot and didn’t look back.

What’s the difference in mindset from an offensive to a defensive player? 

Being on defense is about the “never surrender” attitude. You just want to kick-ass. You just have a completely different meanness from whistle to whistle.

I think other athletes can relate when I say I was just trying to set myself free, and there was a rage that came with trying to break out of the box.

That’s how I felt when I played, especially when I became a defensive player. As a linebacker, I was allowed to be the person I actually was, and I just flourished.

Does mental toughness come from aggression?

I was and still am a very aggressive person. In many ways, I’m still trying to tame that side of me.

I’m an easy-going guy, but when it comes to sports and being tough, I become a completely different person. I really do want to rip your head off. I feel it. I visualize it. 

But as soon as that whistle blows to end the play, I’ll shake your hand, I’ll carry you off the field, heck I’ll give you a pat on the ass too.

Could you turn mental toughness on and off? Did you have any rituals?  

You know, I never had any rituals. I was able to turn it on and off. In many ways, it was like an out of body experience or a dream. Sometimes I will watch my college games, and be like, “I made that play?” I don’t even comprehend what I did because, during the game, I was so in tune with the game and lost in the moment.

Having that level of intensity and aggression is almost like being intoxicated. You get crazy, you blackout. It was almost a blackout when I played football and when I was a Laser on American Gladiators.

Did wanting recognition from your dad make you mentally tough?

I was always trying to impress my dad by being this great football player. Just to have him react and give me some recognition. Without that recognition, I kept wanting to get better and better and bigger and bigger. 

In his last few years of life, I had to forgive my dad for not showing me love. It was really tough! We both went to a men’s retreat so that we could be men and so I could let him know that he did the best job he knew at the time. But more importantly, to tell him that I loved him.

It’s crazy because I was 47 and was still very intimidated by my dad. And I remember, I wanted to take him out to dinner, but I got some pushback, and I was kind of intimidated, but I persisted, and we went to dinner.

At dinner, I put my arm around him, and he kind of gave me a nudge like, “What are you doing?” Cause I never touched my dad just to give him love, and he really never touched us as kids. Anyways, I put my arm around him and told him, “Hey dad, I just want you to know that I love you and think you did an outstanding job of raising my siblings and me.”

Without a moment’s hesitation, he looked at me, put his arm around me and said, “You know what? I love you. I know growing up, you were always trying to get my attention. I acknowledge that.” 

It was one of the most powerful moments in my life. The amount of pain and sadness that I felt in my heart, I could feel it coming off my shoulders.

I was on top of the world with those simple words. And we had the best relationship for another seven years before he passed.

And because of my relationship with my father, I was more one-on-one encouraging with my team. I was turning myself into what I really wanted from my dad. It’s such an “Aha” moment for me right now. 

I realize that I never surrendered my ambition, but it took a level of mental toughness to surrender and let go of the suffering I was holding onto with my dad.

How did mental toughness help you through the NFL and your career? 

My junior year, I broke all kinds of records. Like most tackles in the season, and a ton more. But my senior year, I hurt my ankle, and I was out three games, and my team didn’t do so well. We were one in ten, and that kind of record doesn’t get a lot of recognition from scouts.

I was expecting to get drafted, but unfortunately, I didn’t. I didn’t fit the mold, I wasn’t tall enough, and my team didn’t have a good record. I was drafted by the United States Football League on the San Antonio Gunslingers, which I turned down.

Mentally, I was really discouraged because the Gunslingers drafted me, but I didn’t hear back until two weeks later! So that was a sign to me that maybe USFL wasn’t going to flourish. But I stuck it out with my agent. Eventually, I became an undrafted free agent with the Kansas City Chiefs, but I got hurt in the fourth preseason game, so they cut me.

Related: How does Meditation Help Athletes? 

I went home and played with the Toronto Argonauts, but they have silly rules about how many Americans can be injured on their reserve team so they would cut you, send you home, or train you for a different team. It wasn’t my idea of a professional team, so I stayed home.

I was really down on myself. Thinking what am I going to do with my life? I thought my playing days were over, I was pretty depressed, so I started doing other stuff because I had to keep going. 

So I started bodybuilding, and I did Mr. Montana. I started looking for jobs as a PE teacher since my degree was in physical education. I wrote tons of letters and applied everywhere, and I never received an offer back. It sucked! I was thinking to myself I had good grades and I played in the NFL, what school wouldn’t a football coach?

I was so disheartened and disappointed. But my family pulled through for me, and my grandfather helped me land a job at the LA athletic club. I drove out to California all by myself in my little Mazda B 2000 pickup truck.

I was so lonely, again thinking about what I was going to do with my life? My whole life was football, but I was working at the LA Athletic Club with an old retired me. I was so depressed the entire time I worked there. 

One day, my agent called me and said the Rams were looking for a linebacker. So I quit my job, tried out, and made the team. But unfortunately, during our first game against the Saints, I was blindsided and hurt seriously. I fractured my scapula and had a punctured lung. 

At that point, my playing days were over.

How did you get involved with American Gladiators?  

During my time with the Rams, I met Dan Clark, who later became Nitro on the Gladiators. He and I were roommates while I was living off the settlement from the Rams. At that time, we started doing commercials and were doing pretty well. I was also working towards becoming an LAPD officer. 

One day, our agent called us and said there was a show called American Gladiators, and here’s what you do to get on it. I tried out and got the position on the show, but I had to make a decision.

Was I going to pursue being an officer and get a career or kick-ass and be an athlete? It took me five minutes to make up my mind and say I was going to do the Gladiators.

Being on the LAPD wasn’t my passion. I just wanted a job to take care of myself and my family. It was a tough decision, but having the never surrender attitude and being fueled by competition pushed me to choose Gladiators. Since football was taken away from me so early, I was still committed to becoming the best athlete, and I knew what it takes. American Gladiators was in my wheelhouse, so I went for it.

Becoming an American Gladiator was a tough decision between practicality and passion, but it was the right one. I became the longest-running gladiator in the seven and half seasons and did more shows than anybody else. 

You were the longest-running Gladiator and also the most injured. It would have made sense to quit and move on sooner. How did you get yourself to stick with it?

There were a lot of setbacks and a lot of heartaches. I had 14 surgeries during my time on the show. It was physically grueling. I had nine surgeries shooting the show in those seven years, mostly full rotator cuff repairs and stuff for my shoulders. 

I started thinking if I was going to continue being a gladiator. My life revolved around being in shape and healthy so that I could be competitive. But I was getting all these surgeries and going through rehab, I was so tired and worn out.

After the sixth and seventh surgery, I was at the point where my body wasn’t taking it, but my mind just kept pushing me forward. I was just saying to myself, “You can keep going,” because I loved the competition and showing off my athletic ability even though the money wasn’t great.

I kept pushing even when we were shooting 26 to 29 episodes in a matter of three weeks during the middle of summer. We would shoot two to three episodes each day, even if we got hurt (which most of us did). We had to fight through the pain because we only got paid for the shows that we were on. We knew what was on the line, so we pushed towards the light at the end of the tunnel. 

I got hurt every second or third episode, which is like the first or second day of filming! But I knew I could get through it because it was only two or three weeks of my life and that the money fed my family, helped me buy a house, and let me travel the world.

But in hindsight, the show owned our names, and all the memorabilia they came out with that had the names “Laser, Lace, Nitro” stamped on them. I was on the American Gladiator vitamin line, macaroni and cheese boxes, bubble gum, Halloween costumes, key chains, you name it. None of us saw any of those royalties even though we created those personas. 

So when the show ended abruptly in 1996, it was sad, but at the same time, it was actually a relief. 

What’s your advice for entrepreneurs who feel they’ve gone “soft,” and lost their mental toughness? 

Mental strength is not a quick burst that you can use to override your body, doubts, and ego. Mental strength is doing hard work even when you don’t want to do it because you’ve committed yourself. 

No doubt we all go through the process of at some point losing self-commitment. But know that your mental toughness never goes away even if you start to get lazy. It’s always there, and you have to figure out how to get it back.

Really, you need to do two things: shift your mindset and create a goal for yourself.

Start with your inner voice and shifting your mindset the moment you wake up in the morning. Change the way you look at life every day. If you wake up and think it’s going to be a crappy day, then guess what? It’s going to be a crappy day. 

But if you wake up and tell yourself that you are going to jump out of bed, turn on some music, and tell yourself that you’re going to love life and tackle the day like it’s your last? You’ll change your entire day.

Yes, you’ll have setbacks, but if you’ve started your day with a positive mindset, you’ve already won. So stop thinking that you’re depressed. No, you’re not, get those thoughts out of your head and wake up with a better attitude, and say positive affirmations to yourself. 

Next, you have to go after something big. You have to have goals for yourself. So let’s say your goal has always been to make money and be financially healthy. But what happens when you’ve got enough money in the bank and all of a sudden you don’t have anything going on in life? You need a new goal.

Think about it, without a goal, where will you use your mental toughness? So come up with crazy goals for your life. Maybe it’s just to be a better person. Maybe it’s to give back. There are so many things you can do with your life when you set a new path for yourself.

Give your life a bigger purpose. 

Related: High Vibes 101: A Practical Guide For Emerging Leaders

I heard you’re starting a business competition called 365 Achieve It. What is this competition about and how can people learn more? 

My wife and I created this business after reflecting on our success. We wanted a way to give back to business owners, entrepreneurs, and visionaries who have big plans but always find that money, bills, are holding them back. 

We kept hearing from these people that they didn’t have enough money to pursue their business idea because they were strapped to monthly bills. Like think about it, what could you do if you didn’t have to pay monthly bills? So much! So we thought it would be a great way to give back to people who want to fulfill their destiny with a membership contest where the winner gets a $5,000 a month stipend to get their business off the ground. 

All they have to do is submit a two-minute video explaining what their goal is. If they win, they get access to some of the top business minds to help guide them and the money to make it work. 

We’re in a position to help these young dreamers see their vision come to fruition, and we’re excited to launch 365 Achieve It. There are no strings attached, we’re not taking equity. We’re literally just awarding someone a 5K stipend to cover their daily expenses and build the business of their dreams.

But we’re going to hold our young entrepreneurs accountable. The person we choose has to send us updates and feedback, letting us know of their progress. We want to see results. So we’re also going to help these entrepreneurs by providing mentorship and guidance with seasoned experts. 

There’s no hook, line, and sinker. If you’re chosen, you get the stipend, mentorship, accountability, and the opportunity to make your business happen. How powerful is that?

Anybody who’s interested can learn more at 365achieveit.com

* * * 

I really think Jim is a national treasure and though he’s not very public about his private life, I felt honored to have had such an in-depth conversation with him. 

I left out all of my dialogue from the interview, though that’s really what brought out such depth in our conversation. 

It was an honor to talk as men and as friends… coming from a boy who looked up to a Gladiator.

Ditch the struggle and live in flow

My first book, “Bling”, comes out this fall

“Bling” is a parable that teaches the principles of a yogic lifestyle through the lens of hip-hop.

>>Pre-order “Bling”<<

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