"He believed in me and showed me that if I work hard there's nothing I can't do in life," says Brandon Reed

By Caitlin Keating
August 15, 2019 09:00 AM
Credit: Melissa Vance

Tom McKenna had been a firefighter for nine years when he took on a part-time job as the wrestling coach at Iroquois High School in Louisville, Kentucky.

He knew coaching would take a lot of work, but he never imagined that he’d become a father figure in the process.

It was on his first day in September 2015 when McKenna arrived at the school and immediately felt welcomed by then-16-year-old Brandon Reed. The student athlete showed him around, taught him how practice was run and made him feel at home.

“He had this strong drive and passion to succeed,” says McKenna, 31, who wrestled in high school and became an MMA fighter in his 20s. “I wanted to help make him the best wrestler he could possibly be.”

It quickly became apparent that Reed and his fellow students, who lived in a low-income area, had very few resources. Soon, McKenna, who was also expecting a baby boy of his own with his girlfriend, found his role going beyond their work on the wrestling mat.

Coach McKenna drove Reed to meets and practices and got him part-time work cutting lawns and shoveling snow. He even made time for Reed during his 75-hour work weeks at the firehouse, where he’d cook healthy meals for the teenager.

“Brandon became like a son to me,” McKenna says in the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.

Brandon Reed
| Credit: Angie Lewis

At the end of the school year, when McKenna decided to relocate to Taylorsville, Kentucky, with his girlfriend and their infant son, he invited Reed to come with them.

“I told Brandon, ‘Hey, if you want to live with me, we’ll make it work,'” he said.

After Reed’s mother gave her blessing, “Our journey really began,” says McKenna.

The two didn’t just train together. McKenna taught Reed how to do everything from drive to manage money and learn how to be independent.

Says McKenna: “He began to grow not just as a wrestler, but as a young man.”

Tom McKenna and Brandon Reed
| Credit: Courtesy Tom McKenna

Reed excelled during his senior year at Spencer County High School in Taylorsville, which is about an hour away from where he once lived in Louisville. With McKenna’s guidance and encouragement, he accepted a full scholarship to Lindsey Wilson College in Columbia, Kentucky, where he won the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics Championship this past March.

When Reed looks back at everything his coach did for him, he says he’s “beyond grateful.”

“I don’t know where I would be without him,” says Reed, now 21, who plans to graduate in May 2021. “He believed in me and showed me that if I work hard there’s nothing I can’t do in life.”

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