“I know how easy it is to die,” he said.
For Mihail Dincu, each step is a reminder.
A stroke left him a half-broken man 13 years ago, with a consequent limp that hinders Dincu’s walk to this day.
It was one of the first things I noticed when we crossed paths in January.
On a Wednesday afternoon, I stood outside the Recreation Center wrestling room, approximately 15 minutes before the start of practice.
I had a notebook full of questions for Devon Lotito, the freshman wonder who stole the show during Cal Poly’s disappointing 2013 season, installing a glimmer of hope in the Cal Poly wrestling program.
I was early, so Dincu, donning a Cal Poly athletics polo, arrived before the wrestlers hit the mats.
As he limped toward me, I could tell he was older, with a head of thin, white hair and wrinkles on his face surrounding a pair of piercing green eyes.
I told him I worked for Mustang Daily and was waiting to interview Lotito.
He spoke in broken English with a foreign accent I couldn’t place, but responded with the four clearest words I’ve ever heard him say.
“You should interview me.”
After some back and forth communication, Dincu and I finally sat down for an interview in February.
It lasted exactly one hour.
I said fewer than 50 words.
What I learned in those 60 minutes was that Dincu’s life is a jigsaw puzzle.
The pieces come in thick envelopes, plastic bags, frayed photos and old newspaper articles, countless stories and moments.
To give the simplest introduction, Dincu is a Romanian massage therapist and an employee of Cal Poly athletics.
He now resides in San Luis Obispo, but Dincu has been everywhere from Eastern Europe to Southern Alabama, and everywhere in between. He’s been a personal athletic therapist to Canadian Olympic sprinter Ben Johnson and a masseur to the San Antonio Spurs.
Dincu’s past is elaborate and mysterious to say the least.
But the key to unraveling that past has been Dincu’s voicemails.
He calls on a regular basis — to let me know his schedule, to add on to his quotes from the interview, or just to check in.
He called me 11 times in the month of April alone, which led to a crowded inbox, but those voicemails say more about Dincu than anything else.
3/13/13: Voicemail seven of 11
Jacob, talk to me, brother. What’s happening? Last night, (baseball) played San Jose. I warmed them up, then I went for a kick at The Pit. Go back watch, 5-2, San Jose. I went to their dugout and started to encourage Cal Poly, we won 6-5. You ask, what’s so special with me? I remember last year, the same thing. It was 7-2, they finished 9-8. How can I explain if you don’t talk to me? Are you doing any progress on your homework, that famous paper? Bye.
Around Cal Poly, Dincu is known as “Super Mike.”
It’s a fun nickname, and a testament to Dincu’s supernatural abilities as a masseur, but the fact of the matter is: He might be a legitimate good luck charm.
In 1975, Dincu took his talents to FC Steaua București, the Romanian army soccer team.
It hadn’t won the Liga I — the top league in Romania — and the Cupa Romániei in the same season since 1953, but with Dincu on hand, Steaua București won both in 1976.
During that first season with the club, he also met Iosif Vigu, a midfielder who rarely played because of his old age.
Dincu massaged Vigu on a regular basis, and was “giving energy to him.”
In 1977, the 34-year-old Vigu placed fifth in the Romanian Footballer of the Year rankings.
“Very rare,” Dincu said. “Probably some paranormal thing. In this society, which is so rational, it sounds superstitious. I can’t explain this.”
Dincu’s magic ways have not subsided.
In November of 2007, Dincu crossed paths with Cal Poly alumnus and renowned mixed martial arts fighter, Chuck “The Iceman” Liddell — by accident, according to Dincu.
Liddell was warming up on the exercise bike one day, when the former Cal Poly wrestler got a muscle cramp.
Naturally, Super Mike worked his magic.
“He was losing all his previous fights,” Dincu said. “(Liddell) said, ‘I want you.’”
Prior to meeting Dincu, Liddell was crowned as the UFC light heavyweight champion in 2005, and defended that title in four consecutive fights.
But The Iceman went cold in 2007, losing his title in May and failing to recapture the crown in September.
So in December, Dincu joined Liddell’s entourage and accompanied him to UFC 79, a light heavyweight matchup against Wanderlei Silva at the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas.
Liddell’s crew consisted mostly of fighters, people who Dincu had no business being with.
“But (Liddell was) probably superstitious,” Dincu said. “He thought I am good for him.”
Liddell was right.
He defeated Silva by unanimous decision, and the matchup was voted 2007’s Fight of the Year at the first annual World Mixed Martial Arts Awards.
“I can feel it, something magic in me,” Dincu said. “I was blessed. It happens all the time. I can tell you any situation of that.”
2/24/13: Voicemail four of 11
I don’t know why he did not come to the changing room like I told you, because I don’t have a cellular telephone. I am busy. I am one, and they are so many. So, you got the message.
Dincu is as punctual as a man can be.
His irritated-toned voicemail came after a Cal Poly baseball game, where I arranged for a co-worker of mine to meet Dincu and pick up some old photos he had — some more pieces to the puzzle.
Obviously the connection wasn’t made, and Dincu wasn’t happy.
“I hate to wait for somebody,” he said. “I’m so precise. I told these guys, you’ve got to be five minutes early, then you are on time. If you are on fixed time, then you are late.”
The first time I met Dincu was the one and only time I arrived at a location before him. A lot of that comes from the strict, communist nature of his home country, and his four years in the army. Even when he jokes, Dincu is all about order, punctuality and discipline.
Two Cal Poly wrestlers interrupted my interview with Dincu when they knocked on the door.
“Take care of your guys, I have an interview,” Dincu said to them.
They were obviously a little intimidated, based on the tone of their voice as they said “sorry.”
Before they could finish saying it, Dincu said, “your sorry is too late … make me mad.”
He leaned to me and said, “Do you want me to beat these guys up?”
He was joking … but I’m not sure what would’ve happened if I had said yes.
“People don’t have time to know you,” Dincu said. “They judge you, they put a suit on you, they label you. Poor, rich, smart, beautiful or ugly.”
And while he is punctual, Dincu is also no stranger to hard work.
An average winter day for Dincu starts at 7 a.m., when he wakes up and joins the Cal Poly soccer team for its morning practice.
Following an 11:30 a.m. swim, Dincu is at Baggett Stadium by 1 p.m., helping the Cal Poly baseball team prepare for practice.
By 3:15 p.m., Dincu is at the Recreation Center for wrestling practice.
“People did not care as much I care,” he said. “Another guy told me, ‘I work 30-40 years for this school.’ Yeah, you probably eat bread from this school, but did you make the difference in the people’s life? Did you spend time with them? Did you make them to improve themselves? Did you help them heal themselves?”
At 6 p.m., Dincu makes some time for his own physical fitness.
He works out and helps other athletes at The Pit, a fitness and martial arts gym in San Luis Obispo.
On Thursdays, Dincu sells oranges at San Luis Obispo’s Farmers’ Market.
“I spend hours like nobody else,” Dincu said. “All the doors are open if you work hard. There’s no substitution for perspiration.”
4/15/13: Voicemail nine of 11
Hey Jacob, did you see what happened today in Boston? Motherfuckers! Cowards! They put bombs … Write an article about these cowards. Motherfuckers …
Dincu is anything but cowardly.
After all, he’s overcome adversity in essentially every stage of his life.
Starting from childhood, it seems like the odds have always been stacked against Dincu.
“I had a bad start in Romania,” Dincu said. “Dysfunctional family. I was in a boarding home since I was 3 until I become 14.”
And when Dincu applied for immigration to Canada in 1979, he was fluent in five languages, but still had to learn English.
“It was so hard,” Dincu said. “I was watching TV nonstop, more than 12 hours a day.”
As an immigrant, he took English classes at George Brown College in Toronto and worked at local gyms in the area, fully immersing himself in the native language.
“I was doing massage for $5 or something just to learn English,” Dincu said. “I explained myself with my hands. People looked down to me … then they realized I’m a pro.”
But Dincu’s biggest test in life came in 2000.
Twenty-six years prior, Dincu had a concussion playing a pickup game of soccer in Romania.
As a result, an artery in the back of his neck slowly closed over time, blocking off blood flow to the brain.
Dincu then suffered a stroke on Nov. 23, 2000. He happened to be visiting Romania at the time, when a strong headache escalated, and Dincu soon found himself in the hospital, paralyzed in the face and left side.
The recovery was grueling.
Dincu spent hours each day trying to regain the strength in his left side, hobbling around one crutch.
He was slow. It took Dincu 20 minutes to walk the length of a football field.
“I was crying,” Dincu said. “Tried to find a place to kill myself but I said, ‘Well, my mother won’t have money to bury me.’”
So Dincu rose to the challenge of living with a limp, the same hindered walk that I saw when Dincu first approached me on that January afternoon.
Like so many other times in his life, Dincu was tested when he had the stroke, and will continue to be tested for as long as he walks.
“I was many times in the shithouse, but I get out,” Dincu said. “Now, I’m not afraid of nothing. It’s hard to live the way you like to live. You gotta keep punching.”
Even today, after four months of interviews, more than 10 voicemails and 20 phone calls, the pieces still don’t fit together.
Dincu’s been too many places, touched too many lives and accomplished too many incredible feats to assemble it all, particularly when English is one of five other languages he speaks.
What I do know about Dincu is that during the course of our time together, the more and more he called, the less and less we spoke about the story on these pages.
His voicemails went from scheduling interviews to, “Jacob, how are you, are you in love?” and, simply, “Happy Passover. Have a good soup tonight.”
But still, all the missed calls from Dincu speak to his character, and are a constant reminder of the first time I met him.
He’s made opportunities for himself his entire life, so it’s no surprise that instead of a journalist asking him for a story, he turned the tables and made it happen himself.
He has one of the most complex life stories of any man.
And I know that if I ever have doubts, any questions, or just need some stimulating conversation, I can call him up, because he loves to talk, and he loves to share his story.