To compete in the Tournament of Champions is to take your place among the crème de la crème of high-school debate; it’s like making the NFL playoffs, but far more difficult. And for nerds.
At the end of my junior year, I had earned three “bids” by winning smaller regional tournaments, and had thereby qualified for the 2008 TOC. Standing at my gate in the Delta terminal of the Minneapolis airport, I did all that I could to not visibly freak out on account of my excitement. After countless hours of research and practice, only a two-hour flight and one night of sleep separated me from competing in the tournament of which I had dreaming for the past three years.
When I landed in the Promised Land of Lexington, Kentucky, however, I quickly realized that something was terribly, terribly wrong: my coach was nowhere to be found, and time would make clear that he wasn’t sick or delayed. He ghosted, and didn’t show up for the most important tournament of my career. Even more, my parents and I found that he had neglected to book me a hotel room in Lexington (~800 miles away from my hometown of Lakeville, Minnesota) and he didn’t even enter me in the tournament. And, of course, as it was now the night before the first round would commence, the registration deadline had passed. Just three hours after my bright-eyed reminiscence in the MSP airport, I had no hotel, no team, no coach, and no place in the tournament.
Enter: Jon Cruz. Jon was 24 years old, very young for a debate coach and younger than I am today – and yet, he had already led the Bronx High School of Science program to be the lodestar of the debate community. His program was massive, recruiting four times more students from each graduating class than mine had in total, and by all accounts he displayed immense care and was an impactful mentor for every one of his 200+ debaters. Given his incredible workload both as a coach of his four TOC-qualified debaters and as the chief correspondent for the “Victory Briefs Institute” webpage, the most-visited site for both debaters and their parents who sought real-time tournament results, he had no free time with which to help me. I mean, the guy hardly even knew me: I hadn’t attended his debate camp, the aforementioned VBI; I wasn’t a big name on the national debate circuit, just eeking out my bids in small Midwest tournaments; I had attended a round-robin tournament he organized a year earlier, but was just one of ~15 debaters there. And yet, in this time of need, Jon Cruz went out of his way to help me.
I’m still unclear on exactly how Jon learned of my predicament – my mother may have reached out to him, or I may have bumped into him in the tournament hotel’s lobby (that entire weekend is something of a stunned blur for me to this day) – but long story short, Jon successfully petitioned the TOC’s organizing committee to suspend the rules and reschedule the first two rounds of the tournament to allow me to compete. And, as icing on the cake, he offered to let me stay in a hotel room with his four debaters (in which I ultimately slept in a desk chair; it was better than the alternative of homelessness, given that all the area’s surrounding hotels were sold out for that weekend).
And so, just a few more hours removed from my realization that my nominal coach had abandoned me to have a mid-life crisis, I had a hotel. I had a place in the tournament. And, in an intensely meaningful way, I had a team – and a mentor to look up to in Jon Cruz.
On Friday, September 23rd, 2016, Jon Cruz pleaded guilty to one count of receiving child pornography, a charge that carries a five-year mandatory minimum sentence and a maximum sentence of 20 years. This plea after over a year of pre-trial litigation and processing. He was initially charged with producing, receiving, and possessing child pornography in March 2015.
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