From Prison to High Performance Athlete and Philanthropist, with Mike Rouse
Mike Rouse had it all. He was a successful businessman. He was the president of the Abilene Home Builders Association. He was a member of the city council. He was an upstanding citizen, with a wife and children, and he spent his free time playing golf at the country club or hopping around the country in his friend’s Learjets.
For 33 years he enjoyed that “vanilla” life, says Mike. It was the kind of life in which a flat tire was the biggest inconvenience he had. His life was so perfect, in fact, that Mike was completely unprepared to cope with any significant stress. When problems developed in his life, they snowballed into bigger problems. His marriage ended, and Mike began to lead a double life.
On the surface he was still the successful man who enjoyed an affluent lifestyle and held prominent positions in the community. But behind the public’s eye he developed a thousand dollar a week cocaine habit. That addiction led to an arrest for conspiracy and possession of cocaine with intent to sell.
“My God, what have I done?” Mike thought as he heard the words “United States of America Vs Mike Rouse.” “The whole country is against me.”
The memory still brings him close to tears even decades later, as he shares his story.
A five year prison sentence could have been where Mike’s story ended. He could have served the entire sentence and closed himself off to any notion of re-building a meaningful life. Instead, he accepted accountability for his mistakes. A Guilty Plea reduced his sentence to 14 months in the El Reno, Oklahoma federal prison.
“Within 24 hours I realized this is not where I want to live my life,” Mike says. He knew he wanted to be more than a disappointment to himself and the people he loved. He knew he wanted to gaze upon the world from the other side of those bars again, so he began to think about ways to redeem himself and rebuild his life.
He was permitted outside in the prison yard for one hour a day. It was a drastic difference from the hours he’d spent outside before, taking the sun and the wind and the sky for granted as he soared through the clouds or strolled along a golf course. But it was all he had, so he savored it.
During one of those hours, Mike noticed a fellow inmate running around along the inside of the prison fence. Around and around he went in a big circle. It intrigued Mike, and he asked someone, “What’s the deal here?”
Two land a half aps around the yard equal a mile, Mike was told. “I’ve played golf all my life,” thought Mike. “I can run that.”
It was another rude awakening for him.
Mike was so out of shape he could not complete on full lap without taking a break to walk. The cocaine had had its way with his body and he was barely able to complete five laps at a walk/run pace.
“I thought it was going to kill me,” he laughs, one of those humorless laughs at something that is not really funny.
In his cell that night, as the pain hit his leg, Mike embraced it. Of that the pain he’s experienced and caused in his life, this was the first pain that served a positive purpose. It was the first positive thing he’d done for himself in ages. It was the first glimpse of a potential beyond prison, and he was hooked.
By the time he walked out of that prison 14 months later, Mike was running between 6-8 miles a day. He felt physically better than he had in years. He looked nothing like the disgraced inmate who’d arrived just over a year ago.
With one major obstacle behind him, Mike looked ahead into the rest of his life with a mixture of determination and uncertainty.
He knew he was never going to return to his old habits and his old friends that had led him to the loneliest place on earth. He believed he would never outlive the stigma of being a convicted felon and after only a few days in his hometown he realized the truth behind the words of a former inmate who had come to prison to mentor him and the others.
“You only have to change one thing in order to get your life back on track,” that mentor had said, “And that one thing… is everything.”
Mike Rouse would have to change his environment completely.
He would have to walk away from everything and everyone he knew and start over.
For 33 years, Mike realized, his focus had been on himself: what car could he drie, what house could he live in, what beautiful woman could he have by his side, how much mommy could he make. The 14 months in prison had been lonely but he’d used them to dig deep into himself. Mike had learned that in order for him to be and do something better in his life he would have to shift the focus away from himself and onto others. He would have to add value to the world instead of just to his bank account.
The first thing he did was to make an impact in an area he was qualified and able to do so. Mike realized that in spite of his problems he was still blessed beyond most people who emerge from prison. Even those like him, with pure intentions and a sincere desire to reinvent themselves- to change the way their story is written- will fail because of the barriers between themselves and that new life.
Mike grew up with people who loved him. He had an impressive professional resume. He’d loved his life once upon a time. He had assets to return to and help him stake his new life. That was not the case for the majority of the men he’d met in prison.
Most of those men had troubled families filled with hate for themselves and each other. Their assets consisted of the $200 they were given upon being released from prison and their resumes included attempted murder and drug dealer. Church was a place where they were judged instead of healed. It was for the perfect people – not them.
Mike was lucky, he knew, and he wanted to share his blessings with those who came after him.
Exodus is an organization founded by Mike in 1987 and now run by others. It is a place that houses families impacted by incarceration and provides them with the resources to overcome those challenges together. Mike spent 10 years running the organizations and still stops in every now and then but he’s moved his own focus to his next chapter.
Ever since that day in prison, Mike has not stopped running. Running became his passion. It served as an outlet for his energy and a positive focus for his pain. After prison he got an entry level job at a running store. He worked his way up to territory manager for two major brands, and he began competing.
Mike Rouse is now among this country’s most elite runners.
He has run hundreds of marathons, dozens of 50 kilometer races, 31 mile races, and 50 mile races. Twenty-four hour runs and 100 mile races are like home to him, as are Ironmans and Ultra marathons.
He’s got 3 world championships to his name, and he’s trained some of the best runners in the country.
Running is not just what Mike does, it’s who he is. Now in his sixties, Mike stepped away from competing years ago but continues to kick up dust on trails everywhere. He does this for himself, because he loves it, but what he loves most is using his ability to give back.
Mike was just getting his legs beneath him, so to speak, when he met and began running with some Navy SEALS. Some of those men became like family to him. One man, John Thompson, was extra special to Mike.
“JT” as everyone called him, was from Iowa. He missed his family and looked up to Mike so much that he started calling Mike “Pops” and referred to him as his “West Coast Daddy Pops.” JT introduced Mike to his friends, including Marcus and Morgan Luttrell. The closer Mike got to those men, the more they’d let him in on things they don’t share with outsiders.
Mike developed a whole new level of respect and appreciation for what our military does for this country. That appreciation hit new levels when he got the call that Marcus was missing and presumed dead.
The world now knows of Marcus as “The Lone Survivor” but to Mike, Marcus is a dear friend whose service and sacrifices mean the world to him. Thinking Marcus was lost changed things for Mike.
“That’s when I knew I had to start giving back to these men,” he says.
He just wasn’t quite sure how, yet.
Then, in 2011, Mike got word that JT had been among the 31 men killed in the Extortion 17 shootdown. “It was crushing to me,” Mike says, his voice breaking with emotion. “JT wasn’t my son but he treated me like an adopted stepdad, and vice versa.”
That’s when Mike began using his running ability to raise money in support of families of the fallen – especially those Navy SEALS.
To date Mike has been instrumental in raising over 2.5 million dollars that has been donated to The Navy SEAL Foundation. Each year he runs 3.1 miles, 31 times in a row, wearing a shirt with the names and faces of those 31 men in Extortion 17. He changes shirts upon completion of every 3.1 miles. He never met most of those men, but Mike feels like he knows them because of the research he’s done on them, the families he’s met, and his own bond with JT.
Jogging for Frogmen is another event Mike is part of, and which has been a big part of the funds he’s helped raise. He’s also “adopted” another organization, The Got Your Back Network, founded by Navy officer Andy Baldwin and his retired NYS Senator Dad Roy Baldwin. That organization reaches out to support military widows and Gold Star children and Moms through various events and scholarships that provide financial and emotional resilience to those families.
It might seem like Mike Rouse has done more than his share of giving back, and redeemed his own life in grand style, because of his achievements and his impact in support of families of the fallen and the life-changing support for the families impacted by incarceration. It might seem like he could not possibly do any more for any community- but Mike Rouse doesn’t think so.
Mike has a firsthand connection to the plight of former inmates and their families and another close connection to the military community, so it makes sense for him to be supporting those charities.
But how did he wound up in a Turkish prison because of his work to help children in Northern Iraq?
It’s an “interesting story,” Mike says.
He was nearing the end of some long days in seminars learning how to raise funds for nonprofits. His mind was drifting toward returning home when the words of one of the last speakers captured his attention.
This man was one of 2000 Iraqi Kurds who had been rescued from prison camps and brought to America to have a shot at new lives. Although grateful, they were also desperate for help. They had no money beyond the bit of cash they’d been given upon arrival. Most of them were sheep herders by trade- not exactly a sought after career in Dallas, Texas. They spoke little to no english. They appreciated the 53 apartments they’d been given to use but those apartments were unfurnished. They had no clothes other than what they wore. No drivers license, etc.
Mike instantly felt connected to their struggles and saw similarity between those being released from prisons. But when the speaker asked Mike for help, Mike had nothing to offer other than a few beds and couches.
He’d do his best, he told the man,
Within 24 hours, Mike got a random call from “One of the most successful, prominent women in the city.” This woman had been running her own event selling furniture as a fundraiser. There was a lot left over, and she would like to donate it to Mike’s organization.
Just like that, Mike Rouse was able to facilitate fully furnishing 53 apartments for those 2000 people.
Again, it would seem that was enough, but instead it started a chain of events that lead to Mike starting another nonprofit, and being a part of traveling to Northern Iraq to help establish schools. It was on one of his trips across the Turkey border that he was caught with donated computers and Bibles.
The Turks hate the Kurds, says Mike, and it took 10 days for the US Embassy to spring him from that Turkish prison. They weren’t happy about it either, he laughs- for real this time.
Now in his mid sixties, Mike has no intention of slowing down. “I think I’ve got 100 more years in me,” he says through a smile. He still runs his age in miles on every birthday and has talked some friends- like Andy Baldwin into doing the same. He still raises money for the communities he serves and he still inspires everyone he meets to dig deeper into their own potential.
Mike Rouse is living proof that our challenges can be not just overcome, but conquered. His story is one of grace, grit, humility, strength, and faith, and it is packed with messages of hope. You might see him out running one day – but you probably won’t catch up to him.