Man Camps
Photos: Edmyr Barayang, courtesy of The Project

Guys Are Paying $10,000 to Become Real Men at Warrior Camps

Macho programs promise self-fulfillment through hardcore military-style training. But are they just a fix for an epidemic of male loneliness?

One day last year, Keith Schmidt received an email that promised to change his life. It came from an entrepreneur named Bedros Keuilian, who had achieved great success through grit and grind. Schmidt, a 49-year-old firefighter from Noblesville, Indiana, had never signed up for Keuilian’s newsletter, but decided to read it anyway.

Most men suffer in silence, Keuilian wrote, because they feel disconnected from their larger purpose in life. They gorge themselves on distraction: TV, social media, food, booze, pornography. These vices lead men further astray, jeopardizing their income, marriage, family, and sense of self-worth.


But Keuilian had a solution.

Schmidt was not a very happy man. In fact, he was exactly the kind of man Keuilian described, a sleepwalker through his own life, an absent father and husband, unmotivated and unmoored. He had his demons—childhood trauma full of sexual, physical, and mental abuse, plus PTSD from serving in the military—but he’d shoved that crap down somewhere deep, shut off from the rest of him, because, as he’d always been taught, that’s what a man does. A man doesn’t cry, a man compartmentalizes. If a man accessed any emotion, it was anger, a fuel Schmidt knew too well. He first discovered its power when his grade-school teacher Miss McGraff told him one day that he wouldn’t amount to anything more than a garbage man. “Fuck you,” he responded.

He’d get back at Miss McGraff; his mother, who belittled and hit him; the mentor who molested him. He’d get back at all them with the sweet revenge of success. In a relentless pursuit, he obtained his dreams one by one: firefighter, U.S. Navy rescue swimmer, a healthy family.

He was still working on that last one, actually. Blocking that ambition was Schmidt’s inability to discuss his past or emotions at all. If something his wife or kids did bothered him, he remained silent, letting the pressure build internally, like a boiling teapot just about to whistle. The whole house learned to tread lightly when Schmidt was in a mood. “Dad, you’re so angry,” his daughter Alanna said once when she was nine. “Why are you angry?”


“I love to suffer, because that’s the only way you’re going to grow.”

Schmidt, who was in denial at the time, later realized the answer to his daughter’s question: “Because I let myself die inside.”

And so he clicked the link in Keuilian’s email. It brought him to a sales page for a program in Chino Hills, California called the Modern Day Knight Project. On the site, a sizzle reel plays, with Bedros Keuilian, who has a double-barrel shotgun for a chest and a face that folds and scrunches like a bulldog’s, speaking in front of a classroom. “The Project is a 75-hour experience that’s for men just like you, who know that you’re meant for more,” Keuilian starts. The Project is a grueling healing process, he continues. “It’s like administering chemotherapy to a cancerous area of the body.”

As Keuilian talks, B-roll plays that resembles a Marines recruitment ad directed by Michael Bay. Men wrestle one another in chokeholds, men link arms in the ocean while waves crash overhead, men howl banshee screams as they exit body bags. They look tough, rugged, like badasses. The same uniform adorns each man: black gym shorts and a white T-shirt bearing their last name on the front and “The Project” on the back.

When Schmidt saw that sizzle reel, he loved it. He needed it, recognizing some of the hardcore drills from his Navy training days. “Believe it or not, I actually really enjoy that stuff,” Schmidt tells me. “Yeah, I love suffering.”


“Why?” I ask.

“To grow! I love to suffer, because that’s the only way you’re going to grow.”

A junior instructor named Andy Pho later tells me each Project class ranks other participants throughout the 75 hours, and Schmidt, the oldest member of his group, consistently came in last. But he refused to quit, even as others did or were removed due to physical injury. “There was no option for me,” he said. He told himself, Either I’m going to make it or I’m going to be dead.

Halfway through, broken down physically, emotionally, and spiritually, a flip switched. Looking at the men to his left and right, he realized he was not alone in his struggle. Other men suffered just like him. All his trauma and other ordeals didn’t make him weak; they made him strong, because he was still here fighting, pushing onward. He was so renewed approaching the ice baths, Schmidt would’ve dove headfirst into them if he could. With freezing water up to his neck and other men around him shivering, a strange smile broke across Schmidt’s face. We’re alive, he thought. This is a gift.

“Schmidt’s chewing the ice!” yelled Erin Alejandrino, an instructor and official MMA expert for The Project.

“You’re not allowed to be a man anymore, you’re almost a racist if you’re a man these days. It’s crazy.”


Schmidt just chuckled back. Fucking right he was chewing the ice. He was staying hydrated, nourishing his body with what it needed, whatever sacrifice it took.

At his hotel, a text from his wife Heather was waiting for him. (Phones are not permitted during The Project.) The Project posts images and videos on social media every time a class is in session, and Heather had seen footage of Keith in the ice baths. I love seeing that smile, she wrote. You’ve been dead for too long. Welcome back to life. Repeating this message to me over the phone, he chokes up. “Sorry, it still gets me emotional,” he says.

Schmidt is a work in progress, he knows that. Thanks to The Project, he’s trying. But if not for meeting these men, he swears, he’d still be shuffling through life like a zombie, rotting away, dead inside and out. Now he acts like a real man, driven, strong, family-oriented, just like The Project leaders he admires. 


The study of male psychology as something unique is surprisingly new. In 2018, the American Psychological Association (APA) released its first guidelines for conducting psychological practice with men and boys. On the whole, the APA operated from the perspective that traditional masculinity—which the organization defined as traits like “stoicism, competitiveness, dominance, and aggression”—was psychologically harmful and generally unattainable for men. “Though men benefit from patriarchy, they are also impinged upon by patriarchy,” said former APA president Ronald F. Levant.


One of The Project’s head instructors Steve Eckert, a Marine veteran with bushy eyebrows and a bald head as shiny as a cue ball, has a different perspective. “Men are either on one end of the spectrum, the two extremes: Either they think they have to be rah-rah-rah, kill, fuck, pillage, or, since they think that’s so horrible, they’re soft and weak and not speaking up, passive aggressive, afraid to show who they really are,” says Eckert. “But either way, you’re not allowed to be a man anymore, you’re almost a racist if you’re a man these days. It’s crazy.”

“The logic behind it is, you gotta really beat down a man before he'll tell you the truth and when they're in a really sedated state.”

The Modern Day Knight Project, which opened in 2019, is among a growing number of new men’s bootcamps and weekend retreats that promise a man an opportunity to dig deep, uncover his trauma, and recapture his primal essence that has been lost in our industrialized, materialistic society. (Out of convenience, I’ve taken to calling these programs “man camps.”) The Project’s closest analogue is the $10,000 Wake Up, Warrior program and its signature Warrior Week, run by entrepreneur and success coach Garrett White in Laguna Beach, California.


“The logic behind it is, you gotta really beat down a man before he'll tell you the truth and when they're in a really sedated state,” White’s assistant, Samuel Findlay, tells me.

For the less masochistic, there are programs like ManTalks, an online endeavor, and the Mankind Project, located in 12 countries, both of which promote a return to ancient archetypes for men like the Inner Warrior or Wild Man. (The ManTalks tagline: “It’s not therapy, it’s training.”) Others, like the New York–based Evryman and Junto, and Oakland, California’s The Sterling Institute’s Men’s Weekend, provide an emotional purging of sorts. They suggest that if men learn vulnerability and relational communication within, magic will occur in their external realities. 

Bedros Keuilian has described The Project, which costs $12,000 (excluding flights and hotels), for men “to unfuck themselves.” To do that, men must “do hard shit,” so they can level up in what Keuilian calls their five F-bombs: Faith, Family, Fitness, Finance, which provides a life of Fulfillment. It is designed to “wrap the pill up with the cheese,” he tells me, the pill representing men’s mental development and building emotional bonds, the cheese representing jiu-jitsu and tactical gun training, as well as experiencing military-style heroism without the dangers of war.


About 60 percent of camp attendees, according to The Project, are entrepreneurs. Others have careers in real estate, construction, tattoo artistry, and law enforcement. Although around half of each class quits, Project graduates like to call themselves “savage servants,” as in they protect and serve others, but are willing to suffer the consequences that come with taking charge or doing the dirty work, as men of old used to do.

Men implored Keuilian to create something like The Project, he tells me, after the modest success of his 2018 book, Man Up: How to CUT THE BULLSHIT and KICK ASS in Business (and in Life), which documents his journey as an Armenian immigrant, held back by self-limiting beliefs and emotional trauma, into an entrepreneurial success. After suffering a severe anxiety attack, likely brought on by working ceaselessly on Fit Body Boot Camp, the gym franchise he founded, Keuilian realized he needed to “man up,” accept his responsibility as a leader, and achieve a disciplined lifestyle. He put himself through six-week physical challenges, like running the San Diego Marathon and MMA fighting, and attended therapy. He read “hundreds” of self-improvement books by Dale Carnegie, Tony Robbins, Napoleon Hill, and others. He embodied their wisdom, recalling how he once stood in the corner of the gym, jumping up and down, and yelling, “I like myself! I like myself! I like myself!”


In the acknowledgments section of his book, Keuilian also thanks 12 Navy SEALs, writing how their memoirs and books inspired him back in 2011, when facing his battle to keep his business alive. These “great warriors” fueled him, he writes, and “without them I could not have evolved into the leader I am today.”


To kick off The Project, attendees first meet in a nondescript parking lot. Trucks pull up and, like a scene out of an early 2000s action movie, each of the specialized instructors jump out: Steve Eckert, the Marine; Matt Schneider, SWAT; Erin Alejandrino, MMA; and Ray “Cash” Care, Navy SEAL. (Care, who resembles a Tasmanian Devil with tattoos, once joked his role at The Project was to “basically beat the living piss out of people.”) 

After a brief introduction, instructors pull bags over attendees’ heads like they’re prisoners of war and drive them to The Compound. Here, they undergo a series of “evolutions,” a military term that describes an event segment on the training schedule. Some evolutions mirror those found in The Crucible and BUD/S, training programs for Marine and Navy SEAL recruits, respectively: Brutal hikes carrying heavy weights, sledgehammers, and the American flag; sit-ups, flutter kicks, and push-ups in the ocean shallows while waves break into their bodies; crawling a mile across a dirt field full of rocks, weeds, and gravel. Just like BUD/S, a bell hangs off to the corner for when a man decides he’s had enough, he can ring the bell three times to quit.


This is what The Project is all about, according to Keuilian. It is confronting men with a crossroads: “The path to staying a bitch and the path to becoming a beast.” 

“You do have to bury your Inner Bitch sometimes, right? Maybe not the most choice of words in some cases, but I like it.”

In one evolution called The Dash—which refers to the dash between the birth and death dates on your tombstone—men are given a shovel and instructed to dig their own shallow grave. Then they enter a body bag, zip it up, and lay in their fresh grave, as instructors spread a layer of dirt on top of them. While underground, each man is tasked with burying their Inner Bitch so their Inner Beast may rise again. Afterwards, men write a eulogy—not for their life as it is now, but the life they envision for themselves with their Inner Beast awakened. “You do have to bury your Inner Bitch sometimes, right?” says Project graduate Ryan Dean, a Marine veteran and entrepreneur, and one of several interviewees I spoke with who was attracted to the concept. “Maybe not the most choice of words in some cases, but I like it.”

Keith Schmidt adds that you never really kill that voice in your head. “There’s always a spawn of the Inner Bitch,” he says, chuckling, a note of melancholy in his laugh.


The first time Vikram Deol, a 39-year-old real estate agent and recent divorcé, met Bedros Keuilian, he was at a three-day business workshop hosted by Keuilian. Seeing Keuilian’s tattooed sleeve, his square-set jaw, listening to his gruff, gravely voice, Deol thought, “This is a man I want to be like.” His thoughts kept tumbling: “Am I man-crushing this dude? Holy shit.”

It was a common refrain among Project graduates—how much they wanted to be more like the instructors and less like themselves. What most impressed Deol was how these brawny men, with their alpha male swagger and mountain ranges for shoulders, also showed love for their wives and each other. “I used to think that it was shameful to say you supported your girlfriend,” he says. 

With two brothers, Deol competed for the affection of his father, who was a loud man, occupying whatever room he entered, but also quite sensitive, hurt if other men provided for his sons in ways in which he felt responsible. Connecting with older men, seeking guidance from older men, always made Deol feel like he was cheating on his father. Often, it felt like his father was trying to control his life. He’d never found the strong male role model he needed until meeting Bedros Keuilian and signed up for his program.

Men account for 79 percent of all suicides in America.


That Deol believed The Project would resolve his personal longing was by design. Keuilian began his career selling supplements online using tactics learned from the digital marketing world, where advertisers rely on direct-response copywriting, which attempts to tickle an emotional trigger in customers that is only relieved by buying now. (Just as Keith Schmidt did when landing on The Project sales page.) As Keuilian explains, in a recent newsletter titled “Why Jesus Was A Great Marketer,” there is a secret way to “market to people in a very cool way so they don't know they're being sold and instead feel like they’re making the buying decision. It's called storytelling.” 

That’s why, according to Keuilian, Jesus was a great marketer: He told parables into which people could project their own problems in life, then sold them his religion as a solution. 

For Deol, though, becoming a Modern Day Knight was not so straightforward. Instructors kept pushing and calling him out for falling behind, saying he wasn't good enough. He had no transformation, no epiphany, no moment of breakthrough. Instead, he would not shut up, making little comments about everything that popped into his head, derailing the class and resulting in extra “physical abuse” for everyone as punishment. Eventually, instructors told him to quit, halting The Project for everyone until Deol rang the bell. He had to learn how to fit in, he was told, and then he could come back. “I wasn't the man I thought I was,” Deol says. “I just wasn't a good human. I wasn't the man that I would want to bring children into the world and be called father of.” 


He shut down a business, got dumped by his girlfriend, and quit drinking. (Years earlier, after a night of drinking, he had been arrested on felony charges for smashing up his ex-girlfriend’s apartment and scaring her.) The pandemic hit just as Deol suffered a broken collarbone leading to time alone smoking marijuana and contemplating. He paid Keuilian $50,000 to become his personal coach and help him overcome his “defeat syndrome.” He also forgave his father, accepting him for who he was and not blaming him for who Deol wished he was. Deol tried to do the same for himself. 

He returned to The Project a year and half after quitting and, about 30 hours in, experienced an epiphany: “Dude, you’re fucking tripping if you think you don’t belong here this time,” he told himself. Even as instructors joked that he was still a chatterbox, Deol felt proud to be himself and, more importantly, part of the group. He graduated and is now building his own coaching business. On Instagram, as social proof of his belonging to this tribe of warriors, he likes to post pictures of his Project experiences, like those happy memories of being waterboarded.

“That says something about your character, right?” he says. 


This cycle of male suffering and acceptance is not a new phenomenon, posits Florida State professor and social psychologist Dr. Roy Baumeister in his book Is There Anything Good About Men? Across cultures and time periods, boys have always had to earn their manhood through a rite of passage, like an act of killing or test of endurance. If he succeeds at this rite of passage—which today comes as a privilege costing men five figures—he ascends upward in social and financial status. Should he not...well, that’s the part we don’t always discuss.


If society were a bell curve, Baumeister writes, women would command the middle with men at the extremes. It is true men still disproportionately dominate the top of American society: more than 90 percent of CEO positions at Fortune 500 companies, 86 percent of the 400 richest Americans, 73 percent of the seats in Congress, and 100 percent of past presidents. The opposite is also true. Men disproportionately dominate the bottom of society, too, making up more than 93 percent of the prison population and about 70 percent of homeless populations. According to the U.S. Department of Labor Statistics, 92 percent of Americans who die in the line of work are men. Of the first 3,000 American soldiers killed in the Iraq War, 2,938 of them were men.

Baumeister believes there is a simple anthropological reason for all this: Men are more expendable than women. The fewer women available to reproduce, the greater the risk of a particular tribe dying out in the long run. Therefore, cultures exploit men to assume the most dangerous tasks with the most possible risk, like hunting animals or fighting wars, and should those men succeed, they reap whatever rewards come as a result. In this way, men are in constant competition with each other to either succeed spectacularly or fail miserably, a binary sometimes recapitulated at these man camps. On social media, The Project instructors shame dropouts, telling followers not to be a “bellringer,” and deny them access to their brotherhood.


Young men living in individualistic cultures were those most vulnerable to loneliness.

“Built into the male role is the danger of not being good enough to be accepted and respected and even the danger of not being able to do well enough to create offspring,” Baumeister said in a 2007 speech (echoing Deol’s fears). “The basic social insecurity of manhood is stressful for the men, and it is hardly surprising that so many men crack up or do evil or heroic things or die younger than women. But that insecurity is useful and productive for the culture, the system.”

Suicide rates have steadily risen among men since 2000, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, and was the seventh leading cause of death among all males in 2011. Men account for 79 percent of all suicides in America and the highest suicide rate, in fact, is among old, white men.

One root cause may be the underdiagnosis of depression in men. Although women are consistently diagnosed for depression twice as often as men, recent studies suggest depression is often “masked” in men as their depression symptoms do not fit traditional clinical definitions of the disorder, like crying or loss of interest in life and pleasure.

To better detect depression among individuals adhering to masculine identities, psychologists have developed alternative models like the Gotland Male Depression Scale. These new models prioritize externalized symptoms over internalized ones, such as explosive anger at minor annoyances; numbing their pain through substance abuse, workaholism, and womanizing; self-destructive and power-seeking behaviors; impoverished friendships; and a general “I can do it myself” syndrome. When including these alternative scales alongside traditional ones for depression, men and women met criteria for depression in about equal proportions, a 2013 JAMA Psychiatry study found. It is curious, however, that these symptoms of male depression are some of the same behaviors we associate with “manning up.”


While reporting this story, I decided to send myself to a man camp. On a sweltering August day in Austin, Texas, I stood in a large circle of men at “Man Cave,” an event hosted by the MPowered Brotherhood (MPB), one of the more racially diverse and spiritually conscious men’s groups out there.

Most of the men were broad-shouldered, barrel-chested, and shirtless. They either had long, flowing manes tied back from their necks or coiffed hairdos bounded by prickly shaved sides. In the air, the musk was so thick I could see it as much as smell it.

Preston Smiles, an MPB co-founder who gained notoriety in wellness communities after coaching Entourage star Adrian Grenier, entered the circle. He raised his fist. Taking the cue, we collectively pounded our chests three times. This was a greeting call of sorts among the Brotherhood. 

After our Brotherhood greeting, we were asked to lay on the floor and close our eyes, as the fragrance of burning sage floated down like a gentle snowfall. Samson Odusanya, a wellness coach and MPB facilitator, instructed us to breathe slow and deep, then led us through a Holotropic Breathwork session, a deep meditative practice designed to create psychedelic sensations through controlled hyperventilation. (Many man camps, including The Project, conduct breathwork training.) Theoretically, this overwhelms the conscious brain’s typical thought patterns and elevates the wisdom present in one’s body. In Buddhist speak, one stops looking outside one’s self for answers and instead searches within.


“I know I can call these guys at any time of the day, any time of the night and say, ‘Hey I need you,’ and they’ll be there with no fucking questions.”

As advised, I puckered my lips like I was about to suck a straw, then inhaled through the belly, inhaled through the chest, then exhaled all at once, my torso resembling a balloon inflating and deflating over and over again. Eventually, my breath assumed control and my hands curled into crab claws. My limbs numbed. I attempted to uncurl my hands, which felt like stone fists that did not belong to me, but my fingers barely budged. I could not stop my breath if I tried (and I tried, brother!). My body became like a runaway train, my breath its conductor, and somewhere in the caboose my consciousness rested as passenger. It was kind of nice to take a break from myself. Men howled and screamed and yipped animal-like sounds around me. “I didn’t deserve it!” one man yelled out of nowhere. A few seconds passed and another man shouted back, “But I do deserve this!”

Afterwards, Smiles invited us to share what “came up” for us. One man detailed kissing a woman who was not his wife on a business trip. He never went further with this woman and never told anyone about it, but privately he harbored fantasies about what could have been. “I was putting her on a pedestal,” he said, “and not my wife, who I should’ve been treating like my queen.” A particularly beefy and bulky fellow praised the sanctity of this space, where he didn’t feel the weight of being a father, husband, and leader at work—where, for once, he could just show up as his raw, authentic self without fear of judgment, responsibility, or competition. One long-limbed man openly sobbed, unable to catch his breath. “Guys,” this man said through trembling gasps, “we’re raping our planet. We’re raping our women.” Tears fell from his eyes. “We can’t keep doing this.” Afterwards, the men by his sides embraced him. 


It was another indication of what men may actually be seeking from man camp. 

Earlier this year, British researchers analyzed data from the 2018 BBC Loneliness Experiment, a survey of 55,000 people around the globe, and discovered that young men living in individualistic cultures were those most vulnerable to loneliness. Likewise, a 2017 study reported that young men aged 18 to 30 from the US, UK, and Mexico said that ideally they’d like to spend most of their time with friends or a romantic partner, but in actuality, the majority spent their free time on their own. When feeling sad or depressed, men from the study most often sought help from their mother or romantic partner; their father was the last person to whom they would reach out. 

There is an infectious idea that men aren’t emotional creatures together, that men fail to bond on a deeper level with other men. But these contemporary attitudes represent a radical departure from the history of Western men. From ancient Greece to the European Renaissance, male-to-male friendships were highly revered, and “manly love,” as it is sometimes called by historians, was a defining pillar in cultural notions about masculinity (though that masculinity was also founded upon Stoic and Talmudic writings that stated being born a woman was a divine curse). Even through the 1800s in America, male bonds were highly intimate, with sharing beds and physical touch, including kissing another man on the lips, commonplace. Daniel Webster, the great US congressman, once called his male best friend “the partner of my joys, griefs, and affections, the only participant of my most secret thoughts.” According to scholars, all this bro love faded at the end of the 19th century, as industrialization grew and stigma around homosexuality possessed men in the Western world. 

Through man camps, men are sold individual glory and delivered a brotherhood into which they belong. Is that all any of them really wanted?

Today, a 2019 YouGov poll found, almost one in five UK men say they have no one they consider a close friend, and, according to a 2006 analysis published in the American Sociological Review, white heterosexual men have the fewest friends in America. One explanation comes from University of Maryland professor and relationship expert Geoffrey Greif. Men tend to develop “shoulder-to-shoulder” friendships (doing stuff together) while women have “face-to-face” friendships (sharing emotions and experiences), he writes in Buddy System: Understanding Male Friendships. Evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar also notes that men most deeply bond during periods of intense and scheduled engagement like school, sports, and military service, but fail to maintain those relationships as distance and time apart grows. 

In this way, there are downsides to living in modern America, where we are told we all can ascend upwards in society based on working hard and developing skills. Wherever you find yourself on the socioeconomic scale is your own doing. Making lots of money? Good job, you deserve it. Poor and destitute? Probably laziness. Traditional masculinity exacerbates that rhetoric: It’s your own fault and you ain’t even a man, either. So why spend time with male friends doing things “shoulder to shoulder” when that time could be used to level up your life? Or do you lack the discipline to do so, man? 

That notion reminded me how all The Project graduates I interviewed kept repeating that outsiders did not understand their bonds, how for each of them, “me” had turned into “us,” describing it with an opaque intensity similar to combat veterans talking about their squadmates. “I know I can call these guys at any time of the day, any time of the night and say, ‘Hey I need you,’ and they’ll be there with no fucking questions,” Schmidt told me. 

Man camp, especially one like The Project, kept feeling like a bait and switch, a modern contraption to satisfy pre-modern longings. Once upon a time, if someone from your town, family or tribe succeeded, you were all considered successful. This had obvious drawbacks, but it did promote the idea you alone were not responsible for your standing in society. Now, through man camps, men are sold individual glory and delivered a brotherhood into which they belong. Is that all any of them really wanted?

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For several Thursday mornings after MBP’s “Man Cave” event, I drove to Austin’s Zilker Park and attended boot camp-like workouts hosted by the MPowered Brotherhood. Like the Modern Day Knight Project, the majority of the men were entrepreneurs or wanted to become entrepreneurs (there’s a privilege in having weekday mornings free). The workouts kicked off with rap music (Kendrick Lamar, Lil Baby, Drake), an inspirational story from a coach, and a game of tag before the workout. Everyone was constantly cheering. I believe in you, brother, one more! 

Cameras and phones filmed us throughout—our personal development an opportunity for promotional content. But, perhaps because of the pandemic, I enjoyed the positive atmosphere. The MBP workouts made me really miss middle school soccer practice. Sometimes I wondered if I just wanted permission to run around barefoot in a grassy field with other men, like we used to as boys. 

There was also the first time I went. We were standing in a circle, and the newcomers were asked to walk toward the center. “Raise your hand if you don’t like being touched,” said Smiles, but all our hands remained by our sides. “Okay, guys, you know what to do.”

All the men in the outside circle suddenly crashed toward us. Odusanya, who was the most chiseled man I’d ever seen, made a beeline toward me. He wrapped both arms around my hips and lifted me skyward, like I’d just hit the game-winning shot to win the state championship game. Before I could help it, I let out a big, dumb, goofy smile and some tiny but very hard shard broke away inside me.

“True masculinity is showing love, showing compassion, showing all these things that are traditionally not spoken of as masculinity. And I think that scares some people.”

Suddenly, I understood what Keith Schmidt and all the other Project graduates kept telling me about brotherhood. 

“True masculinity is showing love, showing compassion, showing all these things that are traditionally not spoken of as masculinity,” Schmidt told me. “And I think that scares some people.” 

Whenever we worked out, I’d always catch other park visitors watching us. In brief moments, I saw how we looked from their perspective. We looked weird. We looked New-Agey cultish. We looked like boys who wanted to be men that wished we were still boys. We looked toxic, screaming so loud our vocal cords almost snapped, taking up as much space as possible. We looked like every male cliché and stereotype that serves as too many punchlines. But as imperfect as the Mpowered Brotherhood was, I never felt bad or wrong being there. I was just happy to be one of the guys. 

Brendan Bures is a freelance writer in Austin, Texas.