9/11 Hero Wins Million-Dollar Poker Challenge

On the morning of September 11, 2001, Fran Kosowski heard these words over the telephone from her NYPD husband -- “I’m OK, we’re going in.” A short time later, walking in the door after picking up their children from school, she saw one of the World Trade Center buildings collapse. Trying to keep it together, she gave an instinctive answer when the kids asked, “Where’s Daddy?”

“Probably helping people,” she said.

Meanwhile, in the chaos that was Lower Manhattan, Detective Sergeant Mike Kosowski – a first responder who was trying to clear the area -- came upon a man praying on his knees because his wife was in one of the World Trade Center towers; he didn’t want to leave.

“I don’t want to manually move you out of here,” Kosowski said to him, replicating the gentle tone in our recent interview. “Do you have kids? They need you. Maybe your wife got out. What would she want you to do? Why don’t you go down two blocks and wait?”

The man acknowledged he was right and moved. Kosowski has more stories like that, poignant and wrenching all.

“I never thought I was coming home that day,” he said. “It’s very hard for me to speak about it.”

But a recent event in his life has him talking about it a lot, as the decade that began with that harrowing experience comes to a close in a different kind of life-altering way -- an unlikely jackpot win in the PokerStars.net Million Dollar Challenge (airs Dec. 27 on FOX after NFL coverage). A retirement hobby, studied determination and a positive attitude propelled Kosowski to victory over poker professional Daniel Negreanu.

And, oh yeah, really good instincts helped, too.

“My husband was a very good cop, a natural cop,” Fran Kosowski said. “All of his instincts as a cop kicked in [on Sept. 11th]. I think it was instinct, the same way with poker.”

Let’s be clear. Mike and Fran know the decisions he made that awful September day in 2001 shouldn’t even be mentioned in the same breath as the ones he makes with cards in his hands. But after surviving a terrorist attack, it naturally follows that most subsequent decisions can be made with more confidence.

As part of the application process for the poker competition, in fact, Mike had to answer the question, ‘What makes you think you can beat a pro?’

“Hey, listen, I survived one of the most tragic events in our nation,” he said in his response.

Mike came home to his family in Staten Island on September 11 covered head-to-toe in soot. Fran says the whites of his eyes were bloody.

“He said, ‘I’m taking a shower and going back,’” Fran recalled. “And I said, ‘Oh no you’re not.’ He had something to eat and I think he slept a little bit, but he went back.

“For days, with smoke coming out of the World Trade Center, he would say, ‘Why aren’t I dead?’ We had to figure out how to handle this. I think of [survival] as God’s way of saying you still have something to do. Little by little we started to work through it.”

Because Mike was thrown 10 feet by an explosion while trying to evacuate people from the World Financial Center, he herniated three discs in his neck and two in his back. He calls the highlight of the day finding out he didn’t lose any men in his charge. In addition to the chronic pain in his legs, he developed asthma from spending so much time at the Ground Zero rescue effort in the ensuing months. After 21 years on the force and the Medal of Valor for his actions that day, he retired in 2004.

“When I went off the job, I thought, ‘This is what it’s about? Pain?’” Mike said. “I got tired of going to the doctor’s office.”

It was an especially rough realization for a man who chose police work because he wanted to help people. Prior to that, he had worked for the New York City Transit Authority and had seen the inner workings of the city, things like the plight of the homeless.

“I always thought there was something more I had to do,” he said.

That’s pretty much the philosophy of the Kosowskis even now and, well, change begins with small steps. Fran, who has a passion for yoga, got Mike into stretching. His orthopedic doctor in Manhattan suggested he hit the gym. The physical piece was a start to renewal. And then there was the new hobby – poker. One day in 2007 he was watching poker star Daniel Negreanu and he told Fran to turn on the TV.

“He said, ‘I think I’m going to play him one day,’” Fran said. “And trying to be positive, I said, ‘You should go for that.’”

A week or two later, Mike had a dream that he beat Negreanu.

“I told him, ‘Now I’m worried about you. You don’t dream about me? You dream about Daniel Negreanu?’” Fran said with a laugh, but when pressed added, “I pay attention to dreams. The subconscious is trying to push something forward at you.”

Mike’s opportunity came this year when he saw a commercial saying that PokerStars.net and FOX Sports would be creating a show where a person would get to play Negreanu heads up for $1 million. In a specially designated free tournament, he finished in the top 10 of 16,000 applicants. FOX Sports and FOX Business are owned by News Corp. (NWSA).

In the meantime, with Mike on a fixed income, Fran was laid off from her job as an office manager on Dec. 1. Despite planning a 25th anniversary celebration, they chose to go to Los Angeles on Dec. 4 because Mike was picked as a show alternate. He was told it was unlikely he’d appear on the show, but none of the three contestants before him that day were able to advance past the first round and Mike got his shot.

After an initial loss, one that taught him he needed to be more aggressive and go with those well-honed instincts, he earned his way to the one-on-one final and defeated Negreanu, the four-time World Series of Poker bracelet winner.

 “I kind of shocked him,” Mike said. “I read his books. My family gave them to me one Christmas. He says you can’t give a pro a long time to read you or he’s going to beat you. I knew I had to go for it all.”

Mike credits Fran for pushing him out of stagnation -- poker and otherwise -- and introducing him to The Secret and The Law of Attraction to keep him positive and give him additional tools to set himself up for success.

“I’m also into reading old yoga texts,” Fran said. “I have gotten very into that mindset.”

Mike sees his financial winnings as a way to “make things easier” for his family and, being natural givers, he listed the Families of Freedom Scholarship Fund and City Harvest as organizations dear to them. Newly laid-off Fran concurs, but also sees an opportunity she has longed for – the chance to volunteer and “inspire people” more without financial and time constraints.

“I’m so convinced we’re all supposed to travel a certain journey.” Fran said.

And the easy answer to the question, ‘What’s on the agenda for Mike and Fran Kosowski moving forward?’ is this:

Probably helping people.

Nancy Colasurdo is a practicing life coach and freelance writer. Her Web site is www.nancola.com. Please direct all questions/comments to FOXGamePlan@gmail.com.