Wrestling: A Personal Tribute
31 March, 2017
Revised 22 July, 2017
Distinctive Features of the Sport
One of the great blessing of wrestling is instruction in humility. Everyone takes a beating sometime. Thinking back, I believe I also learned through wrestling about the value of volunteer work: those coaches who put so much time and patience into my efforts to perfect my “moves.” I learned humility, discipline, and personal responsibility.
Most popular sports today include the use of toys (balls) and depend upon timing and coordination with teammates in passing the object from one team member to another. Such is the case with the big four: basketball, football, baseball, and soccer as well the less regionally played hockey and lacrosse. Individual success in these sports occurs in conjunction with team success. There are other sports in which an individual can win even as a team may lose: golf, tennis, gymnastics, swimming, track, wrestling.
Wrestling is the most basic survival skill a protector of his family must have. It is the best skill and most available means for defending an attack in the most unexpected occasion. It seeks to restrain and overpower, not necessarily to injure or destroy. And it applies a means which seeks to stop the aggressor with the least harm. Wrestling requires the most stringent demands for diet control and the discipline of fasting. It combines most efficiently those aspects of competition which develop attributes of personal accountability, discipline (of appetite as well as the mind and body), and sacrifice.
I do not speak as one unfamiliar with other sports; I excelled in skiing, football, baseball, swimming, diving, baseball (and even basketball before I abandoned it in favor of wrestling as the two were in the same season). No brag; just fact. I inherited athletic aptitude from my parents; I didn’t earn it. Dad was a city boy from Paterson, New Jersey. Basketball was the only sport accessible and he played it and lacrosse at USNA. I did not make use of my ability as fully I might have.
We might well ponder a comparison between track, swimming, boxing, gymnastics, and wrestling. These require brute exercise of muscles and the extension of energy. And all five highlight the singular athlete and call him individually to excellence in physical conditioning. In each of these sports he is fully responsible for his success or failure. Wrestling and boxing are unique, however, in matching one person directly against another. The demerits of boxing are the injuries and serious risks it brings to the competitors – the pounding directly to the head and the risk of injury to the brain. Indeed, it is a sport which moves the competitor not just to overpower, but to deface and harm the opponent, attacking his very countenance. It promotes a type of combative antagonism, even a maliciousness, one with another, and provides little opportunity for the team factor to be worked into the sport. Wresting opponents, in contrast, do not seek to damage or do harm to one another. The goal is to prevail over one’s opponent, to overcome and subdue him, yet without inflicting injury. The singular person may win or lose solitarily and contribute, nevertheless, to the teams’ victory or defeat.
To reiterate: wrestling is, simply, the BEST SPORT. I would offer further discourse in praise of the sport referencing here my own wrestling experience.
Rise and Fall of Wrestling in the Maryland/D.C. Area
Wrestling came to our county about the time it came to Wilmington – in the 60s. Bowie High School, from which I graduated in 1970 is in Prince George’s County, a suburb of Washington D.C., was the fastest growing county in the nation during the 60s and 70s. John McNelis, the coach at DuVal, brought it down from Pennsylvania and coached these three other men at DuVal High school. Dave Phillips went to Bowie; Joel Kuharick took over DuVal as McNelis went to newly formed Parkdale High School; and Larry Bozella went to Northwestern. For two decades they enjoyed great rivalry and Prince George’s County was the dominant county in state and a fount for good wrestling. “PG” County enjoyed great competition with the adjacent Montgomery county both of which bordered the D.C. line. Then, as the counties’ schools were degraded under the effect of busing, so went the wrestling programs.
I was privileged to share in the friendship between Kuharick and Phillips on the occasion of he NCAA wrestling tournament of 1970 in Iowa. The two drove me and another student, Scott Burgett (a graduate who had came back to work out with me during the season), to that tournament to watch the renowned Dan Gable along with the other top college wrestlers in the nation. What a trip! I will never forget the reaction of the fans in that stadium when Gable lost to Larry Owings. They were so awestruck; they paid no attention to the next final match. Strangely, I don’t remember the names of the competitors who followed that bout and I probably didn’t know them the day after it happened.
Later that year, I would see Larry Owings again when he joined us at wrestling practice at the Naval Academy where he was visiting. Two years later I would watch Gable in Germany wrestling in the Olympics. Oh the appointments and opportunities in life!
I think a particular motivating experience was in my loss to a fellow named Mike Underwood my junior year when we lived in Rochester (1969). I had racked up a 10-0-1 regular season record. The tie was to Greg Fuller, whose father coached the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) team. But as we went into the Section V tournament in the state wide competition, I lost handily to Underwood. After dominating the match and racking up a number I am happy to forget, he shook my hand and said, “Nice match.”
Well, it wasn’t. Excelsior (“ever upward”) is the motto of many-an institution including New York state. And at the time of that loss, I was motivated to improve, return to Maryland, and to triumph. My last year. I was coached in the off season by Frank Oliveri, the wresting coach for the University of Rochester. He devoted personal one-on-one time for several months to me I worked hard beyond that season, spending time with Oliveri and attending USNA Coach Ed Peery’s wrestling camp. In my mind it was my big opportunity. Performing well in wrestling was a goal motivated by several factors: 1) the opportunity of a Naval Academy appointment effected by wrestling success (the coaches have pull in this matter), 2) the possibility of a scholarship to alternate regular colleges.
I was blessed with similar assistance in Maryland where I graduated from Bowie High School in 1970. Coach Dave Phillips recruited an older ex-wrestler, Mike Fowler, whom he had coached at DuVal High School, to be my partner at our team practices. It was these special opportunities, through such volunteer work, that enabled me to excel. I am very grateful to Oliveri and Fowler for their volunteer work.
Wrestling was a great boon for me, even if I did not make the best of that opportunity. Undefeated and voted the Outstanding Wrestler of Prince George’s County in 1970, I became the first of 17 state champions from Bowie High School 1970 to 1989. It was that success that probably clinched my appointment to the Naval Academy. I left left Bowie at graduation, was a midshipmen at Annapolis for one year, spent a few years in Germany where my folks (navy) had been transferred, and then lived many years in Colorado and married Jayne Green before finally returning to Maryland in 1980. In Germany, I watched Dan Gable in the ’72 Olympics; Lloyd Keaser was an alternate for him. Lloyd won the world title in 1973 and the Pan American Games of 1975.
Back at USNA, Butch Keaser was my partner at our 142 lb class. Three-time NCAA champion Ed Peery was my head coach. And another NCAA champion, Bob Kopnizki from the University of Maryland, was the Plebe coach. Keaser was the starter on the varsity and I started for the Plebe team at 142 until an injury put me out for two months. I spent several weeks on the mat with him in the summer of 1970 while the “youngsters” (sophomores) were out on cruise. He was a relentless worker, but the most prominent aspect of his character was quiet humility. His style was nothing fancy; he was simply incessant and tenacious. He was a Christian, even tempered, soft-spoken – the perfect Academy man.
I remember the day of that injury. I was “riding” Dave Homiak, a fellow plebe and the New Jersey State Champ at 154. We were drilling as a team and it was my turn “on top.” I was lazily doing nothing to turn him, just countering his moves, making no energy-draining efforts to “turn” him. (The lazy course of action was to avoid expending the effort to turn someone and risk a reversal and all the energy of the fight.) He lost patience, “key-locked” my wrist and arched around, twisting my elbow and escaping my ride toward a reversal.
I could feel and hear it. My right elbow had ripped elbow, and I was out. It was no loss to me, as I had no will to wrestle. There was another path for me to take: continued disinterest in my setting, a desire to wander around free from the regular rigors of life. I was, to be sure, rather hippie-minded, unfit at that time for the military life! I needed to travel, to wander. And I did.
For many years thereafter I paid little attention to the sport except for a few months in Germany during a two-year stay there in the late 70s. There I entered a regional tournament joining a local Stuttgart team and was beaten soundly by the Swiss national champ. He applied an unforgetable “suplay” taking me clear into the air and back to the mat for a fast touch-pin – with such smooth efficiency as I had never experienced.
A resurgence of interest in the sport came when my sons came along. There were only two: Jonas (born in 1983) and Isaac (born in 1993). Both were excellent workers and talented athletes. Neither of our boys had opportunities comparable to those I had, but both did better with what they were afforded.
Wilmington in Contrast with Maryland
I did not witness those declining years of Prince George’s County wrestling which began in the late 1980s. They were a function of busing along with a general failure of public schools in large metropolitan areas. The disruption of neighborhood schools and the transferring of students to other regions put a strain upon after-school sports programs. The public school administration seemed to look with disdain upon those who were in the competing private system and received transfers like returning traitors. That was my experience as I was enrolling my children into that system after schooling them in our church school and by home-schooling. Noteworthy also is the fact that, in contrast to what we have witnessed in Wilmington, the teachers in Maryland public schools did not enroll their own children in the very system in which they taught. The children of teachers were always, in every case we examined, enrolled in private schools or public schools elsewhere. There was a fear of aggression toward a teacher’s child from other students. The hostility and general dysfunction of a system toward those who had not been continuously enrolled n public school but were transferring from a home-school setting was evident. For example, our daughter’s (Epiphany) credits in language were not accepted by the country school and even when she was tested successfully by their own standards, they gave her no credit for Spanish I and II while admitting her, on the basis of their own test, to Spanish III.
This hostility expressed by the public school administration – at least in Prince George’s County – toward private school transfers was a stark contrast to the gracious treatment we received in Ohio – at least in Wilmington. We were welcomed by the teachers and administration. They were accommodating with the transferring of grades. Our transition from “private” to “public” was smooth. And we were pleased to see that the teachers were confident enough with their own teaching environment that they entrusted their own children in the system in which they taught!
When Jayne and I had moved back to Maryland from Denver in 1980, our first child was born the next year and by the time wrestling was a consideration, for our second born (a male child, Jonas), the school options were few. We had been home-schooling and Bowie High, our local public school and my alma mater, was much reduced from its glory days. But in terms of a place for Jonas to wrestle, it was our only option. We worked out an arrangement so Jonas could take enough classes to wrestle and play football. He did as well as he could have with the training and competition available. He graduated, was appointed to the Air Force Academy, and enjoyed wrestling for the team for the first year. But he found an alternate interest in acrobatic parachuting and joined the illustrious Air Force Academy skydiving team, Wings of Blue. All went well, but I wonder what other course his life would have made had his high school wrestling program been better.
I wonder, likewise, what differences would have been made in Isaac’s life. In his case, the program was run with great camaraderie and encouragement. But the level of sophistication in instruction and the opportunity of extension of training beyond the regular season was not available. Indeed, we might have pursued off-season opportunities, but such were not easily accessible. As it turned out, he continued to wrestle four years under an excellent coach in college, Jim Gruenwald, whose high honors include two top-10 finishes in the Olympic Games for Greco-Roman wrestling (6th in Sydney ’00; 10th in Athens ’04). Isaac worked hard and wrestled well. Finally starting his senior year at Wheaton, he was disappointed by injuries and was not able finish out that year in active competition. But he is devoted to the sport and is an excellent coach spending one-on-one time with wrestlers, just as Oliveri and Fowler did with me. He knows how to teach others to discipline themselves to persevere toward the goal of winning, but, more importantly, to develop other attributes: faithfulness, hard work, and self-denial. And he continues year round with a small group willing to work off season.
I know that in my case, it was the benefit of excellent and devoted coaches in the off season that made the difference. I was not the best exploiter of the opportunities given me, and I know others have done much better with less. But I am hoping for good things for Wilmington as a new zeal and know-how are infused. And I am happy for the opportunity to witness what I believe will be the development of a program that will issue not only in the production of state champions, but will continue to develop men of character.