As a former high school wrestler — sort of — I’m an admirer of anyone who takes up that sport.
I’m even more impressed when a high school wrestler does well enough to make it to the state wrestling tournament.
Galion’s Garrett Kuns and Mason Welden qualified for this week’s tournament, as have Northmor’s Conan and Conor Beckman, Jake Neer, Mason Burger, Aaron Kitts, Matthew Ross and Nathan Price.
Obviously, they earned my admiration.
And I wish them well.
For one day long ago, I walked in their shoes. I was once a high school wrestler, and for those three hours, I was overwhelmed, and miserable.
When I was a sophomore at Galion High School, I was cut — as in “don’t let the door hit you in the butt when you leave the gym” cut — while trying out for the junior varsity basketball team. Four decades later, I’m still bitter about that grave injustice and I’m still angry at those who orchestrated my high school basketball demise. But the urge to slit the tires of those responsible has at least subsided … a little.
Anyway the day after I was cut, axed, dumped, screwed over — OK, I’m a more than a little bitter — Don Duper, who was then Galion High School’s head wrestling coach cornered me — and somehow convinced me to give wrestling a try. Jim Wegesin, a friend to this day, was an assistant coach for the Tigers, and as I remember it, he too played a role in the beginning — and end — of my high school wrestling career.
I got cut from the basketball team on a Thursday. Duper cornered me in a hallway at school on Friday.
Don’s daughter Wendy was in the same graduating class as I and we have been friends for several years. So I knew Don. And the previous year, myself and a few others had been invited to Duper’s home to meet and spend an evening with wrestling icon Dan Gable.
If you know anything about wrestling, Gable was, and, is a wrestling legend. A 1972 gold medalist at the Munich Olympics, Gable may be the finest amateur wrestler of all time. His record in high school and college was a combined 182-1. An Iowa native, he coached the Iowa college wrestling team to 15 NCAA titles and won the Big Ten wrestling title in each of his 21 years as a coach.
To this day, that opportunity remains one of the most enjoyable evenings of my life.
So I had that wrestling experience going for me.
In gym class at North Elementary School, we did some wrestling. We even had a city championship for kids my age and I made it to the sixth-grade title match.
I didn’t win, and I can’t remember who beat me. I do remember I was bigger than my opponent, but he had more real-wrestling skills, with more than a couple hours of experience, and he kicked my butt.
Still, I had that wrestling background to fall back on in my new career as a high school wrestler.
When I was in middle school, my friends and I played poker almost every weekend. We stayed at one of our homes and played through much of the night. At times, however, the poker got boring, and the game would turn into a marathon wrestling or boxing match. These weren’t always friendly matches, and we’d get angry every now and then, and bloodied and hurt. But except for the tag teams and the fake elbow-smashes and flying leaps off the furniture, it was just like high school wrestling.
So I had that knowledge going for me, too.
I was a good athlete, maybe 175 pounds, and the wrestling team needed someone to fill that spot on its roster. I was in good condition from playing football, I was cocky and I was angry from being cut from the basketball team, which sounded like a good combination for a newbie high school wrestler.
So I had that going for me.
Besides, I thought to myself: “It’s high school wrestling. How hard can it be?”
My first practice was on a Monday. It probably started about 3:30 p.m. It was behind the bleachers, in the upper level at the high school. I don’t know when it ended. I think I blocked it out.
The first thing I noticed when I arrived was that a wrestling practice room smells almost as bad as a high school football locker room, in August, filled with 75 sweaty athletes, during the middle of two-a-days. That’s an aroma that is, well, kind of unforgettable.
There were mats all over the floor and they covered with sweat, and who knows what other manner of bodily fluids.
So even before practice had started, I was re-thinking my decision.
I think I did some actual wrestling that day. I have to believe I was shown a few rudimentary moves and counter-moves, but I’m not certain.
The first hour of that practice was torture. There was stretching and calisthenics and conditioning and team-building.
While all that was going on around me, I was fighting an inner battle — not to vomit, which I lost.
And then we got down to actually working with a partner. My partner? I don’t remember who he was. But he was more experienced that I. Everyone was.
I don’t remember the rest of the practice either, except that two more times I ran to the trash can at the edge of the mat to empty my stomach.
I had never worked so hard, sweated so much, gotten so beat up, been so out of breath, and so completely out-classed.
That Monday was my first day as a high school wrestler. It also was my last.
I didn’t have the patience to learn how to wrestle.
Wrestlers have to be disciplined put up with all that conditioning and diet restrictions and pain.
I kind of wish I had stuck it out. I may have been an OK grappler. I’ll never know.
I do know I could have used the discipline.
But that afternoon at practice I learned to appreciate high school wrestlers.
What they do is amazing.
I was a sports reporter for about 20 years. Wrestling was my favorite sport to cover. As a photographer, I was often just feet, or inches away from the action.
I tell others that if you ever get a chance to see a high school state tournament, there are two unlike the others.
High school swim meets are incredible. Parents and swimmers and and student sections are crammed into a too-small natatorium. The excitement level and constant cheering is hard to describe.
The state high school wrestling tournament is like that, but on a much larger scale.
In wrestling, once a session starts, it does not stop. There is constant action. And wrestling fans are as knowledgeable as they come. They know the return champs, they know who is undefeated, they know when the best matches are going to be staged, There are hundreds in attendance cheering for their favorite athletes. There are college coaches on hand, and there are thousands more who — like me — just love the atmosphere of the tournament.
Whether at the Nutter Center in Dayton or the Schottenstein Center in Columbus, it is a spectacle like no other.
If you get a chance to go.
Go to Columbus and cheer on our local athletes.
It’s an experience you’ll never forget.
Russ Kent is editor of the Galion Inquirer. Email him with comments or story ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org.