Grappling with a dilemma

When I answered the phone, the voice on the other end was instantly recognizable. It was someone from long ago and far away — my best friend from Old Siwash, Will Kendrick.

After the usual exchange of pleasantries, he said, “I’ve got a surprise for you.”

“What is it?” I asked.

“I’ll be in your neighborhood in a few weeks,” he said.

“Really?” I said. “Why?”

“The wrestlers are having a big reunion,” he said. Then he added, “And I think you should go with me.”

“Why?” I said. “I was never a wrestler.”

“Well, you were sort of,” he said. “Or have you forgotten?”

Of course I hadn’t.

The master plan

In September 1967, I arrived at SUNY Potsdam, a junior transfer, with two specific objectives. One was to do well academically, the other was to get in good physical shape, and I had a plan for each.

My plan for academic success was simple and straightforward: Every day I’d sit in a library cubicle for at least four hours and study my Dopey head off.

Getting in shape was also straightforward: I would join the wrestling team.

Why wrestling? Simple. The wrestlers had the toughest training and were in the best shape. So I figured all I had to do was work out with them and within a short period of time, I too would be a magnificent specimen of American manhood.

I had only a couple of obstacles to overcome. One, I was in lousy condition. And two, I’d never wrestled before. But as I said, I had a plan.

As for being out of shape, I only had to survive the workouts.

As for never having wrestled? Actually, it was to my advantage. See, I didn’t want to make the team I only wanted to work out with them. I knew if I ever was in an intercollegiate match, I’d never escape with either my cartilage or ego intact. And since I knew nothing about wrestling, it was almost guaranteed I’d never see a wrestling match from anywhere but the bench. The key word in the previous sentence, by the way, is “Almost.”

and the master plan gone awry

When I showed up for the first practice, I was given my wrestling gear and sent to the wrestling room. And there it all began. Practice was two hours long and divided into four parts. There were warm-ups, strengthening exercises, drills, and scrimmages. At the end of practice, there were more strengthening exercises, then 10 minutes of nonstop sprinting up and down the gym stairs.

I don’t remember much about the workouts because I was in oxygen debt, almost from the start. All I remember is going in the wrestling room feeling pretty good, and then coming out of it feeling like I’d just gone 15 rounds with Argentina Rocca. I got stronger with each workout, but that only meant I pushed (and got pushed) harder, so each day provided new forms of stress and strain, gasps and gulps, throbbing temples and rubbery legs.

As for actually learning how to wrestle? Well, eventually I learned three basic moves.

The team had three other wrestlers in my weight class – 115 pounds. Two of them were about as inept as me; the other one was a highly-skilled and experienced sophomore. At least that was his reputation. I didn’t know his skills first-hand, since he hadn’t yet showed up for practices. And as it got closer to the first match of the year, he still didn’t show up. At first I had no idea why, but I figured it out mighty fast, when I found out who the 115-pounder on the other team was.

He was as fast, tough and skilled as it gets, and he was state champion. By every measure, he was a wrestler’s wrestler, and whenever his name came up, it was always in hushed and reverent tones.

And thus the absence of our good 115-pounder: He was playing cute and wasn’t about to get dismembered in front of the home crowd on his first outing of the season. That left the dismemberment to one of us other three. As cruel fate would have it, I was the one, since I beat the other two in the wrestle-offs.

The perfect ending

Suddenly I found myself in the last place I’d ever imagined I’d be: On the starting roster of a varsity wrestling team. I was starring in Alice in Wonderland – I was what I was not, right in the middle of where I never wanted to be.

I had only two choices. One was to go out there and lose one for the Gipper. The other was not to go out there, and win one for discretion. I opted for discretion and left valor for one of my fellows.

In truth, the issue was neither valor nor discretion, but my definition of sport. In sport, the competitors don’t need to have the same chance of winning, but they do need to have some chance. What awaited me was not sport, but foregone conclusion, and I opted out.

My view was diametrically opposed to the coach’s. To his way of thinking, if he could get someone to fill the spot, he would. I always thought if she’d weighed 115 pounds and had been up for it, he would’ve sent in his grandma. And if his grandma was cut from the same cloth as him, I’m sure she would’ve jumped at the chance. But not me.

I did go to the match as a spectator. After team introductions, the first match was announced and the 115-pounders took off their sweat suits and went out on the mat. When I saw the kid from the other school, I could not believe my eyes.

The 115-pounders were always tiny guys – maybe 5’4″ and wiry. But this guy was anything but. He was huge – probably 5’8,” and completely jacked. He was so buff, his muscles rippled when he was standing still. On top of that, his face was a mask of ferocity. He looked less like a college wrestler than an avatar of divine retribution.

It turned out he was a perfect gentleman. As soon as he tied up with our boy, he realized that not only did he have the advantage — he had every advantage. After that, he made a fake or two, took our kid down, and pinned him. And he did it without either hurting or embarrassing our kid, which was a gentlemanly thing to do.

As for my reaction to all this?

As I said, as a wrestler, I learned only three moves. But I count ending my intercollegiate wrestling career before it ever began as a fourth move – and the smartest one of all.