It has been a very long time since I’ve actually written anything creatively or otherwise for my own enjoyment. Poetry or prose—even the novel I started over a decade ago now—has always been a somewhat guilty, personal pleasure of mine and one that I don’t share that often. But now that I prepare to close my first half-century, I ask myself “What the hell are you waiting for? Why are you holding back?”
As it turns out, last weekend in Bakersfield provided me with a once-in-a-lifetime shot of inspiration that I was compelled to get out of me. I hope you will enjoy what I wrote and can appreciate what it has taken for me to put this side of me out there. And more importantly, the subject I wrote about.
Click over the jump to read…
Day two of the California State Wrestling Tournament had already been underway for a couple of hours, non-stop High School wrestling goodness on 6 mats covering the floor of Bakersfield’s Rabobank Arena. Consolations, quarters, semis breezing by one after the other after the other, beginning with the 106s, running through the heavyweights, then cycling through all over again and again.
This was my first time ever at such a glorious event, so I’d actually splurged for a good ticket. This put me right in the very first row, literally 4 feet from the edge of mat #2—close enough to hear every grunt, see every facial expression, practically smell the sweat. Every reason I ever had for loving this sport was played out right in front of me, closer than ever before.
Two more wrestlers stepped onto the mat to begin their 6 minute battle—these guys were somewhere in the middle weights, I don’t even remember where exactly. One in a yellow singlet, the other in dark blue. The problem with earlier rounds is that they don’t announce the wrestlers’ names as they step onto the mat, and it’s easy to get lost in the ever-changing brackets unless you’re really paying attention or have your own dog in the fight.
Step to the center, crouch, shake hands, the ref’s whistle and another match had begun.
Seemed just like any other, yellow guy doing pretty well, already racking up some points. Still, they both fumbled around a bit in the first period—nerves maybe, or the fact that they’d both been wrestling for a day-and-a-half by now and must be starting to feel it. I enjoyed the spectacle, appreciating the moves and technique, secretly wishing that I too could have been a part of this when I was their age, not knowing if I could’ve ever found what it really takes inside the wimpy, High School me. I continued watching passively, my eyes occasionally shifting around to matches elsewhere in the arena, lead to different mats each time the audience let out a cheer for some great feat being accomplished.
I can’t remember if it was the end of the first or early in the second, but on the mat in front of me, an injury timeout had been called. Yellow guy had apparently tweaked dark blue guy’s hand or something, and he was off to the side having it looked at by his coach and the first aid guy.
Then something kind of unexpected happened. It was like dark blue guy had just been set on fire. He sort of strutted around in a little circle, a new bounce in his step. He let out a yell and slapped himself in the face a couple of times with both hands before returning to center to resume the match.
He began wrestling like a beast, like a completely different guy. Suddenly he was getting the takedowns and racking up the points. I remember thinking it was like that line in Blazing Saddles where Gene Wilder was talking about Mongo: “No don’t do that—you’ll just make him mad”. Getting hurt really seemed to piss dark blue guy off and he was not prepared to go down just yet. The second period buzzer went off, the ref whistled. Dark blue let out another yell, circling around the mat like a man possessed, his eyes practically shooting lightning bolts when he turned around and I could see his face.
The third period is usually always either kinda slow and sad as you watch guys realize it’s all over and they mentally give up—or extremely exciting as the wrestlers fight their way right to the bitter end, making it anybody’s guess how it’ll turn out. This match had taken on this incredible energy, urgency, and I found myself riveted to the action, the rest of the stadium fading away to a blurry background image like in some movie.
Literally on the edge of my seat—I kid you not—I was leaning on the low wall in front of me watching dark blue do some incredible work. He had closed the scoring gap and fought like a monster. It was crystal clear that he was a first-class wrestler, incredibly strong and really smart. Of course he was—this was the State Championships, after all. My own heart was thudding in my chest as it got to that manic time where your eyes are darting back and forth between the action on the mat and the countdown on the time clock, afraid even to blink and thereby miss something. Behind and to my right, friends and family were screaming out encouragement and advice like a bunch of psychos.
Buzzer, whistle, back to center, shake hands. Then the ref raised the other guy’s—yellow’s—arm. A single point difference.
Dark blue staggered off to my side of the mat, breathing heavily, hands on his hips. He sat down in the aisle way, grabbing his knees, gasping for air, his expression showing he was a bit stunned. A couple more breaths, then his face contorted and the tears started to flow. That face registered all the exhaustion and pain of having fought your hardest, done your very best but still having come up short. He hadn’t even removed his headgear and now buried his face in his hands and just sat there.
I’m not at all ashamed to say that my heart broke in half right along with him. I noticed that I was holding my breath, fighting a couple tears of my own as I realized how privileged I was to be allowed to somehow participate in such a personal moment playing out less than 10 feet away. Stunned myself, I felt completely drained, unsure what to do next: keep watching over him, or turn my attention to the next two guys who’d already bounced onto the mat getting ready to shake hands and start the next match.
I leaned back in my seat, exhausted. The next match began, I guess…
After a couple more deep breaths, a quick wipe of the face with the palm of his hand, dark blue finally removed his headgear. His face and jaw now firmly set, he stood up, peeled his singlet down to his waist and headed toward the tunnel and out of the arena.
You’d have never guessed he’d just lost and was done for the rest of the weekend.
I don’t know who he was, he had absolutely no idea I was even there, and the only interaction the two of us will ever have in this lifetime—if you can even call it that—lasted no more than about 11 minutes. But to me the experience was incredibly profound on so many different levels. An entire spectrum of feelings, strengths and emotions laid out for a brief moment in time that I was fortunate enough to witness.
This, my friends, is why I love this sport. I was never—and will never be—a wrestler myself, and am henceforth cursed to only be allowed to appreciate it as an “outsider”. To me, it marks the pinnacle of strength, character and athleticism. There’s nowhere to hide on the mat, and anyone can win at anytime, big guys and little guys. The ultimate test of an individual.
For me, this match—and not the victor, but the vanquished—will forever be the cherished highlight of the entire tournament.
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Now, go write the IOC a letter and help convince them what a monumental mistake it would be to remove wrestling as an Olympic sport.Thousands upon thousands of young men and women from all countries and all cultures and all historical traditions are counting on you…
And by the way, this piece is ©2013 Douglas P. Kendrick. Please do not republish or distribute without permission—unless it’s for the good and promotion of High School wrestling, in which case I give you permission to shout it far and wide, to the very ends of the earth…