As a youngster, I did not excel at sports. In fact, one might say that I was not much of an athlete at all. But there were reasons. For one thing, I was nearly always the youngest and smallest kid in my grade (I was five feet tall, and 90 pounds, the day I was graduated from high school—at barely 17 years old). The other was that my younger brother, Gene,—we were a mere ten months apart—was a terrific athlete, especially when it came to baseball. He played Little League baseball. I was on the team. He made the all-star team. I watched him play. Got the picture? Good.
When I was a sophomore in high school, all that changed. One Wednesday afternoon, an announcement was made over the public address system that the wrestling team was seeking (translation: was desperate for) a wrestler to fill the 98-pound weight class slot. I was still not an athlete, and I was very small (not nearly as big as I would be on graduation day), so it came as a complete surprise to everyone (including me) when I chose to respond to the call to arms.
“Okay,” said Coach Jack Begin, “we’ve only got two days to get you ready for your first match, so we’re just going to work on a few basic moves.” Coach Begin had a clipped New England accent (I think he was from the Boston area, originally), and a thick head of dark, wavy hair. We were in the school basement, below the gymnasium, in the official “practice room.” It was nothing more than a storage space littered with a collection of smelly mats, which covered a cement floor. In the center of the room was a square concrete post, which was to be avoided at all costs.
The next thing I knew, I was being tossed around like a rag doll by a fellow teammate, as I was introduced to the true meaning of the word “wrestling.” The first “move” I was taught was called a single-leg takedown, which was exactly as you might picture it, and worth two points. Just in case I was the one taken down—either by one or two legs—I was also taught how to escape (not from the building, but from the control of the other wrestler). The technique was called a “sit-out.” If I could pull it off successfully, I would be awarded a point—or maybe it was two, I can’t remember. The final “move” I learned was the “bridge,” which is essentially one of desperation. When all else fails, and you’re on your back and in danger of being pinned (the ultimate disgrace for a wrestler), you bridge. You arch your back and support yourself on the top of your head—thereby keeping your shoulders off the mat, and preventing a pin. I was real good at that one.
The big day arrived, and Coach Begin, the other members of the team, and I boarded the bus that would take us to Westwood High School, several towns away from our own. I was so nervous, and the diesel fumes were so strong, that I could barely keep from being sick. We reached our destination in about twenty minutes, and before I knew it, I was dressed in my uniform and sitting on a bench in the gymnasium, along with my teammates, waiting for the match to begin.
If you’re not familiar with high school wrestling, there are approximately ten progressively heavier weight classes, beginning with the 98-pound class, and ending with heavyweight. The lightest weight class gets to wrestle first, and that was me (take a number, no waiting). My opponent was huge—probably weighed at least 97 pounds! The referee blew the whistle, and before I knew what happened, I was on my back. It was a takedown, and two points for my opponent. “Bridge! Bridge!” shouted my teammates from the sidelines. Oh yeah, bridge, I thought—and I did—simultaneously swiveling on my head and ending up on my hands and knees. An instant later, the referee blew his whistle again, and “monster boy” was pushing and pulling at me, trying to get me on my back again. “Sit out! Sit out!” screamed Coach Begin. A mystical force manipulated my body, and before my opponent could react, I had accomplished the maneuver and was free. I had escaped! (By that time, I truly wished I was out of the building.) The whistle blew again, and the first period had ended..
(To be continued)