(Note: The Most Excellent Wrestling Adventure Series originally appears at Wisconsin Wrestling Online. They do a great job there; please visit for all things in Wisconsin Wrestling.)
The 2011 Wisconsin State Wrestling Tournament saw Adam, the second of our two sons, and the baby of our five children, take sixth place at 145 in Division II at the Wisconsin State Wrestling Tournament. So ended a rather improbable 23 year family wrestling odyssey that began in 1988 with our oldest son, Jason, when he was in first grade.
The following series of articles will detail our wrestling experiences from the perspective of my wife and me. Neither of us had any previous family experience with the sport; what little exposure I had came from gym classes (I graduated from high school in 1972). Unfortunately, my limited exposure left only negative impressions. Jason brought us into the sport. Even though he lost most of his matches in his first three years, for some reason, known not even to him, he stuck with it. His mother and I learned right along with him until we became the biggest of fans. My motivations to share our experiences are simple: Two give credit to some of the wonderful wrestling coaches, competitors, and families that we had the pleasure of meeting along the way; and to show other mom’s and dad’s how this great sport can help any parent raise confident, accomplished, gentlemen warriors.
Part I: Mom and Dad Follow the Kid
I was just informed that I have a date tonight. My bride Gloria of 34 years sent an email asking me to attend tonight’s dual between Oconomowoc High School and Hartford. As a teacher at Oconomowoc, she has a couple of students from her classes that are on the wrestling team. She wants to go watch them because they’re “her guys”, Hartford is a perennial challenge, and, well, just because. I understand.
How I became excited to make a 66 mile round trip drive to go watch other peoples’ kids wrestle is a story that starts 23 years ago when our oldest son, Jason, brought home a letter that was passed around his first grade class. It was from the East Troy Youth Wrestling Club and it invited all those interested to attend any of the upcoming practices. Two of his new buddies that he had recently met at school, Eric and Travis, were in the club and they were trying to talk him into joining.
Wrestling? I was a little surprised, but otherwise ambivalent. I was all for letting him join his friends in any kind of new adventure; however, I knew so little about the sport that I couldn’t muster up much of a reaction to Jason’s enthusiasm. What little exposure I had was limited to gym classes in middle school and as a freshman at Waukesha High School. My experience was not positive; in a word, I hated it.
The wrestling unit that I had as a freshman in gym class was for the most part not bad. Our teacher tried to show us moves; we pretended to go through the motions. But then came the end of the unit and we had to live wrestle. My first two opponents were easy enough, but then I had to wrestle a kid that was about equal to me. We went back and forth with nobody getting the upper hand; we tied 4-4. At the end, my lungs were screaming and every muscle burned with exhaustion. I absolutely hated that now slimy kid for having the audacity to try to beat me.
That tied 4-4 match resulted in a particular teacher harassing me for a week while I was captive every day in the lunch line. As I was forced to find out, my evenly matched opponent turned out to be a member of the varsity wrestling team, and the guy harassing me was one of the assistant coaches. In hind sight, I can see that they thought they had found a raw talent that could fill one of the smaller weight classes. However, I knew him as one of the assistant football coaches that could not look past my late-blooming lack of size and was therefore identified in my freshman brain as part of the corrupt junta thwarting my dreams of playing football. I had my principles! There was no way that I was going to be his trained monkey in his stupid sport!
When the day finally came, I took Jason up to East Troy High School and followed the noise to the wrestling gym. It was pure, joyful, chaos! There must have been 50 boys, along with a handful of their sisters, running, and tackling, and shouting, and squealing, with total abandon. Jason beamed with the recognition of Travis and Eric; he did not wait for permission to immediately join the melee. Things did finally settle down when the coach blew his whistle.
At the end of practice Jason let me know that it was fun and that wanted to join the club. I told him that I had purchase something called the USA Wrestling card and pay club dues; also, if he wanted wrestling shoes I would have to spend money on those. I said that I was happy to do so, but that I would then require his promise to attend all the practices for the season. He readily agreed.
True to his word, Jason enthusiastically attended every scheduled practice. Even though Eric and Travis were competing in meets on most Saturdays, Jason didn’t ask me about going. I was more than content to ignore that possibility; on the other hand, almost everyone in the club was wrestling in their home tournament and Jason just seemed to assume that he was expected to give it a try.
He lost all three matches of the round-robin format. He seemed to give it a go against two of his opponents, but none of the matches were very close. He seemed to know he lost, but really didn’t seem too discouraged. He was surprised and thrilled when he received his 4th place ribbon.
We attended one other tournament that season. He had two matches and lost both of them. He looked a little disappointed and frustrated for a short time after each match; however, in general he had a good time hanging out with his buddies.
At the end of the season, we attended our first annual club banquet. There I met Travis’s dad, Terry Larson. I learned that Travis was the youngest of their five children and that their two oldest boys, Tony and Tom, had wrestled for Milton and later East Troy after they had moved. Both Tony and Tom were state qualifiers; Tom was a two time state champion and was now wrestling as a freshman at The United States Military Academy at West Point. I did the math in my head: that made Tom twelve years older than Travis and Jason.
Travis won an award for something like most wins. I was floored when I learned that his total record reflected the fact that he had wrestled (if my memory serves me) 48 matches. That meant that he had wrestled in a tournament nearly every weekend for three months! I wanted to desperately ask Terry, “What the heck, driving around to kid tournaments every weekend? Don’t you have a life?” Instead, I listened to him talk about how much fun it really was. He said that he was suffering from withdrawals, now that Tony and Tom were out of high school. It was tough with West Point being so far away in New York—he didn’t get to see Tom very often. He was very grateful that he still would have Travis at home for another 12 years.
Over the next few months, whenever Jason came back from playing at Travis’s house, he would talk about all Tom’s stuff that the Larson’s had displayed on the wall of their game room. It sounded to be like a virtual shrine. Later, when Gloria and I were invited to visit, I could see what Jason was talking about. Not surprisingly, the most prominently displayed items were the wall charts from Tom’s last two trips to State. I saw that he was not only a two time State Champion, but that he had pinned his way through the tournament as a senior. Given that we had never seen the kid and that he was off at the mythical enough as it is West Point, to Jason, Tom was beginning to take on the aura of some kind legend.
Given that he seemed to have fun hanging around with his wrestling buddies, I was a little surprised when Jason decided that he was not going to wrestle that next year in second grade. He did not participate in third grade either. Given my neutral attitude toward the whole thing, I didn’t give his decision a second thought.
Then a funny (to me) thing happened. When he was in fourth grade, Jason asked me, “Dad, can I go out for wrestling?” Aside from being amused by the notion of “going out” for kids club, from my perspective as an apparently clueless parent, his reprised interest came totally out of the blue. And so began what I later came to call, “The comeback.”
Postscript: The paragraphs starting with “Vince Lombardi came…” are modified versions of a posting to a fitness blog that I write. I thought it would make the wrestling article too long if I discussed in too much detail where I developed my attitude to the football/wrestling coach. However, one of the biggest challenges faced by wrestling coaches and parents is getting those kids who could really benefit to participate. Every program has stories of guys that were badly needed but either could not be recruited in the first place, or who had inexplicably quit after having wrestled for years. For those who have the time and interest, you can see that I was one of those (what I call) rebels without a clue.
At the beginning of my freshman year in 1969, I was a very good, but unfortunately late blooming (size-wise) athlete. Compounding things, at the time there was only one Waukesha High School spread across two campuses. My less than satisfactory acknowledgement in 8th grade, along with the conventional wisdom that you had to all but be invited to play football, led me to the decision to not even bother to go out. I chose to be mad about it rather than suffer more frustration and embarrassment at being ignored. Many moons later, as Jason led me through the years of our shared wrestling experience, I came to realize how supremely ironic, almost tragically stupid, my stubbornness towards that coach was. Here he was, offering me a leg up on a steep learning curve (always more fun and exciting), a chance to compete immediately on varsity (rather than waiting at least two years) and a chance to plot and game plan….all things that I was desperate to do; yet, I would have none of it. Despite his best efforts, he was not able to make me understand that he was offering me an alternative path to exactly where I thought I wanted to go.
Vince Lombardi came to Green Bay in 1959, two months before I turned five. I was one of those kids growing up in Wisconsin while Lombardi evolved into a legend. It was a great time watching that juggernaut play in the NFL championship game six times. They were the NFL champions five years. And then, of course, there were the two new “bonus” championship games with the upstart AFL. I was clearly one of those fans that passed into the realm of being a fanatic. (I started a club called the Green Bay Packer Juniors; I forced six of my friends and my younger brother to join. Part of what we had to do was memorize the numbers for the complete 1967 roster. I still know who was on that team better than last year’s championship team.)
Of all the Hall of Fame players on those teams, my favorite was fullback Jim Taylor. He was one of the first to make himself in the weight room. I loved watching him run over people who were often bigger than he was. Even better, I loved reading about how much it hurt to even try to tackle him. Even then it was clear to me that his success was largely due to effort and determination: things that he had control over and that he could do on purpose.
I went to a grade school that was so small that we had combined grades in the same room. My younger sister was a classmate of mine when we were in 4th-5th and 5th-6th grades. When it was time for me to attend the 7th grade, the Waukesha School District had just opened the new Butler Middle School. Instead of the class of 15 that I was used to, it was now close to 500 mostly total strangers. This was my first exposure to the locker room. Bloody welts from wet towel snapping and amputated fingers from Dutch (stable) doors were the least of my concerns. The place seemed full of six-foot giants and eighth graders who were shaving. I grow more hair now in my ears than I did back then in places where I kept checking hoping to find it.
By the beginning of 8th grade my body was not cooperating in my desperate desire to do as Jim Taylor did. I weighed a not too good for football 105 pounds. In the only game we played, I did not get in until halfway through the third quarter. They put me in as a middle linebacker and even though in less than eight minutes I made two tackles and intercepted a pass, they took me out at the end of the quarter. That turned out to be the beginning and the end of my football career.
By the time I was a junior, I might have been big enough to play as one of the smallest guys on the team; however, given that there were 850 junior and senior boys in the school, and given that I was in complete stealth mode as far as the coaches’ radar went, I didn’t bother.
My ignominious high school career peaked while I was looking at the results of the physical fitness testing posted on the field house wall. This was the ranking of the collective scores from events such as pushups, sit ups, pull ups, half-mile run, softball throw, 60 yard dash, and I don’t remember what else. Out of about 430 guys in my class, there I was sitting pretty in third place. There were two other guys looking at the results at the same time I was. Being as my performance put me in the top one percent, I was feeling rather accomplished. That is, until one of those two guys got to my name. With a very puzzled look on his face, he looked at his friend and asked, “Who the hell is that?”