(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.)
I suspect that it came in the mail, but somewhere toward the end of his fifth grade school year, Jason (Jay) came up with this flyer for some kind of so-called day camp. It ran from something like 10:00 am to 4:00 pm, with a break for lunch; I think it was for a week. Once again he totally surprised me when he asked if he could attend. What was going through his head? He told me that none of his friends were interested. Here you had this young kid from a small town, who had just finished fifth grade, asking to spend all day, in a strange town, with a bunch of other kids and coaches he had never met before in his life, to work on a sport that he self-admittedly sucked at! It did occur to me that maybe he just liked scaring himself; perhaps to him wrestling was a thrill sport where he got an adrenalin rush akin to ski diving. On the other hand, he never acted particularly excited. He just went about the whole thing in a rather business-like fashion; it was kind of like he was just going off to work.
Adding to this (for me) preternatural phenomenon was the fact that this camp was to be held in the field house at Waukesha South High School. I had not set foot in the place since I had sat in the bleachers as a spectator (long story) at my graduation. I did walk to the corner and look at the blank wall where the results of the physical fitness testing had once been posted.
As far as making the twice daily 50 mile round trip to Waukesha went, it was not that bad. At the time, our biggest customer’s warehouse was in Waukesha, anyway. We really only had to make one special trip per day: To pick Jay up in the afternoon when he was finished. Every morning of that week I would make two deliveries: Tomatoes for the Sentry stores and Jason to wrestling practice. He seemed to enjoy it and said that he was learning a lot.
When the start of his sixth grade season rolled around he told me that his goal was to get to the WWF State Tournament by the time he was in eighth grade. This was the first time that he had ever verbalized any kind of goal; as usual with Jay, it came out of the blue. I was becoming more and more pleased at the deliberate way he was going about his wrestling. As I was very deliberately staying out of the way, whatever he decided to do was very much fine with me.
It was about that time that I made the conscious decision to confine myself to a support role when it came to wrestling. I figured that being a parent afforded me more than enough opportunity to coach my kids in the life skills that should be my primary responsibility. Since by this time he already knew more about the technical aspects of wrestling than I did, I saw no reason to horn in on what was clearly evolving into his business.
One day I took him aside and somewhat ceremoniously told him that I was not going to coach his wrestling and that he would have to seek that out for himself and figure out what coaches and coaching styles suited him best. I told him that I would support him in any way I could; basically, that I would haul him around, and pay for things like camps. Also, since, since I knew a thing or ten about weight training, when the time came, I would be his lifting coach. He seemed pleased that I was smart enough to relegate myself to what were obviously the most appropriate roles.
The sixth grade season started routinely, without any indication that it wouldn’t be more of the same: A lot of struggle without a whole lot outwardly to show for it. Jason had seemed to be getting better towards the end of the previous year, but he still was having problems scoring enough points to win, especially from his feet.
Fortunately, Mike Joswowski, whose son Adam Lesser was the club’s best third grader, was still stopping in and helping out as much as his very busy schedule would allow. Mike was in his first year as head coach at Waterford. It’s probably an understatement to say that Mike and the way he coached were controversial; polarizing would be a more accurate description of the wildly divergent opinions that the other parents held of him. However, Jason loved the guy; he missed him when Mike couldn’t make the practices.
Mike was a two time state qualifier (1981 & 1982) from Waterford. In his words, he was an under- achiever in high school who did not have the confidence to wrestling up to his ability when it really counted: “I would choke in the big matches when wrestling the guys with the big reputations.” From my perspective, Mike’s (what other people saw as) over the top intensity was born of his desperate passion to not let the kids’ he coached suffer the same ignominious fate that he did in high school. Sometimes this insistent intensity would appear like he was trying to make sure that his kids were more afraid of him than either their opponent or their fear of making mistakes.
Outwardly, Coach Mike and Jason appeared to have nothing in common. While Mike was very animated, and aggressive; Jason was quiet, reserved, and very self-disciplined. However, they both had a burning intensity that the other seemed to understand and appreciate. After one particularly grueling “after hours” session with Mike, Jason revealed to me profoundly more than he could have ever intended when he said, “You know, Dad, the thing I like about Mike is that when he compliments you, you know you did it right. I hate it when people give me compliments when I know I sucked.”
Up to this time, Jason seemed to have developed an aversion to shooting takedowns. The previous season, Mike had made it a point to get him to take shots. We had a minor celebration when Jay finally succeeded in scoring on a nice single. However, better opponents were so good at countering anything he could manage at his current skill level that he clearly wanted to rely on escapes and bottom moves.
I concluded that I had exacerbated that tendency by trying to simplify things by encouraging him to concentrate first on the fundamentals of his stance. He found that if his stance was perfect, and that if he kept moving and circling like he was taught, that it was almost impossible for even the best guys to score on him. It seemed that he gave up most of his points, and therefore suffered most of his losses, by getting out of position and making himself vulnerable to counters of sloppy takedown attempts.
As it turned out, I needn’t have worried. We were at a tournament where Jason had just lost by one point, 0-1, to Mikey Iverson, who was one of many of a new generation of Stoughton Wrestling Iverson’s. The two other kids in the round robin bracket came up to Jay and fussed over the fact that he had “almost beat” the dreaded Mikey. They were very impressed with how good Jay must be. When they left, Jay looked out of the corner of his eye and kind of smirked, “Well, that did feel better than getting teched or pinned; but losing is losing. I guess I gotta figure out a way to score a few points.”
That season we kind of turned the corner into what I considered hard-core: wrestling in 40 or more matches. For the first time, we even did the two per weekend thing. He won his first tournament; then he won a couple more on his way to winning approximately two-thirds of his matches.
That season the closest WWF Regional was just down the road at Elkhorn High School. With the luck of the draw, he got Hank Peters for his first match. In a far cry from his 15-0 thumping by Hank back in fourth grade, he fought hard, but lost a very close, low scoring match by one or two points. Rather than dwelling on his bad luck at getting stuck with heavy favorite Hank, on Hank’s home mat, Jason seemed resolved to march through the very large bracket. He did just that, mostly pinning his way through another five or six matches all the way back to second place and a trip to the state tournament. After one very subdued fist pump after winning the final match, he walked off the mat looking serenely satisfied that he had realized his goal a full two years early. He had turned the corner.