There is one week until the start of districts when the “real” wrestling begins. That’s the fuel the coaches inject in their battered, food-deprived, and weary wrestlers. The season has been practice; the post-season is the payoff. Top three wrestlers in districts wrestle at regions. Top three wrestlers at regions wrestle at states. In New Jersey, even an invitation to states is so prestigious it can result in a college recruitment.
For many, these dreams start when the wrestler is in grade school. Such is this sport. It requires a childhood to ferment.
Sometimes at the start of matches the ref will talk to each team, and sometimes he will mention moves that are so dangerous they are designated as illegal, and off-limits to the wrestlers. One of these moves is something like this: you may not trap your opponent’s arms and then slam him to the mat. Doing so means that the wrestler with the immobilized arms has no way to break his fall. It’s not only dangerous, it’s hard for the ref to stop because it happens so quickly.
This is a move that we must trust opponents not to pull.
Wednesday night, my son’s opponent hit this move. The picture above shows the result: a snapped clavicle. As if that weren’t enough, the wrestler who did this taunted the crowd, his team and fans booed the trainer’s decision to stop the match and award it to my son, and the opposing coaches challenged the trainer, chastising his decision.
Sanity left the gym that night, replaced by the worst stance we can find in sports: the desire to win at all cost.
After years around this sport, I’ve noticed that wrestlers are accustomed to being misunderstood. Their conditioning, the muscle they work so hard to build, the moves they spend long hours to learn—most of these are not used off the mat. The days they spend watching what they eat, the hours of anxiety—the need to hole up and wall themselves off, and the fear—the never-ending fear— that they will lose and lose big makes them different. They know this. They accept it. They are a brotherhood.
The best wrestlers are also a complex set of contradictions. How can a wrestler be tough yet show concern and compassion for a friend? How he remain focused on his own run at states yet agonize over someone whose chance has ended? How can he give one hundred percent on the mat yet find the emotional pool to sit with an injured teammate?
How can he try every move he’s learned in order to beat an opponent, yet chose not to hit those that are deemed illegal?
Ask the Mendham High School wrestling team. They are the indisputable champs.