I’ve been around quite a few wrestlers. They are kind of like rowers, of which I was one, only even more intense. Us rowers did battle with our oars. Suffered with our bodies. The wrestlers I knew did battle with their bodies and suffered with their souls.
Wrestlers, like rowers, aren’t in it for the money or even the glory. They are in it for the thing itself. For the pushing beyond limits. For the seeking of something precious. Something noble. Something one might call manhood.
Sports Illustrated recently published a piece about wrestling, about manhood, about striving against all odds for greatness that I felt particularly important to share here as in some ways there are the universal questions we ask every day in different ways: What does it mean to be a man? A good man?
Below are some of my favorite passages from the piece. If it interests you please click through and read the whole thing. And if you have a teenage son, like I do, make him read it too.
What does it mean to be a man?
It is a clear, cool afternoon a year later, in the fall of 2011. Students hurry through the halls of OPRF, laughing and posturing. In the Field House, a stream of wiry boys ascend the steep stairs to the wrestling room.
The room is cramped, with low ceilings and padded walls, and the disinfectant sprayed on the mats makes it smell like a mix of dirty socks and ammonia. Small windows let in orange spikes of late afternoon sun, but the dominant light comes from the rows of fluorescent bulbs overhead. A boom box on the windowsill blares out Little Lion Man,by Mumford & Sons: Weep for yourself, my man/You’ll never be what is in your heart/Weep Little Lion Man/You’re not as brave as you were at the start.
Within minutes the room is alive with activity. Young men in singlets run in circles, then cycle through various warmup moves: cherry pickers, frog jumps, dive rolls, front handsprings and dynamic stretches. They begin grappling in pairs, oddly silent given their level of exertion. The sound is of hard footfalls and the whap-whap of backs smacking the mats. Against one wall sits a blue box the size of a small suitcase. No wrestler is allowed to sit on it. It is Coach’s box.
Mike Powell was five when his father first took him to the wrestling room of the Oak Park Huskies, a youth club. If it bothered Bud Powell that Mike was at least five years younger than any other boy in the room, he didn’t show it. Bud had grown up a hard city kid, the son of a Ukrainian bar owner. He believed that men needed to be tough and that toughness was acquired early. So when Mike got out of line, Bud pulled off his belt or used an open palm. He installed a pull-up bar in the backyard and offered Mike a dime for every one he completed. Then, when Mike tried to collect, Bud said, “You don’t want to be the best on your own? You need to get paid for it?”
To be a wrestler is to spend untold hours in nearly unbearable pain, to consider it a badge of honor to be slammed onto a four-inch mat so often that the blood vessels in your ear explode and the cartilage rumples until it looks like a giant piece of flesh-colored gum. Wrestlers can acquire staph infections or herpes. Some suffer knee and shoulder injuries that leave them hobbled, unable to play tennis or basketball in their 30s. They’re encouraged to imagine terrible scenarios—Your mother’s head is under a guillotine, and you must save her—to engage their primal survival instincts and break free of holds. There is a reason Dan Gable, who won a gold medal at the 1972 Olympics and is considered the greatest U.S. wrestler ever, said, “Once you’ve wrestled, everything else in life is easy.”
Powell stands with his arms outstretched on the sideline at the Illinois state team wrestling tournament, awaiting the impact. At 33, he has become the man he always aspired to be: coach of a top high school squad, fiancé of a beautiful woman he adores, father figure to so many lost boys.
After years of building a program, of spending 18 hours a day living and breathing OPRF High wrestling, he’s done it: His alma mater is the 3A champion. Now here comes Sammy Brooks, the freshman who dominated the clinching match, sprinting across the mat with eyes afire. Sammy leaps into Powell’s arms, 152 pounds of joy clutching his rib cage. Powell hugs him tight, inhaling the sweat on his chest. And then the coach who can bench-press 300 pounds, who can go days without rest, whom former Indiana teammate Eric Pitts describes as “the strongest human being I’ve ever known,” feels an unfamiliar sensation: weakness. Powell’s left leg buckles, followed by his right. He stumbles backward, into the void.
What if you woke up one morning with the flu and it never went away?
John Irving wrote that “wrestling is not about knocking a man down—it’s about controlling him.” That’s what Powell strives for now: control. He no longer dreams of hiking the Appalachian Trail or going on a surfing trip to Hawaii. Instead he meets old friends at the diner for breakfast. He does breathing and energy exercises. He recites Invictus five times a week in the sauna, lingering on the final lines: It matters not how strait the gate,/How charged with punishments the scroll,/I am the master of my fate:/I am the captain of my soul.
Ellis Coleman (above in video) is on track to wrestle at the London Olympics Coleman became a wrestling phenomenon after devising a move called the Flying Squirrel that looks like something out of a kung fu movie. From a standing position he leaps over his opponent’s head and, on the way down, grasps the other boy’s waist or legs and flips him into a takedown. To this day Coleman calls Powell his “second father.”
Click Here to Read the Piece in its Entirety: