A Wrestler’s Manifesto: Meditations on my life on the mat
“This is a memoir, but please understand that (to any writer with a good imagination) all memoirs are false. A fiction writer’s memory is an especially imperfect provider of detail; we can always imagine a better detail than the one we can remember. The correct detail is rarely, exactly what happened; the most truthful detail is what could have happened, or what should have happened. Half my life is an act of revision …”
- From the introduction to The Imaginary Girlfriend by John Irving, bestselling author and 1992 inductee into the US Wrestling Hall of Fame
I need a new pair of wrestling shoes. Mine are worn and the rubber sole is starting to peel from the leather uppers and my socks and toes will soon be sticking through. But mostly, I need a new pair because these have “turned” — no amount of disinfectant spray can overwhelm the funk emanating from them.
But I don’t want to buy a new pair.
It is not that I love these particular shoes. They are bright red and, because they are huge, they look like clown shoes. I picked them because they were the cheapest decent pair I could find. I have probably had this pair six years, which is five years longer than they used to last me. In my younger days, I’d rip through them in less than six months putting the grapplers equivalent of a couple marathons on them every month. But these have lasted longer based simply on the fact that my mat time is significantly diminished. But I still don’t want to buy a new pair.
It is not that I am cheap or frugal or don’t have the means. Hell, as long as I am not concerned with color (I’m not), I can find a nice pair online for less than $60. I have the means. It is just that when I started thinking about having to buy another pair, I realized that this will probably be the last pair of wrestling shoes I ever buy.
As I age, I wonder how much mat time I can accumulate after I mark a half a century. Wrestling is tough on the body. I am aware that I will be able to grapple and train in Brazilian Jiu-jitsu, but I am a wrestler. We smash through things. Big, hard takedowns and throws and I don’t know how long that can continue.
And I just can’t imagine my life without wrestling. I know I can coach or officiate but it is not the same. I am a wrestler.
And it isn’t selfishness or that I just like to play. It is not the endorphins that running releases or some kind of macho indulgence where I need to prove my worth as a man. I don’t care if I win or get my ass kicked. I just need to wrestle.
I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that wrestling saved my life – multiple times. At the least, it created the life I have now. Wrestling made me the person I am today and I am pretty proud to be him. Because of wrestling: I am hard working, focused, stubborn, obsessive, unbreakable, vulnerable, fearless and fearful – not all positive traits I understand, but I am grateful for them all. Wrestling gave my son a path to manhood and me an opportunity to slow down and be a better father. Every success in my life, everything in my life – good or bad, strong and weak, my injuries and my health – everything that I am is because I was a wrestler.
Because I am a wrestler.
As a kid, I was a Hulkamaniac. My understanding of wrestling was all about vinyl laced boots, tights, masks and Superfly splashes off the top ropes. I never knew it was something kids could do, but when I was in sixth grade, they made an announcement that wrestling practice would begin the following week. Sixth graders didn’t have a lot of school-based sports options. Football and basketball teams were only available to 7th and 8th graders. I had every intention of playing basketball, my dad was a high school star, but I figured this would give me a sport to do while I waited.
Coach Siegfried Myers was probably in his early thirties. He had a beard and drove a Volkswagen van. As a kid, you don’t really think much about your coaches and teachers as people. As an adult, I realized how much of an influence he had on my life and I tried to find him, to thank him and find out more about who he was. In my search, I found an article about a man with the same that he had died of cancer several years prior but I don’t know if it was him.
But the first time I walked into that gym where our mat was shoved into a tiny corner so there was still enough room for the basketball players to practice. Coach Myers was very much alive. He taught us the basics, doubles and singles, sit outs, switches and stand-ups. And he was kind. Of all things I remember about him was that he was kind.
I can clearly remember my first wrestling match. 103 pounds vs Matt Mead from Glen Edwards Middle School in Lincoln. It was a home meet. I even remember the exact scoring and could probably write out the accurate score card.
But the scorecard doesn’t tell the story. There was nothing memorable about it until about ten seconds left in the second round. I was down by one. I don’t know exactly what happened, but I think he wound up with a hard cross-face and clocked me across the mouth. Boom there was a flash of light and a metallic taste in my mouth. I was bleeding. The referee blew the whistle. I assumed he saw the blood. Instead, time had run out. The round was over.
I was worried, because clearly, I was injured. I looked over at my coach for sympathy but all he did was yell, “DOWN,” indicating I should choose the bottom position to start the third round. I pointed to my lip and he yelled, “DOWN!”. I turned to the referee and pointed to my injured lip. He ignored me and asked, “Top or bottom.”
I picked down. I got on my hands and knees. Matt grabbed my elbow and put his arm around my waist and squeezed. The whistle blew. Smack he drove me forward and my face hit the mat. “You have to move,” Coach Myers yelled. “You are going to lose.” I tried to come up but I was being overwhelmed. I was trapped.
“You are just lying there. You are quitting.”
I don’t know why that was what I needed to hear. To this day, I don’t know why I take that as such a personal attack – maybe my dad had impressed his idea of not giving up or quitting — but I don’t know if he could have said anything more offensive to me. I didn’t want to be a quitter. I pushed my hips up got to all fours sat to my butt and came around behind him. Two-point reversal. With all I had I shoved him forward until he was flat on the mat, forced my hand under his arm and over his neck and drove him to his back. The referee swiped his hand through the air, once, twice three times and the time keeper tapped him. Round was over, but not before I had the two-point near fall and my first ever win. At that point I was undefeated. 1-0 and I was a wrestler.
I had a pretty good wrestling career in middle school. I went to the prestigious northern California Tournament of Champions and placed fourth. I didn’t realize middle school was a little pond. I remember walking into the high school wrestling room feeling like a big fish. In middle school, as a wrestler, I had started to establish my own style and personality and my own quirks. I wore a purple headgear even though our team colors were red and white. I kept a lucky penny in each shoe and I wore the same sweatshirt and singlet to every match. I had had success with my ways and I didn’t see a reason to change. This new team would get used to it.
The high school coach was a man named Casey Griffin. He wasn’t a big man, maybe five pounds over his high school 157 pound weight class but you could tell he wasn’t someone to cross. Where Coach Myers smiled, Griffin scowled. Myers would speak so softly that you often couldn’t hear him, Griffin yelled so brashly you often couldn’t understand him. Myers wore Birkenstock sandals, Griffin wore pointed cowboy boots. Myers believed I should develop my own style. Griffin believed I should do it his way. Myers made me the team Captain. Griffin called me “Fresh Fish,” in reference to my status as a freshman plus my tendency to flop around on the mat like I was gasping for air on the deck of a boat. It wasn’t that I wasn’t a decent wrestler, I held the varsity 145 spot for most of my freshman year – It was just that I wanted to do things my way and be treated like the star I had been in middle school. Instead, Griffin let the bigger, older guys on the team torment me. He either encouraged or at least turned his back when they tore my prized “Spring View Wrestling” sweatshirt (My middle school) to shreds while I was wearing it. When I whined to him, he just lunged at me, “You are not in junior high school any more. You need to stop wrestling like it.” I am not sure how, but the red junior high school singlet I wore underneath my orange and black Tigers singlet disappeared out of my gear bag along with my two pennies that I kept in a small zippered pouch. When I asked, no one knew what happened to them. The head gear solution was less taciturn.
“Wear it again and you are off the team.”
One night after practice, I went home to my father complaining that during practice I was getting pinned by a huge senior wrestler with a barrel chest. Griffin was yelling at me to get off my back but I couldn’t. He kept yelling and I kept getting pinned. Finally, he started kicking me in the ribs (remember the cowboy boots), yelling at me to get off my back.
My dad asked what I did. I told him that I fought off my back. He asked why I hadn’t fought off my back earlier.
My sophomore year, at a tournament at Oakdale High School in central California I was wrestling this kid who looked like he had been chiseled by a Renaissance sculptor. Griffin wasn’t in my corner, off with the older guys I assumed. This, I figured would be over quick. At the end of round one the score was 11-1 as Griffin jogged over to coach me. The referee flipped a coin and I won, meaning I could choose how I wanted to begin the second round. I wanted to go down. We were dangerously close to the 15-point mercy rule that ends wrestling matches and I figured my chances of an escape were better than a takedown.
I don’ t think I answered but the referee heard neutral, we were both standing there and he blew the whistle and we started wrestling.
I don’t remember how, but I remember something about that Adonis getting very tired – it’s called gassing in wrestling. He gassed. When time ran out the score was 15-14. I had lost but I had never seen Griffin so pleased with what I had done. I came off the mat and he wrapped his arms around me and hugged me for the first time I can remember. That was great, he said.
“He wouldn’t have had to wrestle like that if he hadn’t stunk the place up so bad in the first round.” I looked up and there was this old guy standing there looking down on me. “You would have whooped that kid if you hadn’t flopped around like a fish that first round,” and then he turned to Griffin, “You didn’t see the first round.”
It was Griffin’s father, a former wrestling coach himself.
I got dressed and went and sat by my team hoping for some of them to tell me how tough I’d wrestled. No one else either saw it or was impressed.
A few hours later, Griffin turned his back and walked away as I flopped around on the mat and eventually got myself pinned.
As I sulked off the mat, all my gear and warm-ups hugged close to me, I heard Griffin talking to another coach about me and how I just didn’t listen. I was mad. So, I threw my headgear at him.
“Maybe if you would actually coach me instead of giving up,” I yelled. The other coach slunk away as he saw Griffin’s temper rise.
“Why? You know everything already, what can I tell you?”
“All these guys are bigger and stronger and older.”
“Then go wrestle junior varsity. Go wrestle the kids if you want.”
Angry, I threw my warm up top at him. It missed. I threw my warmup pants. He stepped to the side. I was out of ammo.
“Now what are you going to do?” he said.
Between my sophomore and junior year, I started committing to off-season wrestling. My teammate Brandon Burks and I both qualified to be a part of the California contingent to the National Tournament in Warrensburg, Missouri (Now held in Fargo, North Dakota). Since the “Oakdale incident,” I had started putting in more work. I ran the 2.2 mile loop around my neighborhood several times a week and during the off-season, I went to the local community college twice a week to meet with high schoolers, college wrestlers and dads who still wanted to get on the mat. I’d improved my varsity record from 17-15 as a freshman to 30-15 as a sophomore. All my hard work was starting to pay dividends and the trip to the Midwest felt like one of the fruits of that labor.
In order to prepare for the tournament, California USA wrestling hosted two different mini camps, one was in Clovis, CA, the other was near San Jose. For some reason, we chose to go down to Clovis. We trained hard, stayed with a local wrestler named Stan and went to all the practices. I liked the other kids on the team, we joked and screwed around a ton. The first time we met the other half of the team, the San Jose campers, was in Missouri. They set aside time for us to practice as a California team.
I remember after one practice, a group of us were sitting around making jokes like kids do and I noticed this one guy, still drilling takedowns with one of the wrestlers. When his opponent finally said he had enough, the kid recruited one of the coaches to drill with him. When the coach had had enough, this kid kept working on stance and motion drills by himself. All this was after we had completed a practice in a hot humid Missouri summer.
“Who is that guy?” I asked one of the San Jose kids. “That’s Casey Strand. He is different. That’s all he does.”
I went 0-2 at the tournament. I don’t know how Strand did but over the next year I kept hearing about him. Kids used to point at him and tell stories about him getting in trouble when he would cut class and they would find him the wrestling room drilling or in the weight room lifting. I don’t know if they were true but the legend was growing.
That year, I qualified for the California State tournament. Strand made it to the finals of the same tournament – as a sophomore. In hindsight, it seems obvious. You put in the work, you see the results. But reading about Strand in the finals, and thinking back to that dorky kid in Missouri just kept pestering people to train with him, it finally clicked.
I wrestled Strand in the finals of the Mid-Cals tournament in Gilroy my senior year. As I remember, I had just cradled him up and was rocking him to his back when the whistle blew and the match ended. I lost 10-7. I had a picture of him cut out from a newspaper article on the mirror in my room to remind me of him every time I woke up or got ready for bed. I didn’t hate him but I wanted to beat him. I never got another chance in CIF competition.
Casey Strand finished his high school career a two time state champion and a three time finalist and while he will forever be remembered in the California Wrestling world for those feats, I will always remember him for teaching me what hard work – not just normal hard, but ridiculously, obsessively hard work — looks like and what that kind of work produces. I will always think of him as my nemesis, but I also think of him as a mentor and a basis for the person I have become. He changed me.
The day after the state meet my senior year, the local newspaper sports writer called me. He asked how it felt to be done. I told him I woke up and got out of bed, planning to go run the 2.2 mile loop I did every morning. But then I realized there was no real reason to any more. I didn’t know what to do, so I was sitting on the couch when he called. I’d had some interest from some good colleges, but I’d made it clear that I wasn’t planning on wrestling during college. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do.
Somehow, after graduation, I got talked into going to Sacramento City College and wrestling there. I enrolled but my heart wasn’t in it. I was drinking and smoking and after skipping too many practices, one of the coaches, Jose Reyes, pulled me aside for some drilling. Our drilling turned to live wrestling and an hour or two later we were sitting on the wall sweaty and exhausted.
“You still love this?” he asked me.
“I love this,” I said, meaning just getting on the mat and going for it, but I didn’t want all the practices and tournaments.
“Then don’t disrespect it like you have been. Either get it together or walk.”
As I look back, those were dark years. I partied, worked odd jobs, went to school now and then and partied some more. School was just something I did, but there was no direction or point to it. I was pretty lost.
I had never been a good kid. As an eighth grader and into high school, I had already started with alcohol, weed, and mushrooms. I didn’t see myself as one of the bad kids but I had started shoplifting. I didn’t want the stuff so much as the excitement of taking it. I wasn’t bad but I was reckless and the trajectory was climbing. It was wrestling that stepped in – right about the time of the Oakdale incident. I immediately stopped drinking and drugs and anything that would get me kicked off the team. Even in the off-season, I would abstain. I was worried that somehow it would catch up with me. And that was it, wrestling ended that upward trajectory that inevitably would have led to me dropping out of high school, addiction or criminal trouble. Sometimes this part is tough to see for people that know me now and don’t think I would ever have gotten in that kind of trouble. I am not a bad person, but I do get bored and my mind demands stimulation. That bad behavior stimulated it. Thankfully, wrestling stimulates it too.
And it did. Until it ended. The night the state meet was over my senior year, I remember being at a party at an apartment complex in town trying to kiss a girl who told me I was too drunk to makeout. The trajectory had continued from where it had left off.
And it continued through Sac City College to Sierra College and up to Butte College and Chico State. I don’t believe there was a time during that period that I so much put on a pair of running shoes, much less, wrestling shoes. I had friends and girlfriends, but I was alone and lonely. I was restless. I was drinking (and driving) way too much and eating all the garbage I wanted. I was still lost.
I don’t remember how I found out they needed people to referee high school wrestling matches, but it got me back involved. Dual meets and weekend tournaments – I was back in the mix. I remember being at a tournament in Redding, CA, standing in the center, waiting for the wrestlers to check in to start the tournament. I was looking around and smiling. I remember thinking to myself, “Life is pretty good.” The thought startled me because I hadn’t thought a thought like that in a while. “Where did that come from?” I wondered. I didn’t get it then, but looking back now, I know. It wasn’t long after that that I decided to start working on my fitness again. I started training for and racing triathlons and then started dating my wife — another stabilizer to keep me on a good path. Then came the family and different career choices.
Again in 2007, I was struggling. I was working too much, sleeping too little and my diet had gone to shit. I was mentally and physically a mess. It wasn’t a conscious choice but intuitively, I knew that when I was lost, wrestling would lead me back. In this case, there weren’t a lot of typical wrestling options but MMA was gaining popularity. That was how I stumbled into Marinoble’s Kickboxing and Martial Arts. At the time, I was hoping just for something to make me tired enough to sleep, but now looking back, I can see my pattern.
Back in 1992, the summer between my junior and senior years, I woke up one morning and decided to drive up to a wrestling camp in the Sierra Nevada mountains. I had attended as a kid but figured it would be an opportunity to get some mat time. There weren’t as many clubs then as there are now and it was difficult to find groups to roll with in the off-season. I saw this was a chance to immerse myself for a week. I had just enough money saved for the discount accommodations (a bunk bed in a dorm).
We trained three times a day but there was a three-hour break in the middle of the day. It was designed to let us go on hikes or rest. But on day one, the camp director said we could use it for extra work and that we could grab any of the counsellors from the camp and they would work with us. The counsellors were mostly wrestlers from Cal Poly SLO and one of them was just about to start his freshman year. Jeremiah Miller had just won the California State tournament, pinning his opponent in the finals first round at 171 pounds (which would be my senior year weight class). I remember grabbing him every day, determined to get a takedown before the last day of camp. I’d get close, only to have him sprawl and spin behind. I wrestled him every day during the breaks. I never got a takedown. I didn’t track what happened to his college wrestling career.
Years later, during my first week training MMA at Marinobles, I looked over during one of the classes and saw someone I recognized. His face had been burned into my brain. When the class was told to partner up, we gravitated toward each since we were the biggest two in the group. I remember asking him shyly if he was Jeremiah Miller. He said he was. I told him the story about wrestling him at camp. He didn’t remember me. We trained together for the next week or so and never talked about it again. I don’t remember much about it. All I remember was how powerful his knees were as he blasted me through the kick shield. He lifted me off the mat.
Years later, after I’d been fighting for some time, I was training on an old mat at the Police Activities League. One of the guys I’d worked with said he had some friends he wanted to bring by. One was a guy named Jeremiah.
We trained together a while before I brought up the camp and the week at Marinobles. He didn’t remember me. But this time, at least we became friends.
At some point, I got a call that Roseville High School, my alma matter, needed a head wrestling coach. I had helped out right after high school with Casey Griffin and for a very short time at Rocklin High School but I had never wanted to be a coach. In fact, during the interview, I told them as much. I said I wasn’t looking for a coaching job. I wanted to coach Roseville Wrestling. I also knew I needed some help so I reached out to Jeremiah. He agreed to run it for me on the count that we didn’t just coach a wrestling team. We were to coach a leadership development program that used wrestling as its medium.
Up until that point in my life, I don’t know that I had ever considered leadership a skill or something that you could teach or learn.
The next few years have been some of the most influential and growth-focused of my adult life. From Jeremiah, I learned more about the person I wanted to be than I have ever known and I use his principles of leadership every day in my professional life and as a husband and a father.
And I still haven’t taken him down.
In early December of 2011, my dad called me and asked me to stop by for a minute. He had something for me. He said he wanted to give it to me for Christmas but he couldn’t wait. I opened the small box and inside it was a purple ribbon and a bronze colored medal. It was a California State High School wrestling medal and, on the back, it had my name, 171 lbs. and 1993. It was my seventh-place medal from the state meet. My dad called the California Interscholastic Federation, told them I lost it and asked for another. They validated who I was and sent it out.
His story was not 100 percent true. I didn’t lose it. I had never received one. In 1993, I left before they awarded them. The medal rounds concluded around 2:00 in the afternoon but the finals weren’t scheduled to start until 5:00 pm and awards were at the conclusion of that. I wouldn’t get home until 9:00 pm. Friends who had driven down to see me, were headed back to get to a party that was going on, and frankly, I was ready to put some distance between me and wrestling. I didn’t leave because I was bitter about the outcome. I left because I was done. I was proud of what I had done, but I didn’t need a medal to validate it.
The problem with stubborn 17-year-old logic is that it doesn’t always take the big picture into account.
Over the next decade, Casey Griffin and I went from a coach/athlete relationship, to best friends. He was there at my college graduation, my wedding, gave me a place to stay when I was in between places. He was my mentor and my confidant. In a small effort to let him know what he meant, I named my first-born after him . I will always remember the look on his face and the tears in his eyes when I handed him my son and introduced him as Luke Griffin Randolph.
He told me one night, more than a decade after my high school career ended, that he was still pissed I didn’t stay and get my medal.
“Why didn’t you make me stay?”
“I could never make you do anything. You were done and I knew it. You wanted out of that building.”
Casey died of a heart attack December 3, 2005, long before my dad got my medal for me.
That picture of him and I with our arms around each other, my medal around my neck, him proud of what he had built – that picture never happened. I will regret that forever.
When my dad gave me that medal, I realized that he too had helped earn it. He and my mother rarely missed a match or a tournament. I always knew he loved and was proud of me but that medal ceremony was a celebration of what he had done too.
The effort it took to get me that medal 18 years after I earned it meant more to me than the medal itself. It reminded me that although he never stepped onto the mat, he was with each time I did and he suffered and celebrated with me.
Today, that medal is one of my most important possessions, but not because of the reasons many people think. That medal doesn’t remind me of my high school wrestling career. It reminds me of the love those two men had for me and why I love them both so very much.
I didn’t get out of coaching because I didn’t love it. I did it for logic. While Jeremiah and I were coaching at Roseville High School, we became involved in the local kid’s program. When he was old enough, I took my son Luke to his first practice. He enjoyed it socially, but Luke wasn’t a natural athlete nor was he aggressive. He was just as happy if he got taken down as he would have been if he took them down. He had almost no interest in wrestling as a competitive endeavor and we quit going. I took him to the high school practices and he loved to chat up the kids on the team, but again, no interest as an athlete.
No one coaches high school sports for the money. I figured it out one time and I was making less than a dollar an hour. You have to love it but while I did, I also had a young family of my own that needed attention. I knew I needed to step away when my wife pointed out, “you are spending a lot of time with kids that aren’t yours.”
I realized immediately she was right and started my exit. I missed it but knew it was time to move on.
Luke tried several sports. He was on his junior high school flag football and volleyball teams. While he liked being on the teams, he wasn’t good. One morning I was driving him to school and he told me that they had a wrestling unit in PE and he was thinking he was going to go out for the wrestling team.
“You sure?” I asked.
“Is that OK?” he replied.
“Sure, but you know, it is really hard. Really hard. And you are kind of lazy.”
With big eyes he asked, “So you don’t think I should do it?”
“I didn’t say that. I just want you to know what you are getting into.”
When I say wrestling saved my life, what I mean is, it gave me direction to pull me away from looking for excitement through drugs or alcohol or other less desirable means. It is always, always, always very loud in my head. I struggle to quiet the noise. Wrestling quiets the noise reliably, albeit briefly. The grind of a war on the mat is one of the few things that brings me peace.
I don’t know if Luke deals with the noise, but I know he needs wrestling for other reasons. I believe it was his path to manhood. It gave him a battle to test himself in and a way to measure his worth against others. Men need that as a rite of passage (as do many women) and Luke found it. I have a shirt that says, “The first time you step on the mat, you realize you are not the man you thought you were. Most quit in that moment. Wrestlers spend the rest of their lives trying to become that man.”
Over the next few years he started to work a little harder and get a little better. Between his sophomore and junior years, he went to his first summer wrestling camp. I was nervous for him. I knew these intensive camps were brutal and I knew he wasn’t physically or mentally ready. He survived the camp, but one day after he was home, he confided in me. The first day, he didn’t think he was going to make it. He said he laid in his bed wondering why he had come, thinking that he didn’t belong there and he wasn’t ready. He was close to breaking.
The next morning, the camp director Mark Munoz gave everyone a talk. He told the old story about the two wolves that live inside all of us. One wolf is anger and fear. The other is good and confidence and pride. As the story goes, the two wolves are in battle. But who wins? The winner, Munoz explained, is one you feed.
Luke told me it was at that moment he realized he’d been feeding the wrong wolf. He said that story got him through camp and the brutal sandbag beach runs.
Over the next two years, I watched him feed the right wolf, wrestling and training five days a week in the off season. Other coaches and friends in the wrestling community tell me that the kid I once asked if he was too lazy to wrestle, is the hardest worker they know. He knows he wasn’t born with the physical gifts others were, so he out works them. I have seen him up and I have seen him down. And while it has been his own hero’s journey, he takes a piece of my heart on that mat every time he steps onto it. As I write, tears of pride and joy fill my eyes. I’ve been humbled to stand by as a witness to all he has done.
As I watch him wrap up his high school wrestling career, I realize he has learned all the things a parent wants their child to get from sports and competition. And while none of us ever become that man we thought we were before we stepped onto the mat the first time, we are humbled and become a better kind of man.
We both need wrestling. Maybe for different reasons, but we both need it just the same.
We are both wrestlers.
At the end of the wrestling season, I was talking with two of the men I know in the coaching world. We were talking about trying to find a way to get the wrestlers to know why it mattered that they did the work, why committing to the process mattered.
“I just don’t want them to look back and wonder or think about what they could have or should have done and have regrets,” one of them said. “I know I do.” He laughed a little uncomfortably at his own vulnerability.
“So do I,” said the other.
I know a ton of athletes, and especially wrestlers, who feel that way. Sports are hard. Wrestling is really hard. Really doing the work is really, really hard. It is easier not to do it. Easier at the time, anyway.
But the regret lingers forever. Regret is really hard too.
I don’t have those regrets. I did the work I needed to do and got the results I got. I wish I won more, but it wasn’t because I didn’t do the work. I can’t look back and say I could have done more. I don’t think Luke will either.
Jeff Morris and I wrestled when we were in high school. As adults we met up as MMA fighters and tried to beat each other to the point one of us would be unable or unwilling to continue. Today, I see him as one of the most decent human beings I have ever met and I am glad to know him and call him a friend. A few months ago, Luke and I made the trek down to the high school where he coaches and Jeff and I worked takedowns, “light drilling” – back and forth at first, talking about the old days in between as we caught our breath, and then, as happens with guys like us, we opened it up for a bit and went after each other. Eventually Jeff tweaked his knee and we crawled our sweaty selves to the wall to catch our breath and talk. But we didn’t talk. We watched the room full of energy and wrestlers snapping each other’s heads down, throwing, picking and shooting.
“Isn’t this crazy,” Jeff started out. “We wrestled in high school. Later, we end up fighting each other and now we are training together and here we are watching our sons workout and wrestle together.” I looked up and watched Luke struggling to hold onto a leg as a larger, stronger Jakob pulled at his ankle and spun behind him. “It’s just a crazy world … Crazy.”
I looked at Jeff watching the boys and smiled then looked over as Jakob and Luke high-fived and sat and chatted. Watching them become men. We are all wrestlers.
Thinking about this manifesto, I dug out the old newspaper article written the day after my last high school match. It was headlined, Wrestling with the Future: Roseville’s Rick Randolph contemplates life without wrestling. At the end of the interview, the reporter asked me what I had learned from the journey. I remember struggling for words as I sat in silence on the phone.
From the article:
“Mostly the discipline. I learned a lot about life, maybe, I don’t know,” he said as if contemplating where he would go from here. “It will help in future situations … I’m going to get something else to do.”
Randolph undoubtedly will. After some time to reflect on his accomplishments and failures, he’ll use the lessons of his past to brighten his future.
I lied to that reporter. I never found something else to do. I have instead, found new ways of doing the same thing. And I didn’t just learn a lot about life, I learned everything that matters about life. What it means to be taught and what a gift it is to teach. I learned how to put myself out in front of the world, under the lights, essentially naked, both figuratively and literally. I learned about love and loyalty and friendship. I learned to believe in work like some people believe in God — It will fix whatever is wrong. I learned that while it is important to be yourself and stand for something, humility matters too — let others help.
Wrestling legend Dan Gable said, “Once you’ve wrestled, everything else in life is easy.” He didn’t mean a season or a match. He meant once you are a wrestler. You don’t learn that just because you joined the team. He means once you’ve learned the discipline, how to manage your fears and win and lose. He didn’t mean just a match. He meant being.
I heard a quote once, but I haven’t been able to find it again or attribute it (I believe it came from the boxing writer AJ Liebling but can’t prove it). “Every real fighter believes he has one great fight left in him.” I love this idea because it reminds me that I am not alone. I think all wrestlers feel that way too. I am sure someday my son will understand it as well.
Looking back, there have probably been several times that I believed I was buying my last pair of wrestling shoes. I was done after high school. I was done when I quit coaching the first time. But maybe, I have enough years left in me for a couple more pairs.
And once I get this new pair, maybe I will call up Jeff to see how his knee feels, see if we can get together for some “light drilling.” Because I guess, in the end, even if this is the last pair, I am privileged because I have worn them at all.
“This is a memoir, but please understand that (to any writer with a good imagination) all memoirs are false. A fiction writer’s memory is an especially imperfect provider of detail; we can always imagine a better detail than the one we can remember. The correct detail is rarely, exactly what happened; the most truthful detail…