Wrestling with the end of an era in son's life

March 04, 2000|By Rob Kasper

RECENTLY I wrapped up the "I am the dad of a high school wrestler" stage of my life.

Like most matters connected with high school wrestling, my goodbye was intense and long-lasting. It stretched over three weekends. First there was a conference tournament, a spirited two-day affair held at Mount St. Joseph in West Baltimore. Next there was a state tournament, an even noisier two-day drama held at McDonogh in Owings Mills.

Then there was the National Prep School Wrestling Championships held last weekend at Lehigh University outside Allentown, Pa. This was an eight-mat extravaganza that lasted either three days or an eternity, depending on how your back felt after you had been sitting in the stands.

Three years ago when my son, now a senior, began wrestling, I dreamed of the time when the final buzzer would sound and I would be freed from the hot, loud, indoor experience known as a high school wrestling meet. Yet when that day came last weekend up at Lehigh, I found myself lingering, watching a few more matches.

My son was long gone from the competition, and so were his teammates. But there were a few kids from Baltimore-area schools remaining in the finals of the national event, and my son and his teammates wanted to see them wrestle. Watching the tournament finals was part of the ritual.

Surprisingly, rather than bolting for the exit, I was enjoying the matches.

I still didn't know a "cross-face" move from a cross-body block, but I marveled at the dramatic move -- somebody said it was "a Korean" -- that Chris Rodrigues, a kid from Georgia, used to pin his opponent and capture the 125-pound championship. The day before, I hooted with delight as Mike Price, a strapping heavyweight from Bowling Brook Prep in Carroll County, tossed Steve Mocco of New Jersey's Blair Academy out of bounds, then motioned to Mocco, the eventual champion, to get back in the action.

Then there were the referees, an interesting looking cast of characters. One resembled Jesse "The Body" Ventura, another resembled one of the Everly Brothers, complete with shoulder-length hair, and another, a short, bearded fellow, looked like one of the Seven Dwarfs. They all knew their wrestling, though, and between matches the Seven Dwarfs ref gave impromptu wrestling lessons to contestants. I was beginning to appreciate this wrestling scene, just as I was leaving it.

Coping with down time, the wait between bouts, is a big part of being a wrestler's dad. I won't say that I wandered around the Lehigh Valley last weekend. I will just tell you that if you ever need to find the Lehigh University vehicle maintenance facility, or the Tally Ho tavern, or Hack's, a diner that makes the biggest pancakes in Bethlehem, Pa., I am the guy to ask.

During the down time last weekend, I also did some thinking about my career as a wrestler's dad. It seemed to me that, when you watch your kid compete, you are likely to go through one of two experiences.

In one, your kid plays a sport that you know. Here you get to revisit your youth, teaching the kid to catch the pop-up, to sink the basket or to kick the field goal that you missed when you were a kid.

In the other, the kid plays a sport that you had never dreamed of playing. Here you find yourself trying to shorten a lacrosse stick, to learn the butterfly, or figure out the difference between a reversal and a take-down. You find yourself in a strange situation, learning things. That is what high school wrestling has been for me: an education.

I learned, for instance, how hard wrestlers work. They practice for hours. They lift weights. They run for miles, often carrying each other on their backs as they jog. At one "intense" wrestling camp my kid attended this past summer in Northwest Pennsylvania, something like 20 percent of the kids who started the two-week session didn't finish. There were no refunds.

I learned how wrestlers eat, in a feast-or-famine mode. Wrestlers have to weigh in before they are allowed to compete in various weight classes. So sometimes to make his desired weight, a wrestler will skip a meal before weigh-in, then chow down after he has passed muster.

One year, for instance, my kid couldn't eat turkey and stuffing on Thanksgiving Day because he had to weigh in the next morning at the start of a tournament at Archbishop Curley. After the weigh-in, however, he made up for lost ground, polishing off plate after plate of day-old turkey and dressing.

Last weekend, another ritual connected with the Lehigh tournament was putting on the end-of-the-season feed bag. J. D. Nelson, who wrestles for Gilman, brought cases of Snickers candy bars and blueberry muffins. He began feasting on the muffins, and sharing them with his teammates, shortly after the team exited the arena. Meanwhile, at a steakhouse in Allentown, I watched my son and his fellow St. Paul's wrestlers, Robbie Roose, Tony Morisi and Mike Mitchell, dispatch more pieces of beef than you could find in the Kansas City stockyards.

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