The critical lessons of coach Elmer Dize

October 03, 2007|By GREGORY KANE

I never wrestled for Elmer Dize, but I sure as heck learned a lot from him.

For 18 years Dize coached football and wrestling at Mergenthaler Vocational-Technical High School - plain ol' "Mervo" to us Balti-morons. After he retired from Mervo, Dize found he couldn't stay away from coaching. He became an assistant in both sports at Overlea High School in Baltimore County.

The coach died in late September; he was buried a week ago; the Dize stories are no doubt still being told even as you read this.

Dize became the head varsity wrestling coach at Mervo in 1965, the year before I entered Baltimore City College. Courtesy of an obvious lowering in athletic standards, I managed to make it onto City's junior varsity wrestling team for the 1966-1967 school year. The next year, I made the varsity squad only because a lot of guys who had actual wrestling talent didn't bother to come out for the team.

It was during an early-season scrimmage against Mervo that I got my first lesson from Dize. City's 145-pounder, Jay Himmelstein, wrestled a kid from Mervo whose name I can't recall. But I do remember this: The guy was cut, a veritable Adonis. He had muscles bulging everywhere muscles could bulge.

Unfortunately, the guy had no more wrestling talent than I had. Himmelstein pinned him in less than a minute. Since it was a scrimmage, the match continued. (In a regular meet the match would have ended with Himmelstein's pin.) Himmelstein pinned the guy a second time, which prompted an outburst of ribbing, woofing and bragging from some of City's wrestlers.

"Do it again!" some of my teammates shouted.

Dize and Clark Hudak, City's coach at the time, immediately stopped the proceedings to give us a well-deserved lecture about class and sportsmanship.

During the same scrimmage, our 120-pounder, Billy Scott, was having one heck of a time with his scrappy Mervo opponent. Scott had lost in the 112-pound Maryland Scholastic Association finals the previous season, and apparently wasn't expecting such a tough match.

The score was tied when the match ended, but Dize was quick to point out to Hudak that Scott had accumulated a minute's riding time, which gave him an extra point. The winner, Dize said, was Scott.

That was Dize lesson No. 2. The third came years later, long after I had graduated from City. I had made the MSA wrestling tournament my annual rite of late winter. It was a new era, one in which some wrestlers had taken to whipping off the shoulder straps of their singlets and pulling them down around their waists, revealing their bare torsos.

One of Mervo's wrestlers was silly enough to think he could get away with this nonsense with Dize as the coach. But no sooner had the wrestler removed the straps than Dize slipped them back onto his shoulders. That's what Dize was about: sportsmanship, class, dignity and integrity. And he taught these things for several decades.

"I can't think of anybody that helped kids more than Elmer, spanning a period of 50 years," said Pete Chakmakas, who was one of many attending Dize's wake at the Schimunek Funeral Home last week. Chakmakas was the head wrestling coach at Overlea when Dize was an assistant.

"To have Elmer as an assistant was just huge," Chakmakas continued. "He loved kids who wanted to compete and mix it up. He was as good a football coach as he was a wrestling coach."

That coaching was good enough to get Dize inducted into the Baltimore County Hall of Fame in 1998, the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association in 1999 and the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in 2002. The latter honor is what you might expect for a man who, in 18 years as Mervo's head wrestling coach, had 24 of his wrestlers win MSA championships, 67 who placed either second, third or fourth, and three win the award for outstanding wrestler.

Many of those young men had never seen a wrestling mat before they got to Mervo. Dize took inexperienced wrestlers who didn't even have the benefit of a junior varsity program to get them some experience and turned them into champions.

"Elmer was always a proponent of the underdog," Chakmakas said. "He just enjoyed taking a kid from scratch and developing him."

That passion for the underdog wasn't just in wrestling. Cranston Dize remembered when he visited Normandy with his father two years ago. In 1944, Elmer Dize, then with a Maryland National Guard unit, landed at Omaha Beach on D-Day plus three.

"It turns out that a childhood friend of his had been in the first wave at Omaha Beach, survived it, and died later," Cranston Dize said. "My dad was looking for his grave, because he found out that nobody from his hometown [Crisfield] had ever been to his buddy's grave."

It looks as if Elmer Dize taught me one last lesson, even after he had died.

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