A new honor for an old wrestler

June 25, 2008|By Gregory Kane

I "ran across" Lloyd Keaser on Sunday, but not, thank God, in the way Irv Johnson "ran across" Keaser 40 years ago.

The school year 1967-1968 found me having some way bungled my way onto City College's wrestling team. I didn't make the team because of talent. I made it because, obviously, City head wrestling coach Clark Hudak lowered his standards considerably.

I was 135 pounds of distinctly non-athletic skin and bones, which allowed me to compete in the 127- and 133-pound weight classes. Larry Jefferson and Steve Smothers, City's 127-pounder and 133-pounder, respectively, regularly brutalized me in practice.

The downside to that was I realized I would never be anything but inept at the sport I loved the most; I was the Brian London of high school wrestling, only without London's charisma. (The inside joke, for those of you who didn't get it, is that London had no charisma.)

But the upside was that since I didn't break the starting lineup, I never got to "run across" guys like Johnson, who injured Smothers' shoulder in the first dual meet of the season and trounced just about every other 133-pounder that year. Then, according to an article in either The Sun or the News American - I can't remember which - I learned that Johnson had "run across" Keaser in a late-season tournament.

After watching Johnson dispatch Smothers, I was convinced that he was the baddest 133-pounder in the area. How wrong I was. Keaser hammered Johnson in their match.

A lot of guys "ran across" Keaser after that, much to their regret, I suspect. Keaser became a two-time All-American at the Naval Academy. Hailing from tiny Pumphrey in northern Anne Arundel County, Keaser was the first African-American to win a gold medal at the world championships and the first African-American wrestler to win a medal of any kind - a silver - in the Olympics.

Keaser has received numerous honors for his wrestling, and he picked up another one Sunday: the Johnny K. Eareckson Memorial Award.

Eareckson is a member of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame. He won one Amateur Athletic Union title - in 1929 - and was an AAU runner-up five times. He placed third three times. For decades Eareckson, according to his NWHOF biography, "wrestled, coached, raised funds, organized trips, furnished transportation, opened his home to team members and provided inspiration, humor and a zest for wrestling."

And Eareckson did most of that wrestling right at the central branch of the YMCA in downtown Baltimore. A little-known story for many might be the success of the Baltimore YMCA wrestling squads in the first half of the 20th century. The most successful years were the late 1930s and 1940s: From 1937 to 1947 (except for 1943), at least one Baltimore YMCA wrestler won an AAU championship.

Little wonder that Keaser could barely find words to express receiving an award named for Eareckson. He mentioned "overwhelmed" and "exhilarated," and there were times when he visibly choked up as he remembered the people who helped him over the years.

Keaser brought the emotion, but it was his co-recipient and fellow Naval Academy alumnus Wayne Hicks who brought the humor. Hicks wrestled for Navy from 1962 to 1966 and placed second in the NCAA championships in 1965. His son-in-law, Scott Schleicher, introduced Hicks and recalled the day in 1986 when he met the "cauliflower-eared, white-T-shirt-wearing, Jack Purcell-wearing, bloated-penguin-looking Wayne Hicks."

"Bloated penguin?" Hicks protested when he got up to speak. "I'd like to make some jokes about you, Scott, but outside of your wrestling ability, I can't think of any."

Hicks also had the best story, the moral of which was a wrestler never knows whom he's going to "run across." Hicks lost his first match of the 1966 NCAA tourney - held at Iowa State University - and wasn't eligible for the consolation rounds.

He said he went to the Iowa State wrestling room on the second day of the tournament to work out, do some wrestling and try to restore some of his confidence and self-esteem.

The first guy Hicks ran into was Doug Blubaugh, an Olympic gold medalist who punished him for about 30 minutes. Then an assistant Iowa State coach asked Hicks to work out with some 112-pound high school kid the Hawkeyes were thinking of recruiting.

"Should I go easy on him?" Hicks asked.

"No," the assistant coach said, "go full out."

Hicks did, and found the kid matched him almost takedown for takedown. Hicks never did regain his self-confidence and self-esteem that day.

But he did "run across" Dan Gable, the high-school kid who would go on to a legendary wrestling and coaching career.

greg.kane@baltsun.com

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