Sunday, January 31, 2010

In the Temple of Broken Bones and Bruises

Upon completion of the work portion of my Saturday (a/k/a "the morning") the Missus and me spent most of the rest of the day at Piscataway High School. I believe Piscataway is a Native American word meaning "gargantuan" - at least judging by the size of the school's physical plant. While I had always suspected that a lot of us are crammed into the nooks and crannies of the State of Concrete Gardens, I missed the memo about the number of us who have teenage children and the requirement that they all attend the same school.

Margaret and I were joined in our adventures by Joe; earning mad Grandfather points by leaving his warm home on three separate occasions to venture out into the bitter cold to cheer for his grandson as Frank competed in the Greater Middlesex Conference Wrestling Tournament. Frank is a junior at Middlesex High School and he competes for the Blue Jays as their 160 pounder on the varsity wrestling team. Truth be told, Frank spends most of the season giving away weight to his opponents for during most dual meets he "bumps up" (technical wrestling term meaning "wrestling up a weight class") to wrestle for his team against the other team's 171 pound or 189 pound combatant. A fool's errand? Not hardly. Frank entered this weekend's action undefeated.

Unfortunately, last night in the championship match at 160 pounds he fell a bit short of keeping his undefeated season alive. Wrestling against another undefeated wrestler - this one coincidentally from the host school for the weekend's hostilities - he fell one point short of winning his first GMCT championship. From where we were sitting it appeared to me as if right before the end of the first period, Frank's opponent accidentally kicked him or kneed him in the head as they were tangled up and heading out of bounds. While the noggin knocker (another highly technical wrestling term for your edification. You shall be able to swap war stories with Dan Gable by the time we are finished here today) is not an officially recognized move, it happens occasionally on the mat. And when it did last night, Frank did what kids do: he shook it off and kept wrestling.

Whether getting his bell rung proved to be the difference-maker last night I know not. I know that ten minutes after the match concluded the medical staff on site was still checking him out to see if he was OK (having acquired a concussion along the way while playing high school soccer I recognized the test he was taking immediately). I thought that both he and his opponent wrestled hard against one another - albeit cautiously as if extending to one another the respect associated with being on the mat with a wrestler whose hand is always raised at match's end - and last evening his foe was slightly better.

As someone whose high school wrestling career was noteworthy only for the amount of punishment I absorbed and the number of ceiling tiles I counted, I have a keen appreciation for those who are good wrestlers. It is an extremely difficult sport at which to become proficient - requiring not only physical gifts but the aptitude to learn how to properly apply those gifts so that you can attack while simultaneously minimizing your own vulnerability. It is physically exhausting, mentally taxing and emotionally draining.

From a purely selfish and admittedly biased perspective, I am eminently pleased by the fact that Frank - as was the case with his big brother Joe (a 2007 State Medalist at 189 pounds) - goes about his business the right way. When he wins, he shakes his opponent's hand, waits for the referee to raise his and then exits the mat. Last night in defeat, he moved to the center circle at match's end, shook his opponent's hand and then exited the mat. There was no tantrum. There was no big drama.

Sadly at these events winning with grace and losing with dignity is not always what happens. Too often for my liking one encounters an adult in the crowd who behaves like a horse's ass, which behavior spreads like a contagion more often than it should to that person's child. There is no sport to which I have ever been exposed where the people in the bleachers know more than the officials and are better skilled than the participants than high school wrestling. If you do not believe me, find a match near your home, buy a ticket and grab a seat in the bleachers. I know not whether it is the combination of sweat and cauliflower ear or something else altogether that converts a know-nothing into a know-it-all but you will have little difficulty finding one. The ceaseless stream of profanity emanating from his (or more likely her) mouth is a dead giveaway.

Yesterday afternoon in one of the semi-final matches at 140 pounds the father and the coach of one of the wrestlers were both tossed out of the gym by security (and in the father's case two officers of the Piscataway Police Department) for incredibly unruly and asinine behavior during their wrestler's overtime loss. Proving that poor sportsmanship is not confined to the geographical boundaries of Sayreville - although it might be why Jon Bon Jovi moved away from there - last night in the finals at 140 pounds the Piscataway wrestler whose victory yesterday afternoon prompted the outburst from the Sayreville side lost to a South Plainfield wrestler by one point. To say that the Piscataway wrestler, coaches and "faithful" (I love that a person is not just a fan but part of "the faithful" - can I get a "Hallelujah") were unhappy with the result (the referee did not award him a point that the wrestler and the Piscataway side felt he should have received in the waning moments that would have sent the match to overtime) would be an understatement. Disappointment in the outcome was understandable. However unless the Piscataway wrestler was injured, which he did not appear to be, his failure to appear after the match to receive his second-place medal was, at best, unfortunate. Sadly, I would wager that it was a decision either made for him or suggested to him by the adults around him.

High school sports provide an excellent way to not only ensure that we raise healthy kids but also an excellent way to teach kids valuable life lessons. And the lessons that we want our children to learn are lessons that all of us should be willing to take a refresher course in as well. Yesterday - in both victory and defeat - those of us who went to cheer on Frank both saw a lot and learned quite a lot. For a boy of 17, he proved himself, again, to be quite an excellent teacher.

And something significantly more than a one-trick pony.


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