Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The Joy of Sport

It is easy to forget - in this era of multi-year, multi-million dollar contracts, unfettered player movement through free agency, mega-endorsement deals and reports of special investigators into seemingly perverse locker room practices - that once upon a lifetime ago every man and woman who earns his or her living as a professional athlete participated in sports for nothing more or less than the love of the game.  For a lot of them, especially those born and raised in the United States, there was a time when their teammates were also their high school classmates.  A time when the people against whom they competed and the people with whom they competed were mere mortals. People like me and - unless I miss my guess entirely - people like you too. 

This past weekend, here in the State of Concrete Gardens we completed the team portion of the high school wrestling season.  Beginning this weekend, in gymnasiums all across New Jersey, wrestlers will begin what each hopes is an arduous, three-week journey to the podium in Atlantic City and the individual state championships.  On Sunday, however, the best teams in the state locked horns in Toms River in order to crown four Public champions - schools separated by size from Group I (smallest) to Group IV (largest) - and two Non-Public champions - also separated by size into Group A and Group B. 

The battle for supremacy in Group IV came down to a match between two of the most highly-regarded scholastic programs in New Jersey:  Southern High School and Phillipsburg High School.  Southern entered the final match as the #6 ranked team in New Jersey whereas the Stateliners of PBurg came in ranked #7 and trying to put the finishing touches on an undefeated season.  

A lifetime ago - when I wrestled (briefly and unsuccesfully) for one season at W-H - each match started at the lowest weight and proceeded thereafter through to the heavyweights.  At some point between my exit from the mat and my taking up residence in the bleachers at Middlesex High School to watch the Brothers Bozzomo pin their way to multiple trips to Atlantic City, including Joe's 6th place finish at 189 pounds his senior year, the rules of engagement were changed.  Now as I understand the coaches draw to determine the weight at which the match is to begin and the fourteen weight classes are then contested with that weight as the starting point.  

Sunday afternoon in Toms River, the Southern/Phillipsburg match started at 126 pounds.  That meant that the 285 pound match - what I think used to be the heavyweight class when I wrestled in high school - would be the eleventh match contested.  At the time the two kids who would wrestle for their respective teams took the mat for the 285 pound match, PBurg was ahead of Southern by a 22-15 margin.  

Southern sent out Jesse Bauta, who entered Sunday's Group IV final with a record of 19-2.  Phillipsburg sent out freshman Robert Melise.  Melise had to drink a gallon of water pre-match simply to weigh enough to be permitted to compete in the 285-pound weight class.  Coming into Sunday's final, Melise sported a career record of 2-4.  Both of his victories had come by forfeit.  In a use of language that I find wonderful - especially his use of understatement - James Kratch on wrote, "Melise was a significant underdog against Bauta".  What he left unsaid was in comparison to another underdog of historical significance, Melise made David appear to have been packing a flamethrower and not a slingshot for his big set-to with Goliath. 

And sport being sport, young Robert Melise sprung the unlikeliest of upsets.  A bit more than three-quarters of the way through the second of three periods - and trailing 6 to 3 - Melise reversed Bauta, put him on his back and pinned him.  His pin earned his team six points and staked it to a sizable 28-15 lead.  One match later, the Stateliners clinched their State Championship.  

Post-match the young conqueror told Kratch, "I hit it and said, 'Wow, it actually kind of worked,' and then I hear the pin and I said, 'Now that really worked.' When I got up, so many thoughts were buzzing through my mind. I did not realize I had won that match. I was in such a state of shock.”  The link to James Kratch's piece and the video of Melise's moment for the ages is here:  It is well worth both a read and a listen.  

Whether this achievement represents the high-water mark of Robert Melise's athletic career I would not pretend to know.  You know what?  It matters not.  For whether the triumph he earned this past Sunday is merely the first step on a journey to greatness or the only step he ever takes on that journey, neither outcome will take away at all from what he did. 

The joy of sport is in its moments.  And in the biggest sporting moment of his young life, Robert Melise did something truly memorable.  You can live a significantly longer life than he has thus far and never have such a moment.  He owns one.  No one and nothing shall ever take it away from him.  

Well done, young man.  Well done indeed. 


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