One of the things I like best about my job as a sportswriter for the Star Courier is the fact that it sometimes sends me to places and events that I would probably miss otherwise, like the IHSA state wrestling finals in Champaign last Saturday. As you’ve probably noticed, the Boilermaker wrestlers have had a great season this year, winning the regional team title, with a chance to compete in the team sectionals, and sending several grapplers to the individual sectional meet. Three of them, Andre Dunn, Jermain McKnight and Adam Breedlove made it all the way to the state finals, which was, therefore, my destination on that snowy Saturday morning.
I confess, I’m no wrestling expert, though I actually participated in the sport in high school. It was the 1964-64 season, and wrestling was a varsity sport at Galva High School. It had been kind of an on-again, off-again thing, depending, I guess, on whether there was a coach in place with the interest and knowledge to drive a program and enough kids who were interested. There were more students in those baby-boomer days, so we had the numbers to field a team, and heaven knows, we didn’t cost the district all that much money. We were kind of a rag-tag bunch. Our wrestling room was off in a corner of the Galva Armory, where the district rented space before they built the “new” high school. The room was lined with old-fashioned tumbling mats and we wore our own sweatsuits, old basketball knee pads and cast-off track jerseys instead of the cool, skin-tight singlets you see nowadays. I remember thinking the “winged G” track emblem on the front of those shirts was kind of funny, in that it seemed to advertise our ability to run, rather than wrestle.
In my case, that was kind of close to the truth at times.
Anybody who’s ever been involved in the sport knows “making weight” is a big deal, as it’s considered an advantage to wrestle in as low a weight division as possible, while still maintaining the strength it takes to go one-on-one with another starving maniac. I actually had to gain a little weight to wrestle at 103 pounds, which was, at that time, the second-lowest weight class (95 pounds was the lowest.) There were several of us shrimps out for wrestling that year, and I was just (barely) good enough to claim the varsity spot every week. None of the other small schools around had wrestling teams, so we traveled far and wide to go up against schools like Kewanee, Erie, Morrison and Fulton that had established wrestling programs and athletes who (yikes!) knew how to wrestle. I remember peering anxiously across the gym, hoping to spot some skinny, shivering fellow-freshman who might be my opponent for the night. Too often, though, the kid who bounced out onto the mat would be some battle-hardened senior who had, through some miracle of science and willpower, made the 103 weight class and was now looking to ease his hunger and suffering with a little snack. Like me.
I suffered a serious knee injury in football that next fall, which, in those days before reconstructive orthopedic surgery, meant a big incision, several days in the hospital, a full-length cast for a few weeks, and directions to the next meeting of the chess club. Contact sports were out, so my wrestling career was at an end.
But while I might not know everything about the finer points of wrestling, I do know something about kids and sports. I’ve spent a lot of years coaching and watching kids, and, more recently, reporting on their performances. In the few meets I’ve covered this year, and especially in the state contest, I learned some things about the sport of wrestling and the kids who work so hard to succeed at it.
Most sports require some combination of speed, strength and brains. Wrestling requires a lot of all three, plus an extreme level of focus and intensity. The wrestlers I saw Saturday were highly disciplined athletes with great respect for their sport, their coaches and themselves. Take Kewanee’s own state-level wrestlers. They combined all of these attributes to find themselves among the very best of the best wrestlers in the entire state of Illinois. Jermain McKnight showed himself to be a fine technical wrestler, with lightning speed and a surprising amount of strength. Andre Dunn, who is pretty crafty himself, looked to be one of the very strongest of the big men who populate the powerful 285-pound class. And Adam Breedlove was the "thinking man’s wrestler,” pre-determining the match-by-match tactics that took him to the very top. All of these young men showed great courage, drive and determination. And in the process, they made Kewanee a name to reckoned with in the world of Illinois high school wrestling.
It was a golden moment. And they did us proud.