School ended, and graduation came and went. My sister was married, and by July I had begun to forget Marianne, falling back into my childhood crush on Jeanie Clark at my sister’s wedding reception. The JV football season started in August, and before long I was swept up in the swirl of life at Notre Dame. Chris and Dan had gone on to BHS, and I was making new friends with the guys that I had played basketball against at St. Anthony’s, St. Mary’s and Holy Family, not to mention all those wonderful Sicilian and Polish girls that ND had to offer.
When football season ended, I joined the wrestling team, just as my Big Bruddah had done before me. After scoring 4 points in the entire season of 8th grade basketball, it was pretty clear that I would not being going out for the ND basketball team. Our wrestling coaches had gone to BHS, and before Christmas they brought us over to scrimmage with the BHS JV wrestling team.
I was a lanky 108 pound spider of a kid, and as we paired off with the BHS wrestling team I was introduced to the kid I would be scrimmaging. It was none other than my nemesis Sam who’d stolen Marianne away from me, and destroyed my chance at getting a kiss. My mind reeled as I sized him up, getting ready to face off against him. He was shorter than I was, but much more muscular, his curly black hair, and dark eyes menacing in a way I had never imagined. As much as I had fantasized about my rival in real life he was more imposing than I had imagined him to be.
He pinned me in the first period of our scrimmage match, and for the rest of the practice we wrestled each other, and went through drills together. My scrawny little string bean arms were no match against his sculpted biceps. I was humiliated, and beaten time and time again. He had no idea who I was, or that I had ever been in love with a girl that he had dated once. I’m not sure if that made it any better, or worse. I was nothing to him, just some weakling that he could toss around the mat.
We practiced with the BHS squad two more times in the run up to Christmas, and each time it was the same. I came to know my enemy better though, and found him even more foul and despicable in spirit, than he was formidable in wrestling. He boasted, bragged, and bullied his band of BHS toadies. He may have been the ring leader of his little band of Mafiosi, but he was as dumb as a box of rocks. How could Marianne have left me for a guy like that? Oh God how I feared and hated him.
Every year the High School in Warsaw hosted a Christmas tournament for the local JV wrestling teams. With more than one 108 pound wrestler on our JV team we held wrestle off’s for our dual meets, but at the JV tourney we were allowed to enter more than one kid in each weight class. This would be my first chance to wrestle in a real match. My stomach was in knots the whole week leading up to the tournament.
We drove down to Warsaw in a car pool the morning of the tournament. My folks were working and wouldn’t be able to make it. The only people that would see me wrestle would be my coaches and team mates, which was fine by me. I’ve never been big into public humiliation. I packed a lunch, but fully expected to be back home again by noon after losing in the first round. But a funny thing happened. To my great and everlasting surprise I won my first match.
Advancing to the second round I thought for sure I would come up against a more formidable foe. But when the whistle blew I found I was quicker, and was able to use my spidery frame to my advantage. I won on points, and by that point my coach was elated at my performance. One by one my team mates were eliminated, but I proceeded through the brackets, and made it into the semi finals. I would have to stick around into the afternoon after all.
Like storm clouds gathering in the distance, each move up the bracket brought me closer to the inevitable match up with Sam. Slowly and inexorably the dark clouds gathered until I saw him pin his opponent, and make it into the semi finals. The battle lines were drawn. We would meet now in the ring, once and for all, to reclaim the honor, and the hand of my fair maid Marianne. Or something like that…
My stomach was knotted so tight I could barely stand up straight. I was sick with nerves, but my coach kept talking me through it. “Keep it simple. Don’t worry. Stick with your best moves”, the pedestrian double leg takedown and the basic half nelson. When the whistle blew I could see the smirk on Sam’s dark face. He was laughing at me! The b@stard wasn’t even taking me seriously. We circled each other on the mat looking for our opportunity. Grabbing, and feinting, he tried to sucker me into a throw, but I kept on my toes, and used my long arms to keep him away from me. Finally, after 30 seconds of feeling each other out, I saw my opening, and dove in for a takedown. I caught him off guard, and as he kicked his feet back to try to sprawl out of my grasp, I slid out from under him and he dropped to the matt.
Holy krep! I had just scored a takedown on Sam. He was as stunned as I was, but it didn’t take him long to gather himself. He was all power, and no finesse. He strained his back upwards, and tried to power his way out of my grasp, but I hung on for dear life. He bucked, and flailed and I flopped around on his back like a rider on a bull, but still he couldn’t get free. The period ended and I was up 2-0.
I started on top for the second period, and expected more of the same. Sam was getting frustrated now, and was no longer smirking. His dark black eyes glowed like coals as he glared at me. I kept my face expressionless, caught my breath, and tried not to look him directly in the eye. The whistle blew, and the period began right where the last one had ended. The world outside was lost in a swirl of sound, and color. There was just me and my enemy, wrestling on the mat with all the strength we had, focused only on beating the other. I hacked at his arm to break him down, he pushed back and got up onto his feet. With one arm still around his waist holding onto his wrist, I did the only thing I could think of, and I slid my foot around in front of his leg, and let his own force pull him forward. He wasn’t expecting me to relax, and when I stopped pulling back he stumbled forward, over my leg and sprawled flat on his face. In a moment I was on him, and had slipped my arm up under his bicep and across the back of his neck. My pulse was pounding inside of my head, and in my confusion and delirium I looked up to see my coach crouching by the mat, demonstrating a half nelson, and talking me through it. I leaned forward onto Sam’s back, and began walking my legs up around his head like turning a corkscrew. He popped over onto his back, like a cork popping out of a bottle of wine.
The world spun around me as I lay across his chest, straining with all my might to hold onto him. The referee slid around the mat with his whistle in his mouth. His hand raised.
My coach screamed, and my opponent grunted, straining even hard.
All of the sound in the gym disappeared into one long ringing note inside my head. I only had to hold on for one more count and it would be over…
There are times in life when the veil is pulled back from the world around you, and suddenly you see everything clearly as if for the first time. I had played sports since I was old enough to walk. Alone in my back yard I had dreamed of future glory on the football fields, baseball diamonds, hockey rink, and the wrestling mats of the world. Girls would flutter their eyes, and gasp at my exploits as I scored the winning touchdown, or hit a walk off homerun, and here I was, about to pin my bitter foe. Success and love and happiness were within my grasp, all I had to do was close my fingers around them, but somewhere deep within my soul I always knew that these dreams would remain just that. The day dreams of a kid in dungarees, tossing a ball to himself in the lilac dusk. Laying there on top of my nemesis, it seemed like the entire world was turning upside down.
Victory had become defeat. Glory had become humiliation. Later my coach talked me through what happened as he tried to console me on the side of the mat. In my rush to pin him, I had leaned my weight too far forward over my opponents head. As he struggled to free himself, I had pressed down even harder. Then he arched his back, and used every fiber of muscle in his compact little frame to lift his back off of the mat. As he did so, my weight rolled off of him, and onto my side. He kicked his legs up, and over, and suddenly, was on top of me, as I lay on my back, his arms now around my neck, pressing against my shoulders blades. There was nothing I could do. It was over in seconds.
We stood, and shook hands, and through the sweat and exhilaration on his face, I thought for one moment that I saw something resembling respect. He went on to take first in our weight class, and I went on to win the consolation match for third. As thrilled as I was with bringing home a trophy, all I could think about on the long ride back through the hills of Wyoming County, was what might have been.
The season would continue, but I wouldn’t wrestle Sam again. As the years went by he became just another face in the crowd of delinquents hanging out in the Pizza Hut parking lot. Marianne seemed to disappear entirely. Thinking back across the years I can’t ever recall crossing paths with her again, not even at the BHS dances that I used to attend. My wounds would heal eventually, and as my stories attest, I had far bigger heartbreaks to come, as well as far greater loves.
If you had told me that someday I would look back on the whole episode and smile, I would not have believed you. 28 years later though, I turn this memory of innocence over in my mind, the way a hand turns over a coin, marveling at the smoothness of it. It’s worth far more than the value stamped on it’s face.