Monday, October 19, 2009

I'm just a goober fan

Mark Onstott is my sister-in-law’s brother. An All-American swimmer at the University of Northern Iowa in 1975, he has gone on to become one of America’s top high school swimming coaches. Mark has led teams to six state championships, been named high school coach of the year in three states and the national coach of the year in 2005. Saturday Mark was inducted into the UNI Athletic Hall of Fame. During his acceptance speech, Mark introduced the people seated at his table. When he got to my wife and me he said, “And there are Jim Brown and his wife Cindy – they’re really here to see the 1950 wrestling team.” He then looked out at Bill Nelson’s table and said, “You guys are quite a draw.”

Some people occasionally refer to me as a “member of the wrestling media”. I’m not. Here’s why – I’m just too much of a big ole goober fan.

I’ve met Dan Gable once. In the early ‘90s I was doing some work with a small company in Iowa City called Giant Step Productions. The owners were brothers who had been wrestlers. One of them had been one of “those guys in the room” for Gable. They produced some early videos for Dan – and both knew I was a wrestling fan. Their studio was on the third floor of a typical “near campus” house and you had to walk up outside stairs to get to it. I had an appointment one afternoon and the older brother, Eric, met me at the bottom of the stairs and kept asking things like, “How long have you had season tickets?” and “Who are your favorite wrestlers?” It seemed odd because we frequently discussed those things more than we did business. When we got to the top of the stairs and entered the studio there was a guy with a grin on his face who said, “Hi – I’m Dan Gable.” My witty response – “I know.” I know that Gable is one of the most accessible “icons” in all of sports – but I was just too much of a goober fan to say anything but, “I know.”

Last year at National Duals I spent quite a bit of time watching the women’s teams wrestle. Sara McMann sat two rows in front of me one session. We’re “friends” on MySpace but I couldn’t introduce myself because I’m just this big goober fan. All I could think was, “Wow, that’s an Olympic silver medallist right in front of me.”

Saturday I rode in the elevator with 3X NCAA champ and Distinguished Member of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame, Bill Nelson, and couldn’t bring myself to say anything. Goober fan.

Before the ceremonies began I surveyed the room. Our table was next to the Briggs family. Former Panther coach Don Briggs is also a member of the 2009 UNI Hall of Fame class. His brother Dick was there – you know Mark Ironside’s high school coach. (And by the way - Don Briggs may have given the most touching acceptance speech of all). And there’s Sandy Stevens, the “voice of wrestling” – and over there – that’s 7-time NCAA Division III Championship coach, Jim Miller. I know Sandy so I did later say, “Hi” and I did manage to introduce myself to Jim Miller, but I was close enough several times to speak to Don Briggs and congratulate him – but didn’t. Big, dumb, goober fan.

When the 1950 NCAA championship Iowa State Teachers College team was introduced I might have been one of the first people to stand. It was inspiring. These men – these men who fought in World War II – these men who became one of the most legendary teams in the history of the sport – these men whose influence on the sport continues to this day – well, I guess I cried a little. Sappy, emotional, goober fan.

Here’s the image I’m going to remember from their acceptance ceremony. Do the math – most of these guys went off to fight a war and THEN went to college. They’re in their eighties. Some use canes and one or two use a walker to get around. As Bill Nelson was accepting the honor on behalf of the team a couple of the gentlemen were offered chairs. They refused – as if to say, “I’m a wrestler – I’ll tough it out.” Awestruck goober fan.

All Hall of Fame inductees were later introduced at halftime of the Northern Iowa/Southern Illinois football game. As they returned to their seats, by the grace of God, Bill Smith stopped right next to me. Bill Smith – decorated WWII veteran, coaching legend and Olympic champion. I couldn’t let the opportunity pass. “Mr. Smith, I’m just a wrestling fan but it is an honor to meet you.”

He smiled and said, “Wrestling fan… good man” – and he reached out and shook my hand. I may not wash it for a week – ‘cause I’m just a goober fan.

And lest I forget – congratulations, Mark – I’m proud to have known you this past 20 years.


Steve said...

Nice job Jim. I can really relate to this and be a member of the goober fan club.

Mark said...

Jim-Thanks for the nice comments about this old swimmer. It was nice to have you and Cindy there-you filled out my table and made it look like I had more of a following! I told Don Briggs that my favorite, non swimming, athletic memory from UNI was the 1974 (or 75) Iowa vs UNI wresting meet. All the swimmers came right out of practice, sat on the front row and cheered the guys on as they beat Iowa. It came down to the heavy weight match. Randy Omvig beat the Iowa guy for the win. Great meet. The 1950 National Championship Wrestling team was a great bunch of guys. On the shuttle over to the Fan Fest Saturday morning they took turns putting me in a headlock. Good times. Mark Onstott, UNI Class of 1975

WrestleFattie said...

The only wrestling legend I've ever met was Cael Sanderson. In the summer of 07 I hiked a mountain here in Utah called Mt. Timpanogas. On the way down, I see all these guys with their shirts off running up the mountain (keep in mind, this is one of the tallest mountains in UT - the middle of the rocky mountains). I couldn't help but think where the FUZZ are these guys coming from? After about 10 minutes of guys running by me in small groups, I see Cael with his wife and his dog. I walk by and just say Hi Cael! in an dumbstruck tone. Not only did I get to see Cael, I saw nearly his entire team. I just wish I had recognized them as that... Goober fan...

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