Friday, March 5, 2010

On being a fan

I’m just a fan. However it came to happen – I love wrestling. The only wrestling I ever did was in junior high school intramurals. Then I went to watch Dan Gable wrestle in Ames and it started – my love affair with this sport.

Debbie Connell has been my friend for 40 years. I worked my way through Saint Ambrose College at a Dairy Queen in Davenport and Connell was one of my co-workers. If you’re ever in Carver Hawkeye Arena for a wrestling meet and the Hawkeyes come running out of the tunnel – look to the middle of the first row just above the tunnel and you’ll see Debbie and her sister Jodie. They’ve been season ticket holders longer than I have.

Debbie and I were reminiscing before the Iowa/Northwestern meet and she brought back a long forgotten moment. “Do you remember the time you and Mr. Simmons (one of our regular DQ customers) stood outside and talked about Gable after the ’72 Olympics? I can remember you guys talking for maybe half-an-hour.” Unlike today, when you have to get up at 2:00 AM to watch Olympic wrestling on the internet, we got to see Gable’s march to the gold on ABC. We got to hear Frank Gifford describe him as “the most dedicated athlete I’ve ever seen.”

Last night my name became officially linked with Dan Gable’s and I couldn’t be prouder – or more humbled. The National Wrestling Coaches Association presented me with the Dan Gable “America Needs Wrestling” Award at the NCAA Division III Wrestling Hall of Fame induction ceremonies. The plaque calls me “Ambassador for the Sport”. But folks, I’m just a fan. I started writing this blog in July, 2007 just because I wanted some place to talk about wrestling as fans do. The luckiest result has been that I have got to meet some wonderful people who work hard for this great sport.

Dick Simmons might be one of the hardest working people that the general wrestling public knows little about. The assistant athletic director at Cornell College, Dick has been the tournament director of the NCAA Division III Championships for the past three years. Whenever something needs to be done, he jumps in. At the 2008 DIII Championships, Dick was the guy who swept the mat before the finals. At the recent USA vs. Russia freestyle dual at Cornell, Dick saved the evening when the sound system failed during the playing of the Russian national anthem. While the crowd waited anxiously, he fixed the system and embarrassment was averted. When I needed help with Tickets for Kids, Dick was one of the first in line. Last night the NWCA honored Dick for his last three years’ of service to this event. He took his plaque, thanked the NWCA, shook hands with his Cornell associates and went back downstairs to finish preparations for the beginning of today’s wrestling.

When Mike Moyer calls you on the phone and says, “God told me to call you”, you know that there’s work to be done. I’ve received that call a couple of times. Last night I finally got to meet Mike, the executive director of the NWCA, in person. Life can be unfair. Whenever a college wrestling program gets dropped there are those who choose to malign Mike and his staff at. Unfortunately, they get little acknowledgment when new programs are added – and here’s the heartening truth – more wrestling teams have been added in recent years than have been lost. Thank you Mike, Pat (Tocci) and Tammy (Tedesco) for your tireless work.

If you’ve been around the sport for any time you know Jason Bryant and have read his articles and blogs and heard him talk on the radio or do match play-by-play on the internet. Jason is dauntless in his efforts to give wrestling better coverage and more exposure. He’s here in Cedar Rapids for the “DIIIs” and he and his broadcast partner, Kyle Klingman of the Dan Gable International Wrestling Institute and Museum, will provide live streaming of the finals Saturday night. Then its off to Omaha where they will “live stream” the entire Division II tournament and then the opening round of the “Big Dance” – the NCAA Division I Championships – and somewhere in there Jason has a wedding to plan.

When I started the blog I often didn’t know from one week to the next what the subject might be (that’s probably still more true than I care to admit). Somewhere along the line I encountered Danielle Hobeika. Wrestler, photographer and web designer, Danielle seemed a fascinating subject and she graciously agreed to be my first interview. Whenever anyone in the wrestling world needs a website quickly - from Save Oregon Wrestling to Cal State Bakersfield to Adam Frey – Danielle gets the job done.

At the time of the interview with Danielle she was on the staff at Beat the Streets and suggested that I interview Al Bevilacqua and write about BTS. Al’s passion is to make wrestling an urban sport. There are millions of kids in our largest cities who have few – if any – opportunities to wrestle. Al would like to see everyone of them – regardless of gender – on the mat.

More than any other person, it was Al who motivated me to get off my butt and try to do something. He was my role model when I developed Tickets for Kids and has been wonderfully supportive. Hundreds of kids will get to watch college wrestling tomorrow morning because Al Bevilacqua convinced me that a fan just might be able to have some kind of impact on the future of the sport.

Then there’s Gable. I had been introduced to Dan briefly about 17 years ago – just another one of thousands of fans he has met over the years. Four weeks ago today I got to be on the same program with him as the museum that bears his name honored Barron Bremner. Everyone knows Gable, but I’m not sure that everyone appreciates how passionately he works for the growth of wrestling. There’s a look in his eye when he talks about the future of the sport that inspires you to do whatever you can.

I’m just a fan – but then maybe so are you. What are you doing for wrestling today?

1 comment: said...

Congrats Jim! You earned it! I love reading your blog and getting new ideas on how to help out the sport. You going to the DIV I? Would love to be able to meet you!