Monday, April 5, 2010

What is a legend?

“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

That line comes near the end of one of John Ford’s best westerns, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. It is spoken by a newspaper editor after an interview with Jimmy Stewart’s character, Senator Ransom Stoddard. Stoddard has built a long, successful political career based on the “fact” that he killed the evil Liberty Valance in a gunfight. He has come home with his wife to bury the, now, unknown derelict Tom Doniphan (John Wayne). Stoddard reveals in the interview that it was Doniphan – not himself – who shot and killed Valance. An unnamed western territory became a state and thousands of new settlers arrived in part because of the accomplishments of “the man who shot Liberty Valance”.

The terms “wrestling legend” and “coaching legend” have been thrown around on the internet a lot lately – sometimes disparagingly. Occasionally, when we meet or observe “legends”, they disappoint us. It isn’t fair, really, to hold someone to a higher behavior standard than everyone else we encounter in life, simply because at one time they could beat the tar out of almost everyone on the wrestling mat.

For reasons beyond my comprehension, writing this blog has allowed me to meet “wrestling legends” – and some who, perhaps, ought to be legendary.

As a longtime Hawkeye fan, there’s a part of me that is supposed to be hard wired to root against anyone named Smith who wrestled at Oklahoma State. However, I’m not sure that I would still be writing this if it weren’t for Lee Roy Smith. From the very early days, Lee Roy has encouraged me. He has contributed to the blog and promoted it to others. Many fans know Lee Roy as an NCAA champion, World Silver Medallist, head coach at Arizona State University and participant in one of the most famous – and controversial – matches in American wrestling history. It’s his accomplishments as the executive director of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame and Museum that, maybe, go unrecognized. During his tenure, the Hall of Fame has educated the public about the contributions wrestling and wrestlers have made to the defense of our freedom, the expansion of our ethnic diversity and the very growth of our nation. When I finally got to shake Lee Roy’s hand, he was as gracious in person as he has been in our internet correspondence.

When I met Lee Roy at the NWCA National Duals he was accompanied by Richard Small – a name that is legendary at Cornell College – but almost unknown to far too many in the wrestling community. Richard was a Midwest Classic Conference champion and a member of Cornell’s 1947 NCAA and AAU championship team. After graduation in 1950 he went on to be highly successful in the oil business. If the phrase “giving back” ever needed an illustration, Richard’s picture would be there. He has become Cornell’s most generous benefactor and supports wrestling both financially and as a member of the Board of Governors at the Hall of Fame. Upon introduction, he chose to thank ME for my tiny contributions to the sport. Richard, I’m not worthy.

Lloyd Corwin is an unassuming gentleman with an easy laugh. When you meet him it’s hard to imagine that in the 1950’s he was one of America’s toughest wrestlers. Competing at 147 pounds for Cornell College in the “pre-divisional” era, he was a two-time All-American, finishing second and third. Lloyd only lost three matches in his college career and in 1955 he defeated future Olympic champion Doug Blubaugh in the NCAA quarterfinals.

I met Lloyd recently when we were both selected to be marshals at the 2010 NCAA Division III Wrestling Championships. We struck up one of the most enjoyable conversations I’ve ever had with a member of the wrestling community. He never once talked about himself, preferring instead to discuss Coe College’s Clayton Rush. Lloyd lives less than 15 miles from Clayton’s hometown and has been following his career since high school. Of all of the marshals, I think it was Lloyd who most genuinely enjoyed congratulating the young men as he handed them their All-American trophies. Lloyd probably doesn’t qualify as a “legend” in the minds of most fans, but he’s certainly among the top of my list of wrestling family members I’ve been lucky enough to meet.

I’ve never actually met Ben Peterson. A two-time NCAA champion at Iowa State and an Olympic gold medallist in 1972 (and silver medallist in 1976), Ben is truly a wrestling legend. In March, 2008 I was riding down the escalator at the US Cellular Center in Cedar Rapids after the finals of that year’s Division III Championships. A crowd of teenagers surrounded a tall, bespectacled man who was talking to them. As I got to the bottom I thought, “Holy crap, that’s Ben Peterson.” As more people recognized him the crowd started to grow. He was letting the youngsters pass his gold medal among themselves while he was speaking. The message was simple, “Listen to your parents, listen to your teachers, listen to your coaches and work hard and you too can win one of those.” The kids were mesmerized.

Then there’s Dan Gable. I’ve watched Gable on, next to and off the mat for 40 years. I’ve seen the dominating athlete and the fiery coach who occasionally had to be restrained by an assistant. I’ve watched him sign autographs for everyone from little kids to Russian wrestlers. The two times that I’ve had the chance to talk to him he has been warm and engaging. In February we both spoke at an event honoring Barron Bremner. At one point Dan said, “I have a vision for wrestling that most people don’t understand – that’s way up there. We’ve got to build this sport.” It was the look in his eyes as he said it that grabbed me. It grabbed others as well.

When the legend and fact collide – and they’re identical – there’s no need to worry about which to print.


Riot Sports Marketing said...

Great stuff! Sounds like you've crossed paths with some legends yourself. Keep writing and you may be a legend one day.

Anonymous said...


Jim Brown said...

You're far too kind.