The following story of wrestling loss sparked the idea for wrestling greeting cards, and Cauliflower Publishing Company (www.cauliflowerear.com) was born. More to come . . .
EXCEPT FOR DEATH, perhaps nothing is more final–or more devastating–than the instant a dream shatters. At times, it hurts so bad you don’t know how to react. You don’t know what to say, because words are hollow. You don’t know what to do, because nothing can be done. At times like that, like now, all I can do is write.
Elias came to me in the summer before his freshman year. I met him at wrestling camp, this a scrawny, pale, eighty pound kid with little experience and even less visible talent. Someone pointed him out, saying he’d be on my wrestling team that winter. I remember thinking: He’ll never help us on the mat, but he seems like a nice enough kid. I’ll take him.
Elias reached ninety pounds by winter, and filled our varsity spot at 101. He was all we had. During matches he scrambled across the mat, in and out of bizarre entanglements with much heavier opponents. His style was awkward, and even silly at times, but still he won a few matches that season. Along with his lack of skill, scrawny body, and quiet manner, Elias had something else you couldn’t miss: furious determination. He won matches with hustle and heart, and by sheer force of will. By the end of his freshman season, astonishingly, his determination had carried him to a league title, and within one victory of the state tournament. Stunned by his late season success, I was forced to take notice. I’m ashamed now, as I write, that I ever prejudged him so poorly.
Sophomore year saw Elias weighing 100 pounds. He showed the same raging determination, and his wrestling style had evolved into an even more bizarre combination of convulsions and hustle that resembled nothing I taught in the wrestling room. He enjoyed more success that season, and to my utter surprise, placed fifth in state. As occasionally happens in wrestling, his semifinal overtime loss at state had as much to do with officiating than wrestling, but Elias never made excuses.
He spent his junior year fighting off distractions, dealing with the challenges of first-love and rigorous academics. Despite the turmoil, he logged another solid season, even defeating the eventual state champion during the year, and once again qualifying for state. Elias failed to place in state that year, again losing in overtime to an eventual state finalist. It was a disappointing end to a rocky year.
The kid had one last chance. Determined to be a state champion as a senior, Elias committed to his goal. He drilled his moves, and they eventually came around, blossoming like a dormant flower. In practice he gave everything he had. He trained hard in the weight room. He sacrificed all junk food and trained himself down to a very lean weight class, one where he believed he could be a state champion. Elias did everything he believed necessary to reach his goal. He did it right.
At state he dominated his first two opponents. In his semifinal match, he didn’t wrestle as well as he could have, but he wrestled well enough to win. Again, as sometimes happens in wrestling, a bizarre call by the referee tied the match at the final buzzer. Suddenly, another overtime. And another incomprehensible loss. In the blink of an eye, four years of sacrifice and effort and hope had vanished. I bolted to another mat, pretending to coach, unable to face the next few moments. My thoughts raced, bouncing from image to image: Elias as a scrawny freshman; Elias in the weight room; Elias at two camps every summer; Elias drained from cutting weight. His sweet mother in the stands, not knowing what to do, what to say. His father, supportive and tough and loving, with him every step. Everyone, in pain.
I was in limbo, unable to manage my emotions. When I next saw him, Elias was smiling and congratulating a teammate who had just won a match. He had stepped outside his own pain to support a friend. As sometimes happens when kids face up to adversity, he responded as a champion, and his actions humbled me. If he can deal with it, I thought, I have to find a way.
In that instant, I realized, again, that far fewer goals are achieved than are strived for, and it’s the striving that counts. The investment of time and energy. The commitment, and sacrifice, and relentless work. The risk of hoping, of chasing dreams. The willingness to try, to have faith, with no guarantees. I remembered, again, that true character and joy are found, not in arriving, but along the way.
After a hard fought 15-14 victory in Elias’ final consolation match, the final bout of his high school career and our last time together as athlete and coach, I scooped him up in a bear hug and squeezed. He squeezed back, clinging to me. Great hugs, real hugs that mean something, are too rare. Tanner, my stubborn little boy, scarcely gives one up, certainly less often than I need. Maybe that’s why his hugs are so precious. That final few moments with Elias seemed to go on and on, like a long, wonderful Tanner hug. Our hug got tighter, and I realized we’d both been saving it to celebrate his state title, his dream come true. But it wasn’t to be. Now, it was only a hug on a side mat, as the final consolation matches were winding down. It was a hug that represented years of sacrifice. A hug that said, I love you. A precious hug . . . that said goodbye.