At 6:00 am last Sunday, my son Thomas, age 13, and I headed out to his club wrestling tournament.
Cue the theme from Rocky, "Gonna Fly Now."
Youth wrestling tournaments are quite the spectacle, beginning with the early morning traffic jam for weigh ins. We arrive just before 7:00 am at the dark, dank gymnasium north of Chicago, a perfect setting for a blue collar sport. Forget the brie and chardonnay, this is a Velveeta and Red Bull crowd. Kids file in with gear over their shoulders, parents carrying coolers. Once inside, the kids are round up like Holsteins to have their weight, hair and fingernails checked.
After a quick team warm-up, we all sit, and sit, teams and parents clustered together on hard, unforgiving bleachers, which is fitting.
Wrestling is a grueling sport, who's one-on-one nature and continuous movement results in a twisting, reaching, ongoing vulnerability. I competed in high school with teammates who now coach my son. We are all older, fatter and balder, but the lessons remain. As legendary Iowa coach Dan Gable says, "Once you've wrestled, everything else is easy."
Beginning at 9:00 am up to 12 matches take place at once on four mats, made possible because kids as young as 5 don't need much room. Groups of kids are called up to the "bullpen" room by age group, then sent out to wrestle each other, often after a 30 minute wait with nothing to do but stare and flex at each other.
Whoever came up with chaos theory had youth wrestling tournaments in mind. Where else can a parent sit for over seven hours to watch their child in action for a total of 30 minutes, presuming each six minute match "goes the distance," which at the youth level is as likely as Tim Tebow embracing Buddha. Unlike baseball or choir (my oldest daughter's passion), where you are vested in a "team" because your kid is part of a group, it's hard to get excited watching the 40 or so matches before my guy is up. Then again I have never seen someone throw a hip toss on a mezzo soprano.
At the youth level matches are quick and random. Last year, Thomas lost a close match, after which I went for my constitutional. As I emerged, his coach ran up to me and said, "Man, what a great turnaround." Turns out he pinned another kid while I was, ahem, away.
On this day, Thomas lost his first match, then battled back against three opponents to take fourth place, winning a nice medal (any parent knows it's all about the hardware).
We headed back around 4:30, stopping for his obligatory McFlurry before we talk about the day. In his fourth match, for third place, he faced a kid known for headlocks, youth wrestling's version of a "one trick pony." Thomas countered him the first two times, stepping in and managing a takedown, but missed the third time and got pinned. I tell him how proud I am, for persevering, at which point he flashes a sheepish grin and says, "Thanks Dad, but I was just tired and ready to go."
Marv Levy, who led the Buffalo Bills to four straight Super Bowls, used to walk the field during warm-ups and ask his players, "Is there anywhere you would rather be than right here, right now."
My answer, of course, is no.