Person Of The Day: The Wrestling Dad

I had a perfect sight line but didn’t know until I knew.

This is semifinal Friday at the state high school wrestling tournament in Des Moines, Iowa. The last match of the day is happening in front of my seat on press row.

Wells Fargo Arena is largely empty now. Two heavyweights are beginning Friday’s last match, which will be the last of a short career for one wrestler and the last of a long day for us poor, poor media. They’re underway on mat six, and they engage immediately. Their backs are hunched. They’re forehead to forehead. Arms are up, each jostling for position. Their bodies form a human Triumph Arch.

I’m uploading video from a previous match. All other press members are working on final stories or making deadline or tweeting to their tens or dozens or hundreds or thousands of followers or doing something more important than watching the last match of the day. The only people focused on the heavyweights are the aforementioned heavyweights, the referees, their coaches and their pockets of family and friends in the arena.

Wrestling tournaments are unique for the chaos of competition (eight matches at a time, constantly rotating for hours at a time) and for the makeup of their spectators. In a normal sporting event, a home team is designated or the fans root for and love the sport (think golf and tennis). All other sports lend themselves to big roars of sound from mostly partisan crowds. This wrestling tournament does not. Each wrestler or school has a small faction of fans, sometimes located in section 346, row W. Few neutrals find themselves at a non-finals day of state wrestling. Small bursts of yelling and applause are frequent tones and are as frequent as the match rotations, which are constant.

An uneventful first period ends with no points scored and little excitement. We’re all still caught up in our work. The second round starts. The wrestler in the Blue singlet makes a quick dive at the red wrestler’s legs. Red — the favored wrestler — wasn’t ready, and he’s down. Blue has him in a bad position, a victory formation. A part of Section 116 explodes with nervous excitement.

The match has my full attention. Can’t say the same about most of my peers. Deadlines are a bitch. Section 116 is beautiful. Their wrestler is excruciatingly close to a winning pin. Their t-shirts have tinted the section Blue. They are friends and distant family and grandparents and a mom and a Dad.

Blue is even closer now. He’s trying to turn red’s right shoulder into the mat to finish the match. Blue’s coaches have knees to the mat, acting as four extra eyes for their guy. Red’s coaches are silent. This is all but decided. Red, though, is delusional. He’s still wrestling, even if it looks more like delaying. That shoulder blade is still up.

S116 is losing its mind. Blue’s teammates are holding each other, screaming. Some friends have climbed on top of their seats, instinctively trying to get a better look at what is happening on mat six. A grandma with a cane is pumping her fist at Blue. The tall, white-haired, slender man next to her has his hands on his head. Dictionary-level disbelief. Mom is displaying the same emotion. Her hands cover her mouth. She looks like she is shrieking. Then my eyes, which can’t look away from 116, settle on a man who looks to be having a seizure.

My word…the Dad.

He is in the stairway of Section 116, running in place. He’s so locked into his son, who is dangerously close now, that he looks completely mortified. The anxious energy transfers from his legs to his arms. They’re in the air now, shaking in near violence. All his blood is rushing to his heart. He must be dizzy from all the adrenaline. I’m glued.

This crazed man embodies in this moment everything I learned to love about wrestling this week. No better place exists to learn the sport than in the center of the state which is the center of the sport’s passionate world. For those four, sold-out days of state wrestling, Des Moines is the hottest hotbed of wrestling in the universe.

S116 feels red’s will breaking. Future state wrestling competitors are jumping in the seating aisles, using their energy surplus to add to the building symphony of noise. Dad’s eyes open wide in terror as the gap between the mat and a battered shoulder closes, and then…

SMACK.

The sound sends Section 116 into total delirium. Dad jumps, and jumps, and jumps. Starfish jumps, the kind that turn you into a human X.

His son…his beautiful son…he has risen from the mat, unknowingly mimicking his dad’s leaping. His coaches are exuberant and hugging. Mom is clinging to Dad’s right side tighter than a singlet. Their eyes have never left their son. Blue spins to find his section, and then he pivots directory between me and his Dad.

He points both index fingers directly at his old man, who is on the verge of total emotional destruction. Dad returns the motion. The moment powers the lights in the arena and perhaps the town and likely the state. Mom blows kisses at her boy.

The referee takes Blue’s wrist, and red’s, and raises the victorious one to the rafters, signaling that Blue will wrestle for a state championship tomorrow.

In Section 116, Dad begins to jab-step up the shallow stairs, using the railing to pull himself up. Six steps later, he turns and descends toward the mats. He doesn’t know how to get to his son. Confused, euphoric and above all things proud, he finally crumbles. Dad’s legs collapse and if it weren’t for a blind swipe at the railing, he would have gone head over shoes down the staircase. That would have been one way to get to mat level. Instead, he is sitting on the step where he started this journey, holding his head in his hands.

Dad, who probably pushed Blue harder than anyone, and like any sports dad probably caused some tension along the way, is crying on the stairs on semifinal Friday at the state wrestling tournament. No, no, not just crying. He is heaving into his palms, unable to understand. What he doesn’t know is that the bad times in the past, which all sons and fathers experience, have just been replaced by a glorious win.

Mom is hugging family members. Teammates are one misstep short of a dogpile. Grandma and grandfather are fused, her head in his chest, his hands on her hair. Blue is signing a sheet at the scorer’s table that probably reads, “SIGN HERE TO AFFIRM THAT YOU DID INDEED JUST WIN:”

Dad is still weeping. A man comes to check on him. Dad waves him away. Still a full body shake…the emotion hasn’t changed or subsided. Truthfully the joy begins to overwhelm me.

Dad has jerked upright and out of his trance. He has returned to the world, face red, and he remembers how to get to the floor. He about-faces once more and floats up the stairs two at a time. When he gets to the top, he pumps his fists skyward. He looks left, then sprints right and out of view. He’s a madman, of course. He just needs to hug his son, who will wrestle. for a state championship. tomorrow.

I think about what happens next. Hopefully nothing deters Dad in getting to Blue. I wish someone would human motorcade him to wherever the winner’s circle happens to be. I imagine Blue sitting on a bench, trying to process his own success, finding it difficult, when Dad spots him, kneels in front of him and initiates a violent embrace. Tears flow without obstacle. The two sway back and forth. They clap each other on the back.

I wonder how many times they say “love” and “proud” and I wonder if the hug ever ceases to be.