HITTING THE MAT: The Making of A State Champ or At Least A Good Man! (Blog 15)

Blog 15

Week 2 Regular Season Freshman Year


Rushed over to pick up Dakota tonight from wrestling practice. I figured I’d get to see the last ten minutes of this Monday night practice, but unfortunately, I missed it. Dang! I also missed out on finding time this past weekend to get a workout in with Dakota, too. It’s so hard to live up to our own visions of the perfect world, isn’t it?

As I scanned the wrestling room for my boy, my eyes landed on Coach Torres’ big smile. His smile and positive attitude are infectious. He’s always a pleasure to talk with. Later in the week, I’d bump into my old friend Coach Steve Melino in Windham. He is now the top man in Connecticut Wrestling, and he’d tell me that one of his favorite wrestlers of all time is Coach John Torres. I guess Dakota lucked out again with another great coach.

As Coach Torres and I chatted, the wrestling room thinned out. After extra pushups, Dakota worked his way over to me to say hi and give me a big hug. Dakota and I have that special bond where we hug each other and tell each other we love the other all the time.

Coach worked them hard again tonight. As we continued to chat, Coach Torres informed me of the tough spot Dakota is in because he currently weighs 128-pounds. Dakota is going to have to wrestle-off the team’s varsity captain if he tries to compete in the 126-pound weight class. And if he decides to go up to the 132-pound weight class, he’ll then have to wrestle-off the team’s other varsity captain.

The best spot for my freshman boy to wrestle is the 120-pound weight class. But because Dakota is so lean, he doesn’t have the weight to lose. His abs have been looking great lately. However, it also looks like Dakota is going to have his hands full this year with those two varsity team captains. He may not get the recognition for all of the hard work that he deserves this year, but on the positive side, he’ll surely get a lot better tangling with the two upperclassmen varsity captains day in and day out.

And besides, there is nothing wrong with wrestling Jayvee, especially if that’s the only available place to wrestle. It’s better to wrestle in any spot that is possible than not to wrestle at all. And who knows…? I lost my first couple of wrestle-offs as a freshman to a returning varsity starter and still ended up on the varsity team within a few weeks into the season. And as long as Dakota keeps working hard and improving, he could find himself on the varsity team sooner than he thinks. However, I’m not going to get too excited about this yet because it’s very rare for a freshman to wrestle varsity unless he’s a lightweight.

On the way home that night, Dakota is very excited about an awesome fireman’s carry/throw he hit on one of his teammates during live wrestling. I wish I could have seen it. What I do notice though is that Dakota is continuously coughing almost all the way home… That dang cold doesn’t seem to want to go away… Dakota goes to bed almost as soon as we get home…

As the week progresses, Dakota’s cough continues. Every night I tell him to go to bed early. And he says that he is, and it isn’t helping. Somehow, Dakota also managed to tear up his knee and now the minor injury is bothering him, too. I think I’ll have to buy him some knee pads. Hopefully, that helps.

Regardless of the obstacles, though, and the fact that the dynamics have changed and I haven’t been able to see Dakota wrestle at all so far this week, he tells me that he has been battling hard with the captains, and his coach, too. I have to tell you that I’m pretty happy to hear that.

I know he’s working hard and I know he’s improving every day underneath someone else’s supervision and tutelage. I just wish I could see more of it like when I was with him at John Knapp’s preseason practices at KT KIDZ. I also wish that he’d get well, and get rid of that cold he has. Until that happens though, he’ll keep going to bed early every night. Hey, like Ben Franklin said, “Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.”

I wonder what good ol’ Ben would have said if he was a wrestler…? Well, I don’t think we’ll ever know because I don’t think Ben Franklin wrestled. But George Washington did, and he was pretty good. And so did Abraham Lincoln, and he was very good. And perhaps the most enthusiastic of the wrestling Presidents is one of my favorite Presidents, Teddy Roosevelt. Sounds like Dakota is in good company. Wouldn’t you agree?

Well, we’re now at the end of another week I’m driving Dakota over to wrestling as Tom Petty is singing one of my favorite songs on the radio, I Won’t Back Down. I turn up the radio some, and we listen to Tom, and me, too, of course, belt off the lyrics:

Well, I won’t back down

No, I won’t back down

You can stand me up at the gates of hell

But I won’t back down


No, I’ll stand my ground

Won’t be turned around

And I’ll keep this world from draggin’ me down

Gonna stand my ground

And I won’t back down…

Midway through the song, I explain to Dakota that this song is the perfect song for wrestling and for real life outside of wrestling. When he gets used to not backing down when things get hard on the mat, which he’s doing a pretty good job at that right now, he’ll also then be able to carry that skill and courage over into the real world.

I explain to him in the parked car in front of the gymnasium of Windham High School that life will get hard when he gets older. And when it does, he’s going to feel like backing down. But something inside of him just won’t let him back down and hide from his responsibilities as a good man because he’s a wrestler now… And that means something!

We enter the building, and I can’t believe my eyes. I feel like Dakota has brought me back to my old wrestling family. The first person I see is Coach Gary Alford, a former All-American college wrestler who 20-years ago, I spent some time battling him trying to fight off his amazing lateral drop and then coaching the Junior Olympic wrestling team with him. Today, my son and his daughter will be wrestling together. Precious and priceless. Gary and I embrace like only old warrior friends who haven’t seen each other in a long time can do.

Right next to Gary is Rocky Urso. Rocky was a standout Berlin High School and Central Connecticut State University (CCSU) Wrestler. Rocky and I used to battle hard back 30-years ago on the same Junior Olympic Wrestling Team, and then also after high school when I used to visit him at CCSU. We share a few moments remembering our great coach the late Hall of Famer, Jim Day. And then Rocky and I also embrace as only old warrior friends can.

I finally get some time to watch Dakota wrestle today. There are multiple schools and a lot of kids wrestling at Windham High School on this Saturday morning. Once again I see my old buddy the Windham head coach, Pat Risley, and my son’s two coaches, Coach Torres, and Coach Rogers who is now the voluntary assistant coach for my son’s school. I’m just finding out that a lot of schools no longer pay assistant coaches. I’m shocked by this news.

Dakota wrestles some pretty tough kids today, including Coach Gary Alford’s daughter, and he does well. He’s getting better. Dakota is able to cradle a few of his opponents. He also now has a new hip-heist move that seems to be going well for him. I’m proud of Dakota, and very impressed with him. The fine men in his life now that have been coaching him are obviously doing a great job with him.

While watching Dakota, I finally notice another one of my old wrestling/coaching buddies, Coach Steve Merlino is in the room. I make my way over to say hi to him. Coach Merlino is one of the original guys who founded and ran open-mat wrestling in northeastern Connecticut at Windham High School. In the old days, all the best wrestlers used to go there to work out.

Coach Steve Merlino, Coach John Bennet, and Coach Shirzad Ahmadi ran those Windham open-mat sessions for years. And Vinny Knapp used to drive his sons John, Jude, and me to these wrestling sessions whenever he could. Coach Merlino is now the top guy in Connecticut Wrestling as the President of the CIAC Wrestling Organization. Very cool! I introduce Steve to Dakota, and he talked about when he used to wrestle with me, Dakota’s dad. Very cool again. Finally, I mention to Coach Steve Merlino that I’m going to write a book on wrestling and would love to consult with this legend of wrestling on it. He full-heartedly agrees to block off some time for me.

The practice and the wrestling week finally ends. Dakota goes off to the side to pop off some extra pushups. Coach Alford, Coach Urso, Coach Rogers, and I take pictures together, shake hands, hug each other, and talk elatedly as we all wish each other and our kids well out on the wrestling circuit this year. And we can’t wait until our paths cross again…


Learn more about Dan’s book, A Sprint to the Top, that DAN GABLE endorsed:


Dan Gable Olympic Gold Medalist and Wrestler of the Century

Dan Blanchard, Teen Leadership, The Storm

Dan Blanchard is a bestselling author, and award-winning speaker,
and educator. www.DanBlanchard.net