HITTING THE MAT: The Making of A State Champ or At Least A Good Man! (Blog 24)

Blog 24

Week 11

Regular Season Freshman Year

            The beginning of this week has been a blur, and I have barely been able even to notice the wrestling season that is winding down. Sadly, wrestling has taken a back seat lately since Dakota has been injured and I’ve been running myself dizzy with all of my responsibilities.

           Early in the week, I had several meetings to attend after work for my part-time side jobs with the American Federation of Teachers. While I was at one of these meetings, I got a text from my wife that my daughter was having trouble breathing and my wife was rushing her to the hospital.

I met them at the hospital in Hartford. And we sat there until the next morning. I was so frustrated and tired, but at the same time, grateful that my daughter did finally receive medical care. Unfortunately, she has the flu. Twelve hours later her little sister came down with the flu also. And in about another twelve hours her older sister also started showing symptoms of the flu. Hmm… Humbug…

Another challenge and another obstacle in the Blanchard home that could make it impossible for Dakota to wrestle in the States next Friday night, even if his knee does get better, and if he does drop the ten pounds that he is over for his weight class. And I won’t even talk about the whole get back in shape thing here… Dakota has a monumental challenge in front of him that’s uphill the entire way. Only time will tell how this one is going to work out.

Speaking of time, time continues to go on as time will go on. None of us can stop it. And regardless of the chaos this week is bringing, I once again find myself lacing up my shoes at 5:00 P.M. on another Wednesday night to head out the door to my son’s wrestling match, which he won’t be wrestling in because he’s still injured. We’re crossing our fingers for the State tournament.

As I was exiting the house through the garage on Wednesday night, I couldn’t help but notice the sunlight shining into the garage through the far side window. I was instantly transported back to my youth and wrestler career there. Practice ended at 5:00 P.M. every night, and as a wrestler there I came out of the East Hartford High School wrestling pit and on the night that we finally saw sunlight coming through the glass door down the hallway, we all knew that our season was just about over. The same realization hit me hard in my garage that night. This first season with my son Dakota was nearly over, too. It’s been a long time since I thought about sunlight peeking through a glass window during wrestling season. As a matter of fact, it almost seems like a lifetime ago…

Wednesday night’s match was Dakota and his team’s last meet of the season. It was against East Catholic High School in Manchester, Connecticut. This was bittersweet from me because East Catholic was my first coaching job. Eric Gremmo and I were the wrestling coaches there from 1990-1994. We were the two twenty-year-olds who took over a team that was collapsing. We only had seven wrestlers on the team in 1990. And no one from East Catholic had qualified to wrestle in the State Open Tournament in about a decade.

Eric and I worked very hard with those wrestlers, and because of the small numbers, we were able to give them a lot of individual attention. I wrestled a lot with every single one of them, every single day during that season. And three months later, when the States did finally come around once again, we placed and qualified four of the seven of our wrestlers for the Connecticut State Open Championships. What a great victory that was! What a great season that was! After that season, the East Catholic wrestling team did nothing but grow. Within a few short years, we had 35 wrestlers.

However, as time continues to move, and seasons continue to change, I had to move on, too eventually. I left East Catholic to take my first teaching job at an international preparatory boarding school far away from Manchester, Connecticut. While living and teaching there, I also started a wrestling team for the school. And then, later on, would land at New Britain High School where I once again would coach wrestling until Dakota was born. Upon Dakota’s birth, I gave up my multiple jobs of coaching wrestling so I could spend time with my boy.

Coach Eric Gremmo

As I was driving to East Catholic this last Wednesday night, I noticed that I was traveling on the same exact roads from my home that I used to drive when I was a student at the University of Connecticut and coaching at East Catholic. While tracking down Route 44, I couldn’t help but think about all the great times Coach Eric Gremmo, and I had. I also thought about how we would eventually go on to coach the Connecticut National Team, and all those late night drives we had in those big vans driving our wrestlers back from home from somewhere else in our country. Those were some great memories. And my memories were especially vivid when I drove by Eric’s old house and the Shady Glen’s Restaurant across the street where we used to get cheeseburgers with the crispy cheese.

A little bit after this I drove by Manchester High School and it caused me to think about Coach Barry Bernstein. He was like a father-figure to Eric and me. He did a lot to help us two twenty-year-olds new coaches who shared his town of Manchester and coached right down the road from him at East Catholic. Several years ago, a retired Bernstein just happens to be at a cross-country meet watching his granddaughter that Dakota was also running in. Of course, Bernstein watched Dakota run and had some excellent advice for me to give him about his running.

As I neared the entrance of East Catholic High School, the late and great Coach Jim Day from Berlin High School crept into my mind. He, too, was like a father-figure to Eric and me during those early days. Coach Day often drove all the way down to East Catholic to help Eric, and I get the wrestling program off the ground. He was a great mentor and a great friend.

And of course, I can’t forget Tom Malin the East Catholic Athletic Director during those years. Tom was always there for anything we ever needed. And if there ever was a father-figure, Tom was undoubtedly it. Tom got to meet my daughter several years ago when she had a volleyball game at East Catholic. Unfortunately, he has never met Dakota, and now he’s retired and gone…

I really miss these three great older men who helped the young Dan Blanchard, and Eric Gremmo become better men and coaches. They helped us do a better job at helping the next generation become better men, too. Their positive influence will be felt for generations to come. And Dakota will be one of the indirect benefactors of their good character and good deeds.

When I walked into East Catholic for the match, I couldn’t help but take a quick walk around. I saw the cafeteria that we used to practice in, and the stairs we used to run. I walked by Tom Malin’s old office and saw a beautiful plaque with his name on it hanging up outside his old door. This made me smile. Walking back to the gym, I saw the Athlete’s Prayer hanging up on the wall. As I read it, my son, Dakota, walked up on me and gave me a hug like he always does. I shared with him that back in the old days the priest who worked at this school used to recite this prayer to our wrestling team every night right before we went out to battle on those same wrestling mats that his team will be on tonight.

For some strange reason, it saddened me that my son wasn’t there in those days and that he can never honestly know what it was like. I felt like I really wanted to share this special moment with him, but would never be able to find the words to share it with him adequately… Hopefully, someday he’ll create some memories of his own in this sport that will be just as special to him that his son will never fully understand, either…

As I walked into the gym with Dakota, I was really hoping that I’d see at least one familiar East Catholic face from the old days of about a quarter of a century ago. Unfortunately, that didn’t come to fruition though. I really wanted to introduce Dakota to them… but it wasn’t to be on that night…

Thoughts and feeling were whirling all throughout me. I thought about how when I left there 25-years ago, over time, I had eventually traded my muscles and my amazing ability to wrestle during those days for 50-pounds of body weight, a career as an educator, author, wife, children, and a whole new set of friends in the town that I now live in.

One of the first hometown friendly faces I saw as I approached the bleachers was Val Rogers. Val is Coach Scot Rogers’ wife. You might remember me talking about Scot in a previous Blog and how we wrestled in the Junior Olympics together. Scot and Val have a son on the team who is a very good wrestler, and who is having a great season.

I’ve really enjoyed getting to know Val this season. The great sport of wrestling caused our paths to cross, or otherwise, we probably would not have ever met. Val is a great person who believes whole-heartedly in raising good young men. She’s well-read, well-spoken, confident, and friendly. She even sings the National Anthem before our matches. Val and I have had many great conversations about things that matter while watching our sons wrestle. I’m glad that I, Val, the coaches, the wrestlers, and their families are all part of the same wrestling family now in our hometown.

Well, the night ended on a high note. And even though I used to coach East Catholic, and thus they will always have a warm place in my heart, I still wanted my son Dakota’s team to win. The meet came down to the last match of the night. And all the weight fell on the shoulders of one of our wrestlers who had been struggling some this season.

Well, I don’t know if he read the Wrestler’s Prayer or not, but he didn’t’ struggle this time out. As soon as the whistle blew, he took it right to the East Catholic wrestler. And he never let up until the other boy’s back was flat on the mat for a pin and a win for the team. What a match! What a night! What a bitter-sweet nostalgic night strolling down memory lane, and kind of wondering where my abs and my double leg takedown disappeared too… I seem to have lost them. However, it looks like maybe Dakota has found them. He now has great abs and a great double leg takedown, too.

The rest of the week was I guess you could say uneventful. Dakota was still sidelined with his knee injury. The coaches were a little concern with the low energy and enthusiasm in the wrestling room the last couple of days of the week, so they did a pretty cool thing about it. They took the team up to American International College to in Springfield, Massachusetts to watch them wrestle against Norwich University out of Vermont. Since we didn’t have any wrestling that Saturday, something we haven’t had in a long time…

It was the perfect day, and perfect timing to do this sort of thing. It gave the boys a break and hopefully fired them up for next week’s practices, which will be the last four practices before we head out to the States on Friday night. And we still don’t know yet if Dakota will get to experience the States as a freshman wrestling in this huge varsity tournament, or just be an observer again in the stands…


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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