HITTING THE MAT: The Making of A State Champ or At Least A Good Man! (Blog 30)

Week 5 of Regular Sophomore Season

It’s still the holiday vacation, but wrestlers don’t really get this time off. Some people travel during the holidays. The only traveling they usually do is back and forth to a bunch of wrestling practices and a few tournaments. Sure some wrestlers are forced or even tricked by their parents into going on vacation during the holiday week, which falls right in the middle of the wrestling season. But most wrestlers don’t go anywhere except for wrestling. The wrestlers also spend a lot of time visiting their bathroom scales too because they still need to make weight, watch what they eat, and run off whatever they do eat at their family holiday gatherings.

A wrestler’s life is a life of discipline and sacrifice. A wrestler can’t give in to their everyday natural human urges of eating a lot, laziness and indifference. Our brain, with its prehistoric roots, always wants to preserve itself, and the holy temple called the body, which surrounds it and protects it. Thus, human beings are set up to eat a lot and preserve energy by moving around as little as possible to conserve calories, store fat, and live through lean times.

This prehistoric human inclination mentioned above of the packing on of life-saving fat isn’t beneficial to a wrestler. And neither are the holidays with all of its food. Yet, wrestlers are humans and do have families, so they must partake in the festivities of the holiday season while trying to balance it all out. If they don’t balance it well, they will be found bent over the trash can the next day at practice. And still overweight even though they just unwillingly emptied the contents of their stomachs. Oh yeah, and there is always that other thing too of finishing up the practice. Wrestlers don’t get to sit out of the rest of the practice just because they threw up.

However, sometimes even a wrestler’s discipline and mandatory scheduled practices can’t one-up Old Man Winter during the holiday season. Monday came this week, and so did snow and ice. All practices were called off by the school’s athletic director. This is going to make making weight tougher for our wrestlers.

Tuesday night was New Year’s Eve, and we had wrestling practice. Dakota is still sidelined, and one can easily see that he is getting frustrated. I showed up for the first time this season in my street clothes. My wife told me not to get sweaty and to come home immediately after practice with Dakota. We had New Year Eve plans with family and friends. Oh, by the way, she had to bump back our plans to a later time because we were scheduled to have practice from 4-6 PM. The non-wrestlers of the family, meaning everyone except Dakota and me, looked at us like we were crazy to be going to a New Year’s Eve wrestling practice.

During that New Year’s Eve practice, I found myself hanging out at the front door of the school building again as the new coach letting wrestlers in while the two coaches with seniority started practice. This had to be done because all the doors to the building were locked again, of course.

I’ll repeat here again what I said last week. I don’t like this new era where we have to take all these extra precautions for student and school safety, where we continuously have to lock everything up. Well, come to think of it, I suppose I already should know better and already have accepted all this extra precautions stuff due. After all, I’m one of the district trainers where I teach school who trains students and teachers on what to do if we have an active shooter… Well… regardless… this former combat-trained military man turned husband, father, teacher, and wrestling coach once again still doesn’t like the changes.

When I finally walked into the back gymnasium where I could see the red wrestling mats’ three sections with their nine little circles have been rolled out, and wrestlers were already warming up, I ran into a wrestler’s mom who has been helping out with the team. She complimented Dakota, calling him a real trooper to be here every day even though he hasn’t been able to wrestle. I agreed and told her that it’s killing all of us, though.

Wednesday, January 1st, 2020 finally arrives! HAPPY NEW YEAR EVERYONE! Today we take down all the holiday decorations and then head back over to our beloved high school for another wrestling practice. That’s right! We have wrestling practice from 2-4 PM today. Time for the wrestlers, and me, too, to sweat off all that food from last night.

I’m looking forward to a little workout. Thanks to this wrestling season, I have re-learned how to do a light jog. Due to an old injury and then the total hip replacement of my left hip, I have been physically unable to jog for the last decade. But now I can manage a short jog, and that feels pretty good. However, recently, I pulled a hamstring slowly running a few hills on my driveway before a wrestling practice last week. I mention to Dakota in passing that I sure hope my pulled hamstring doesn’t hurt too much today in practice, and he says, “How do you think I feel?”

I reply, “Yeah… you’re right. Sorry.” I feel pretty stupid right about now for complaining to my son about a sore hammy.

On the car ride over to our first wrestling practice of the new year and new decade of the ’20s, Dakota tells me that he is going to be really mad if he gets injured again next year. I say to him that he can’t think about that. He has to think positive thoughts instead. Besides, wrestling isn’t really about winning trophies, it’s about building character and becoming a good young man.

He says, “Dad, how am I supposed to build character if I can’t even wrestle?”

I respond, “You can build character through an injury, too. After all, don’t they say that it’s not what happens to you, but rather how you respond to it that really matters?” At this moment, I think about the wrestler’s mom, who called Dakota a real trooper for being there every day even though he couldn’t wrestle. However, while lost in thought about becoming a man of character through experiencing an injury, a car cuts out in front of me. My mind shifts gears, and I forget to share this wisdom with Dakota before we get to practice. I can’t tell him right now either, because he’s sleeping. Well, I’m pretty sure he’ll get the lesson when he reads this blog, just in case my mere human abilities causes me to forget to tell him in person next time I see him awake.

Now back to the New Year Day. Dakota surprises me on this New Year’s Day practice by weighing in at only 140 lbs. He’s lost a few pounds. He’s now only six pounds over for his weight class that is now 134 lbs. I’m thinking cool, he still might be able to make weight by the end of the month even though he hasn’t been able to work out. And if his doctor releases him at the end of the month, he might actually get a chance to wrestle a couple of matches and go to the State Tournament.

Coach Torres drops a bomb on us here, though when he says our situation isn’t good enough. If Dakota wants to wrestle in the States in mid-February, then he needs to officially weigh in eight times at matches before the State Tournament. This means that he’s going to have to be on weight and ready to go by next Saturday if he wants any chance of wrestling in the States this season. I’m caught off guard by this because I thought it was just one match before the States when I wrestled and coached. Also, my mind goes back to last season when Dakota was out for the six weeks with his knee the size of a softball leading up to States. Back then, it didn’t look like he’d be able to wrestle at the end of the season tournament either. Life is never easy…

Dang… what to do once again…? Hmm… not sure… However, just like last year, let’s give it our best shot and see what happens. Somehow last year, at the eleventh hour, he did manage to wrestle in the States when his doctor cleared him and his knee at the last possible moment. Maybe, somehow, Dakota will pull it off again this year.

Now we have to get him moving again. Coach Torres gives Coach Rogers and me the okay to go commodore an exercise bike from the schools’ weight room. Rogers and I set the bike up right next to the wrestling mat and order Dakota to get on and start pedaling. Hopefully, this won’t stress his knee too much. Hopefully, it will develop his leg muscle back up that has atrophied. Hopefully, it will build his wind. And hopefully, it will bring his weight down some too. Let’s do our best and hope for the best.

Dakota’s bike ride went well. It tired him out, and now we’re back home, icing his knee again. He’s frustrated and asking me if I think he’ll have any chance of wrestling this season, and if it’s even possible for him to make weight if he is cleared. I encourage him through what I learned many years ago by reading General Colin Powell’s book on the time he spent in the Vietnam War by repeating to Dakota what Powell always said to his men, “Things will look better in the morning.” I tell Dakota not to make any decisions when he’s tired and feeling beat up. Get a good night’s sleep. Tomorrow morning he’ll feel better and then we’ll talk about it.

The next morning is Thursday, and we have a wrestling match against Rocky Hill High School. This week, it is on a Thursday instead of the usual Wednesday because of the holiday. Jenn, Dakota’s mom, can finally go to watch a wrestling meet, even though Dakota won’t be wrestling. Jenn has been with our two youngest daughters every Wednesday and Saturday so far for soccer. So, it will be nice today for Dakota to look up in the stands and see his mom.

Instead of riding on the bus with the team, I ride down to Rocky Hill with my wife, Jenn. When we get there, I see my old friend Paul Myers, who is the head wrestling coach of Rocky Hill. I also see one of my old buddies from Bristol refereeing the match. Next, I see our team out on the mat warming up and Dakota sitting all by himself on the team bench. I don’t think Dakota likes sitting on that bench too much. He’s looking a little bit like a loner… and I’m not loving it too much either…

Tonight, some of our kids wrestle well, and some of them don’t. Once again, our 126-pounder looks good, and so does our 138-pounder senior captain. Dakota knows the 132-pounder he would have wrestled from off-season wrestling. It would have been a good match. Using some strategy, we bump our 160-pounder to 170, and he pins his kid. Next, our 182-pound brawler goes out there and once again does what he so often does by pinning his kid too. These were the bright spots, along with a few newer kids battling hard, but unfortunately coming up short.

The not so good spots, which Coach Torres made sure the whole team was well-aware of, were the losses we took that mostly came from kids that have been missing practices. Don’t these kids know the old Woody Allen saying that showing up is fifty percent of the battle? One has to be consistent. One has to show up every day. And one has to work hard every day. And one has to always go the extra mile if one wants to be good in wrestling, good in life, and become a good man…

At the end of the meet, Coach Torres let the kids know that he wasn’t happy and that tomorrow’s practice was going to be a hard one. Then we head out onto the mat to show good sportsmanship by shaking hands with the other team.

After shaking hands with Rocky Hill, I briefly talk with my old comrade from Rocky Hill, Coach Myers, so we can catch up some. He mentions that he’s been reading this blog and enjoying it. Very cool… Another great wrestler and great coach who is getting something positive out of this wrestling blog… I’m pumped! I guess I’ll keep pounding away on my computer keyboard…

Friday’s practice was good and hard, just like Coach Torres said it would be. And on Saturday we found ourselves over at Windham High School for the Windham Duals Wrestling Tournament. Unfortunately, we’re going into this tournament as a huge underdog with all of our young newer kids, and the fact that we don’t even have a full team. We are forfeiting five weight classes. In every one of those weight classes we are giving the other team six-points instead of earning a possible six points for ourselves. If one knows the complicated math of wrestling, that’s basically a 30-60 point shift in favor of the other team. Last week Saturday, we out-wrestled every team we faced but didn’t win a single match. We may not win a single match today either… Hopefully, we’ll at least out-wrestle the other teams though…

Unfortunately, we didn’t out-wrestle the first team we went against. We lost again. Coach Torres yelled at the team, letting them know that if a few of them didn’t get pinned, we might have had a chance to win this one because the other team had to give up a couple of forfeits themselves. The wrestlers that did get pinned were newer guys that truly don’t belong in a varsity lineup. They should be on the freshmen team or junior varsity team, but unfortunately, we don’t have that luxury. We were asking a lot from these green wrestlers, and some may think that’s not fair to them. And I sort of agree… But, guess what? Life isn’t going to be fair to them either. So, they might as well learn that fact now… Hey, I wrestled varsity as a freshman who had never wrestled previously either. And whenever I lost, my coach gave me hell for not manning-up out there…

The next three matches we wrestled, we did out-wrestle the other teams. And we actually won two of them! Our veterans performed well like they usually do. And our newbies sucked it up and came up with some big wins. These unexpected wins caused our wrestlers and parents to jump up and down and shout at the top of their lungs in jubilation. It was awesome! What a day!

And to add to this great day, a parent from another team introduced himself to me and told me that he thinks I’m really good with the kids. Pretty cool, huh? My wife also told me that the team moms are giggling and getting a kick out of the fact that whenever one of our kids lose, I don’t yell at them, but instead enthusiastically pull them aside and show them how to better defend themselves for the next time. My wife just looks at the moms, and says, “He’s always been like that.”

Also, I had a pleasant surprise today when I was walking by a wrestling mat, and someone called out my name. I couldn’t believe my eyes. It was my old buddy Tom Barry. Many times over the years, I’ve wondered what happened to him. Tom and I wrestled my sophomore year. He was one of the top wrestlers in the state and the senior captain for Maloney High School in Meriden. Tom was an awesome wrestler. He even looked like an awesome wrestler, too, with that thick neck of his. We had a great battle that I believe ended up with him pinning me in the third period off of a fireman’s carry. A few years later we were hanging out on the coaching and refereeing circuit. He was one of the state’s best referees.

We hung out a lot, and we’re good friends, but eventually, life took us in different directions. I got away from wrestling with my family and work responsibilities. And Tom stepped away from wrestling as well. He told me he’s now a big baseball umpire. Kind of surprising, but not really when I think about it. I asked him what he was doing at this wrestling tournament, and he responded with how it’s his therapy… “I hear you, buddy,” I answered. We both sat quietly together for a few moments enjoying each other’s company once again after all these years… Then duty called, and I was off running…


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*** Finally, check out the very 1st blog of, Hitting the Mat: https://tinyurl.com/w68ubf8

Dan Gable Olympic Gold Medalist and Wrestler of the Century


Dan Blanchard, Teen Leadership, The Storm

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