OWNING THE MAT: The Making of A State Champ or At Least A Good Man! (Blog 8)

Owning the Mat Blog 8

Week 8

Dang! Just found out that our wrestler who took first place over last weekend’s wrestling tournament caught Covid there and is now out for the next ten days. Two other wrestlers are considered close contacts, so now they are out too until at least the end of the week. This is so frustrating. We’ve been to two tournaments so far, and in both tournaments, we’ve had kids catch Covid.

However, somehow in the middle of all this craziness, over the last several weeks, Dakota and I have sort of created a new ritual or maybe some normalization during these uncertain times. Here is the pre-practice routine that has slowly developed for us. We leave our home at 5:15. Get to the high school at 5:30 for our 6:00 PM wrestling practice. Dakota and I are usually the first ones there. My security badge gets us through the front door. However, the gym doors are typically locked. So, I often find a way to sneak in the back through a locker room or find a custodian to open the front gym doors. Then Dakota and I move the mats out of the storage room and into the back gym. There we roll the mats out as other wrestlers slowly trickle in.

After the mats are in place, taped, and washed, Dakota and I head over to the first aid box. I then tape his thumb to give him some relief and support from the tendinitis pain running down his thumb to his wrist. Unfortunately, his thumb is just one of the many injuries he is nursing right now.

Wrestling really has a way to beat one up and humble one with the pain it causes every single wrestler, and most coaches, too.

In the early part of this week, Dakota and I had an awkward moment when we disagreed on a move I was teaching the team. I was teaching the technique my way when Dakota got up and offered his input showing another way. Although Dakota’s approach was good, I spoke too hastily over him and told the kids to do it my way. Then seeing the pain on Dakota’s face, I tried to correct myself and said, “If my way doesn’t work for you, then try Dakota’s way.” Regardless, I could tell that I hurt Dakota’s feelings and made him feel less than when I cut him off and told the kids to do it my way.

I could have had more tact in delivering my message and instruction to the team, but being human, I didn’t. I screwed up that communication between me, Dakota, and the team. I wish I had approached that moment in a different and better way. I asked Dakota to show his way again, but the damage was already done, and he said, “No. It’s okay. We’ll do it your way.”

Later, Dakota pulled me aside and insisted on showing me what he was trying to teach the team. He explained to me why his way was a good way. After listening to him for a while, I agreed that his newer way made sense and that he had mentioned a few things that I hadn’t really considered. I guess I just automatically defaulted to what I had grown up with and what had worked for me. I think this moment was enough for Dakota, and he didn’t seem like he was mad or hurt anymore. Thank goodness.

The last thing I want to do is make any kid feel bad about speaking up and sharing something that they think will help their team. And I especially don’t want to discount my son. I’m glad we’re both back on good ground. And as the adult in the room, I’m going to have to do better next time and make sure that I’m being a life-long learner and not just falling back on my old ways. I have to give Dakota a lot of credit for pulling me aside later and advocating for himself and what he was trying to teach the team. I’m impressed. And this is precisely what we’ve been trying to teach him through the sport of wrestling.

And now that Dakota’s back in the right state of mind, let’s hope he can deal with all his little nagging injuries and have a good night wrestling against Enfield High School this Wednesday.

Speaking of Wednesday, I barely made the team bus because of work and the hour drive to get home. But thankfully, I did make it. When I boarded the bus with Dakota just as it was getting ready to leave, I counted only six wrestlers, including Dakota. Once again, there has been nothing normal about this season.

After a good hour on the bus, we arrived at Enfield High School and saw that they had about 15 wrestlers ready to go. They, too, were having some issues with Covid. As I talked to their head coach, Coach Flynn, I received a little jab in the ribs and turned around to see Enfield’s assistant coach Paul Diaz. It was great seeing Paul again. We played together on the same East Hartford High School State Championship football team in the 1987-1988 school year. And Paul was also our heavyweight wrestler on our wrestling team back in those days. When I saw Paul, I smiled ear to ear as we did our best to catch up on what we’ve been up to in just a few minutes. Our head coach, Bill Corrente, laughed and said, “Gee, you seem to know someone everywhere we go.”

Regardless of the low numbers we brought, we had a good night. Coach Flynn, who I used to watch wrestle for Enfield during my early days as a coach, was a beast back then, and his team was built in his image. He told me he had a bunch of scrappers, and he wasn’t kidding. I told him that our teams are similar in that respect. We are a young team, too, filled with a bunch of scrappers who will fight to the end. And that’s what happened. Both teams fought every match hard until the final whistle, and it was a great night of wrestling.

In regards to Dakota, I became slightly nervous when his opponent came out. The Enfield kid looked like a wrestler. This could be a tough match for Dakota, I thought. However, Dakota got the first takedown and seemed to set the match’s tempo. Later in the first period, he put his opponent in a double chicken wing and put him on his back with it. Once again, Coach Flynn was correct. His kids were scrappers and fighters. The Enfield kid was upside down in a double chicken wing for a while but refused to be pinned. And he eventually even fought his way out of Dakota’s pinning combination and came back to his stomach.

“Wow!” said Coach Corrente. “I’ve never seen a kid not get pinned when he was caught in a double chicken wing. That kid is one heck of a fighter.”

“True, indeed!” I said, agreeing with Corrente.

Dakota had a real fighter on his hands. But, Dakota had also taken a commanding 5-0 lead. And shortly into the second period, Dakota extended his commanding lead to 10-0. Then Dakota put the Enfield boy on his back again in the third period. But once again, the boy refused to be pinned and fought his way out of the pinning combination. However, at this point, Dakota’s lead was too great at 17-1, and the referee stopped the match and gave Dakota the win by technical pin, which gave our team five team points.

It seemed like Dakota’s match of no one giving up was indicative of the entire night. Both teams fought really hard and refused to give in to their opponent. Our coaching staff and Enfield’s coaching staff were both very proud of our young wrestlers. They made up for what they lacked in experience with effort and heart. And it was a fun night of wrestling to watch for everyone. And even though we had no chance of winning that night because of all the forfeits we had to give up. When the end of the night came, we had actually won five matches and lost two. In our eyes, we saw that as a good night of wrestling for our E. O. Smith boys.

On the way home on the bus from Enfield, I discussed with the head coach, Bill Corrente, that Covid is running wild through our high school. We had 76 cases this week. I suggested that I call Gus Dastrous, the founder of our E.O. Smith wrestling program, who is now a San Francisco fireman. I thought we should tell him that he probably shouldn’t come to our end-of-the-season wrestling banquet. This decision was breaking my heart. Gus is an old friend and teammate, and I really wanted to see him and hang out with him. And he has such an amazing story on how he began the E.O. Smith wrestling program. I thought our wrestlers could only benefit from hearing it and meeting the legend who made it possible for them to have a team. But, I didn’t want to put Gus in harm’s way. Coach Corrente agreed with me. And I made the call to Gus.

The craziness continued throughout this week. As I had mentioned before, the team that we were supposed to wrestle with this Saturday canceled on us because of Covid. Well, luckily, we were able to just schedule Coventry High School to wrestle with this Saturday, but now that one has just fallen through as well. Neither one of us can get our buildings for Saturday. We now, once again, have no one to wrestle on this Saturday. So once again, we’ll have a Saturday practice instead of a Saturday wrestling meet.

And during these end-of-the-week practices, which included another day off because of snow, I somehow hurt my upper right thigh. It hurts to even walk on it, let alone show the wrestlers technique. I mention this new pain on top of the knee pain I’m still having from falling on the ice last week to Dakota on the ride home. As he’s pulling the tape off his thumb, he says, “Dad, I can’t remember the last time my knee and Achilles didn’t hurt, along with a bunch of other stuff.” Once again, Dakota put me in my place. Man’s oldest sport is often Man’s most painful sport too. But, hey, that’s what this is all about, huh? We’re building good young men and, these days, good young women too by doing hard things like wrestling, chasing wins, dealing with never-ending adversity, and dreaming of a state championship.