Huffman column: Building character on the mat

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, December 1, 2009

I was possibly the worst high school wrestler ever, but ó as my coaches tried to convince me ó the sport builds character. All I know is that it’s one of the most exhausting of physical endeavors.
These are two things I remember from high school wrestling:
When I was a junior at Burlington Cummings, we were wrestling Williams, our cross-town rival and a school we’d never beaten. I weighed about 140 pounds, but we didn’t have anyone to wrestle the 159-pound weight class, so I always got moved up. Giving up almost 20 pounds is fairly significant. Add to that the fact that I knew next to nothing about wrestling and you’ve got the recipe for disaster.
But I reached the point where I was bull-headed enough that I almost never got pinned. I could be determined when I set my mind to it.
Against Williams, I grabbed the boy I was wrestling and tripped him (I’m not sure I knew enough about wrestling to actually record a takedown, but technically that was it) at the start. I absolutely had him pinned. He was flat on his back for several seconds. But the referee didn’t give me the pin and the boy eventually worked loose. I got six points there at the start of the match, but I knew I was in trouble from that point. The boy I was wrestling was bigger and stronger. I held on as best I could and we eventually tied. I was so exhausted at the end of the match that I could barely walk off the mat.
Our team beat Williams by a point (remember the days when beating your cross-town rival was a big deal?). Had I not at least managed a tie, we’d have lost.
At the end of the match, I looked up and John Harris was running at me. He was our school’s football coach. How do I describe him? “Intense” is probably the best word.
When I saw Coach Harris coming at me, the first thought that went through my mind was, “He’s going to hit me.”
I really believed that.
Instead, Harris grabbed me by my shoulders, looked me in the eyes and shook me. He screamed, “Huffman! You’re tough! You’re tough! You’re tough!”
I was so proud I had to wipe away tears.
The other thing I remember about wrestling was that in practice we’d do this round-robin thing where one guy would start in the down position and another guy would be on top. They’d wrestle for a minute, the whistle would blow and the guy who started in the down position would rotate out, the guy who’d been on top would move to the down position and a third wrestler would rotate in. It’s a basic drill.
There was a black guy on our wrestling team named Robert Graves. He was a year older, weighed about 175 pounds (another thing I miss are the days when I thought 175 pounds was “big”) and was very muscular. A lot of the white guys on our team were afraid of Robert, but for some reason he didn’t intimidate me. I’d go at him hard in practice.
I was in that round-robin thing with Robert one day and we really went at one another. We were sweating like mules.
When we finished, in front of all those white boys, Robert pointed at me and said, “I like wrestling him. He’s mean.”
Robert drowned a few years later at an abandoned rock quarry outside Burlington. I’ve been called a lot of things in my life, but Robert remains one of the few people I’ve known to ever describe me as mean.
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