I was always the last person you wanted on your team in school. Doesn’t matter if it was pre-school, elementary school, junior high (kids are the worst then), or high school; I was there on the field, but I was the least dependable sun of a gun in terms of catching a ball. Back then, I was always afraid of getting hurt or of hurting someone I didn’t mean to. If there was anything I could have changed about my damn childhood, I really wish I was better at sports. If nothing else, it would have saved me a lot of childhood scars.
But seriously, I don’t want to make this article a piteous one because I did have my athletic moments, and there is no reason for Argentina to start crying over me. Over time, I got really good at it, and I took pride in finishing races in 80 to 90 degree heat while running up steep hills that induced unbearable pain, and while running on tracks where there was absolutely no shade. Eventually, I got my letterman’s jacket which I still have hanging in my closet at the family home (wearing it now is kind of pointless).
Looking back though, it turns out that the greatest thrill I got in sports was during my brief and rather accidental entry into wrestling. Joining the wrestling team was actually nothing more than an afterthought for me. It was my freshman year of high school, and that’s always the year where you just want to fit in and be like everyone else. To be the odd man out was a horrifying thought, and I spent a good portion of my scholastic experience desperately not wanting to be that person. The whole mindset was, SCREW BEING AN INDIVIDUAL! So what better way (or so I thought at the time) to be one of the popular guys than to participate in an activity which involves guys rolling around on the floor with other guys?
No one who joined the wrestling team including myself had any real idea of what we were getting into. This wasn’t just some afterschool activity we could just do and then go home to do our homework. It involved hours and hours of exercising and practicing moves with names like the half nelson. No matter how hard I tried to concentrate, I could never fully remember which move was which. All I could think about was getting a guy on the ground and pinning him there for 3 seconds. As for a half nelson, all I can tell you about that today is that it was movie which Ryan Gosling got an Oscar nomination for.
Being on the team was exhausting and much more work than anything we could ever have anticipated, and many people dropped out because it had become such a burden. Some from the football team were wrestlers as well, but they found wrestling to be far too much work. They admitted this even after all those hell week stories they had from the first few days of their coach breaking them down. I barely had the energy to do homework when I got home, so you can only imagine how crappy my grades got at that point. Still, despite the taunting of teammates who at times wondered what the hell I wad doing there (I wondered the same thing at times), I stayed with it through the whole run. Quitting at that point seemed a sign of weakness, and I was already sick of feeling so weak and helpless in my life.
Anyway, all of what I just wrote is prologue to what happened at my very first match. I don’t remember the name of the team damn it, but they did not come even close to looking like weaklings. I had spent what felt like every waking moment exercising and practicing moves, and it was beginning to feel like a prison sentence I could never get paroled from. I went into the first match nervous of course, and I didn’t know what to expect. It was okay to lose, and many expected me to fall flat (I don’t blame them).
My first real opponent was this blonde guy who looked almost as harmless as me. Before I headed over to the mat, the whole team came over to me and patted me on the back saying:
“Yeah Ben! Go Ben! You got this guy! You’re the best!”
I don’t care if any of that talk sounds the least bit clichéd to you because it made me feel special and part of something. Freshman year was one of the most frustrating and depressing times of my life as I felt ostracized from just about every fool around me. At that point though, it felt like I belonged and that I had a bunch of guys who were far tougher than me supporting me to the fullest as we yelled out the mascot of our high school:
I get out on the mat, shook hands with my opponent, and the match started. This guy tried to take me down quick but I wouldn’t let him. I quickly tried to get the edge but wasn’t able to. Still, I wasn’t going down easy. The first round ended, and I got the advantage by being on top (don’t get any ideas). The guy never got back up as I got my arm right where I could get him on his back and my body weight would do the rest. The referee (dressed like a zebra like all the others) got down on the mat to see if I had him down, and then he slams down his hand and blew his whistle to indicate the match was done. My teammates jumped up and cheered loud as the unbelievable happened; I won my very first match. My ego which was in the dumps was suddenly elevated to an absurd level, but I didn’t care.
Maybe my opponent was a beginner like me, maybe I got lucky, but I didn’t really care. How many guys out there win their first wrestling match? The team was thrilled, my coaches were thrilled, and I was ecstatic. I earned my place on the team and got my first victory. I live for those moments when the crowd is cheering for me as it raised my spirit up high. Yes, I did feel the love that night.
My older brother was away at college that time, and I called him up to tell him I was victorious. I still vividly remember his reaction over the phone as he was stunned to hear I did so well. Don’t get me wrong, he was thrilled for me, but I figured that he got so used to me not being able to make a basket with even a soccer ball. Just as he was hanging up the phone, I could hear him saying:
“Holy Shit! (click)”
The following week when we had practice again, the coach was congratulating all those that won and giving good notes to those who lost by saying they were learning and growing. One of the other teammates then asked:
“Hey, what about Ben?”
The coach with a smile on his face said:
“Ben? What can I say? He’s a stud!”
Damn right I was!
Anyway, the rest of the season succeeded in bringing me down a number of notches. I think my overall record of that season was about 2 wins in 13 matches. I imagine that’s fairly average for a beginning wrestler. Heck, I’ve heard of other people who lost every single match they were in during their first year. That second win was pretty cool though. It made up for those rounds where I got pinned in less than 30 seconds (sometimes 20).
My career in wrestling ended after that season. Like I said, it was too much work, and I started to feel like I would be enslaved by it. Slowly, I was losing this pending need to fit in and please everybody. When I went into my sophomore year, I got into what I love doing most: acting. I also went from wrestling to doing speech & debate. Quite a switch, but more along the lines of things I wanted to do. This may have relegated me to the realm of freaks and geeks at my high school, but they turned out to be far more interesting than the jocks.
There are a lot of times when I look at my brief time as a wrestler as an embarrassment. I threw myself into it for no other reason than to fit in and hopefully look cool. It probably also won’t surprise you to hear me see that I was a really bad loser and the term “crybaby” crossed everybody’s mind once or twice. But that one moment when I won my first match in the end made it worthwhile. Although I see cross country as more my sport, that moment when I won my very first wrestling match really was my best moment in sports, and I really wouldn’t (and shouldn’t) trade it for anything. That was such an infinitely cool feeling.
One more thing, this also was better than the awards ceremony we had at a Marie Calendar’s restaurant when the season was over. Everybody got these cool plaques with sayings on it, but I got a small metal pin. I stayed with the team the entire season when so many others just dropped out, and this is the best thing they can give me? We all should have gotten purple hearts for surviving it all, especially when our team never won a single meet!