Write what you know, they say, which is why I’ve never written about wrestling.
And the only wrestling photo I’d taken before Saturday captured my nephew slamming his little brother to the mat after a meet in December. He got no points for that takedown, but it did make him smile.
Smiles were harder to come by Saturday at the district meet at Knoxville High. My nephew Joe had won more matches than any wrestler in school history, but he narrowly lost his first one Saturday — not without a helluva fight, of course.
Wrestling demands incredible discipline, stamina and perseverance. The physical and mental toughness it takes to outmuscle, outthink and outlast an opponent defies description. Wrestlers also have to grapple with injuries and tough calls by the ref. It’s hard on the ears, what with all those screaming fans, and opponents’ armpits make it hard on the nose.
There’s plenty of sweat and occasional blood, but don’t look too hard for tears. Wrestlers fight them and almost always win.
They’re a stoic bunch. A first-match loss at this level leaves long odds for a second chance. Joe tensed his face and the rest of his body for the task, winning his next match 14-0. It was a fine win, but his last. To get one more match, he needed the guy who’d beaten him earlier to beat the best guy in the state. As Joe left the mat, that other match was going the wrong way. He kept walking.
Of course, the meet was far from over, but it was easy to see this was about more than wins and losses. His little brother was in the stands, but Joe had brothers from other mothers, his teammates, with battles of their own yet to fight.
Joe stood along the gym wall with a thousand-yard stare, four years behind him and three friends in front of him, fighting on the mats for another match. Chase and Coby will go on to the state meet. Cody Ray will join Joe to cheer them on.
On Saturday, the winners dialed down their smiles, their thrill of victory tempered by their friends’ defeats as they stood together. Little was said, but their presence spoke volumes.
In the stands, it was hard to tell whose kids won or lost. Moms, dads, uncles, aunts, grandpas, friends and fans shared tear and smiles. And plenty of hugs — that’s just how this wrestling family rolls.
Another team’s fans were passing out brownies to their wrestlers as the meet wrapped up. One thing I know about wrestlers is that they’ll eat like there’s no tomorrow when the season ends and they don’t need to make weight tomorrow. Nobody wearing black and gold looked hungry for anything Saturday, except maybe for another chance.
Joe stood at the center of the black mat after the meet, visiting quietly with a friend. He had to step aside as someone rolled up that section of the mat. It struck me that I didn’t know this newer mat rolled up that way. I realized I still have a lot to learn about wrestling, and about life.
Make the most of your chances.
Take losses with grace.
Be there for others.
They’ll help you find your smile.