Friday, June 20, 2014

TWINKLE-TOES

 

Mikey takes the mat.  He skips and hops and paces deliberately, back and forth, to and fro.  He's light on his feet, and ridiculously graceful, a 260-pound, spandex-clad ballerina on a mission.  Despite the size of the moment, and the fact that I've coached Mikey in well over 100 wrestling matches, his movements strike my funny-bone for an instant.  Twinkle-Toes.
 
I can't settle down enough to sit in my chair, so I pace behind it.  The pressure in the Tacoma Dome is stifling, heavy, crushing.  My feet are cement blocks, my quads laboring to move them.  I've felt this pressure in every championship final I've coached, but only once before has it felt like this.

Twenty-one years ago, another exceptional young man is in the state finals.  Our team trails by a few points.  If Lathen wins, we win.  He leads into the third period, when an unlikely desperation move suddenly ends the match.  Lathen bounces up, wondering what happened.  I can't control my body.  My knees buckle.  My gut churns.  I taste bile, and I crawl around on the floor behind my chair.  He lost, and I couldn’t stop it.

In my mind, Lathen's heartbreaking moment has resurfaced, an old wound freshly ripped open.  The memory heaps even more pressure on Mikey's moment.  The decades between these bookend points have been filled with commitment, and discipline, and persistent unrewarded effort by many, to reach the top.  Now, one precious six-minute opportunity presents itself, a generation in the making.  State finals.  Our team trails by 2.5 points.  If Mikey wins, we win.

Mikey, the underdog, shakes hands with the guy trying to crush our dreams.  The PA announcer is white noise, failing to cut through the dense pressure, but one item claws its way into my consciousness:  "27 and 1."  Dream Crusher's record.  The pit of my stomach aches as I pace stiffly behind my chair.  All I can think is 27 and 1, but my wingman, Coach Rasar, whispers calmly, "Mikey's gonna win."  Coach sometimes knows things that I don't know, and I don't know how he can know Mikey's gonna win, but it calms me a little.  Then I remember that Dream Crusher crushed a guy's dream in the semifinals, the same guy who dismantled Mikey twice this season.  I am no longer a little calm.  I still can't settle into my chair, so I continue to drag my cement blocks in circles behind it.

The whistle blows and it begins.  I've coached Mikey for four years.  I understand his strengths.  I know his weaknesses.  I'm aware of his mental hang-ups.  I know everything there is to know about Mikey's game, but when the whistle blows, I feel powerless.  As they say in the business, the hay is in the barn.  Lathen's lesson reminds me that anything can happen at any time, and there is little I can do about it.  The pressure of this particular moment makes me feel especially useless.  I want to cover my eyes and peek through my fingers, but I resolve to do what I can to help.  Still, the hard truth: Mikey is on his own.

Dream Crusher and Mikey bang on each other.  Late in the first round, Mikey scores.  In the second, he scores again.  Then he gives up a penalty point.  Despite his lead, the single unnecessary point feels like a dagger.

The second period winds down, and the pressure builds, as one of my few opportunities to make a difference approaches.  It will be Mikey's choice to start the third round.  Top, bottom, or neutral?  I've made this decision a thousand times, and it mostly works out for the best.  But not always.

The smart money calls for Mikey to pick down.  Get his escape and build his lead.  But I know Dream Crusher is tough on top.  I saw him turn his rugged opponent several times for back points in the semifinals, the same opponent who has beaten Mikey twice.  In my heart I know the correct call, but for reassurance, I ask Coach Rasar what he thinks.  "Have him take down," he says.

Round two ends with Mikey up 4-1.  He looks at me for a decision.  I muster my most confident body language, and forcefully stab my thumb toward the floor.  "Take down!" I shout.  Then, "Get your butt out of there!"  Mikey picks down.  He gets his butt out in 10 seconds, and I know we are on the verge, but I hold my breath.  I've been here before.

Thirty seconds pass.  Then a minute.  I clutch the back of my chair.  With 30 seconds left, Mikey leads, 5-1.  Somebody twists a Tacoma Dome valve, and pressure surges out.  I can almost hear it hissing in a thin, powerful stream.  The clock winds down, and my feet are lighter by the second, as cement crumbles and falls away.  Twenty seconds to go, and a chant swells in my ears:  "Mikey . . . MIKEY . . . MIKEY! . . ."  Hair stands on my neck, and my arms shiver all the way to my fingertips.

Ten seconds.  I inhale deeply and forget to exhale.  Five . . . four . . . three . . . and for the second time in my career, I can't control my body.  My feet won't stay on the floor.  I'm too reserved to dance with my wife, but now I twirl and leap in front of thousands.  I am Twinkle-Toes.

The final whistle blows.  Coach Rasar pumps my hand, and says, "Two old farts got it done."  The next instant, I am airborne, landing in the arms of another assistant––the stoic, 300-pound Coach Fakkema, who has likely never held a man aloft, straddling his stomach.  What would be entirely awkward in any other moment, isn’t now.

Coach Fak sets me down, and I float over to Mikey, who is grinning his familiar boyish grin, and crying.


Thursday, June 19, 2014

TOURNAMENT MORNING



Too early for bright lights, so I turn on only one switch in the locker room.  My wrestlers file in.  One here, a couple there.  Groggy faces, tousled hair.  Shoulders wrapped in sleeping bags, prepared for the always-cold bus ride.  One, 17 years old, snuggles into his tired Winnie the Pooh blanket. 

The guys strip down and line up to check weight.  A few, relieved, grin and brag about how far under they are.  One looks stressed.  I ask, “How much?”  “Point-eight," he growls.  There is always one. 

Nothing more needs to be said.  Point-Eight shuffles to his locker and bundles up in heavy sweat gear.  He makes his way through dark hallways to the darker gym, where darker doesn’t matter.  He knows the gym.  He’s run it a thousand times, and could run it with his eyes closed.  A teammate follows him, prepared to push him when he can no longer push himself. 

He sprints, back and forth, back and forth. He’s dehydrated, and knows he’ll have to run hard and long to break that final stubborn sweat.  He does the work.  After 20 or so down and backs, his teammate feels the forehead inside his hoody.  Wet, a good sign.  The teammate says, “Good, now keep it flowing.  Bus leaves in ten and your sweat needs to flow until you climb in your seat.”

Back at the scale, my heavyweight is way under weight, and checking weight is unnecessary.  He checks anyway.  He wants to be like everyone else, but he’s not like everyone else.  He had dinner last night.  He checks, grins, does a little heavyweight dance, and belts out, “30 pounds under!”  One extra-lean teammate swears at him.  I’m OK with the bad language.  They love each other.

On the bus now, checking off an attendance list of 20 guys.  Ten minutes past departure time, and there are 19 check marks.  There is always one.  Sometimes a train hold-up, so they say.  Sometimes a faulty alarm, so they say.  The truth is, they are adolescent boys who love to sleep.  I’m getting angry, but check myself.  Then I smile.  I’ve been doing this a long, long time, and there is always one.  There was one 34 years ago when I began coaching, and there is one now.  I use the wait-time to talk to the guys on the bus.  “You all have your headgear?”  They nod, sleepily.  “Singlets?”  They nod again.  “Shoes?”  Suddenly a senior jumps up and rushes past me, off the bus.  Some things don’t get better with experience.

Speeding headlights enter the parking lot and race to a stop.  Late Kid bolts from the car and scrambles onto the bus.  As he passes me, our eyes lock.  I don’t smile, and neither does he.  I don’t want an excuse and he knows it, so none is given.  It is what it is.

I say, “You got all your gear?”  He nods.  “You gonna check weight?”  He shakes his head.  I don’t like it, but it’s on him.  He’s late, so we’re late, and we need to go.  Besides, I know he’ll make weight.  He’s never missed.

The yellow school bus pulls out carrying 20 sleepy teenage bad-asses, and once more, I smile.  We’ve connected all the dots so far. 

I love tournament morning.