Sunday, April 17, 2016


It's springtime, early evening, and days are getting longer.  Waning sunlight filters through banks of windows on either end of my room, highlighting the slick surface of the mats.  I call this place my room, because I'm the only head wrestling coach it's ever known. 

When they built my room, I didn't like the windows.  I thought they would be a distraction for my guys: on one end, students passing by, stopping to stare; the training room beckoning from just across the foyer, a magnet for guys who would rather be "hurt," than work; parent noses pressed to the glass, enjoying the action–or judging their kid, other people's kids, and coaches.  On the other end, a concession stand, where basketball spectators slip away from the popcorn line to sneak a peek, and wonder at the brutality of that other winter sport.  Mostly, I worried that the windows would remind my guys of the world outside, a world that is relatively sane, a place where people live in comfortable temperatures, work to humane limits, eat what they want, and avoid pain.  A world calling for them, when there is work to do.

For a while I blocked the windows with poster board.  Sunlight still eased past the edges, helping dissipate the dungeon effect, but not entirely.  Then, one day I changed.  I realized I love the sunshine–especially early morning and early evening, washing over my mats, cleansing them.  I removed the poster board.  Seasons with sun came and left, and I grew to appreciate the onlookers beyond the glass, peering in at something they will never understand, with respect.

I've either wrestled or coached for the past 45 years.  I've been in hundreds of rooms.  My wrestling journey has taken me to a handful that I called home.  My first, at Los Alamitos High School in California, was a multi-purpose room, shared with everyone.  We had a stiff, wrinkled, one-section mat that we unrolled and rolled up (folded, is more precise) daily.  There were no wall mats, and one corner of the room had what passed for a weight room back then, a multi-station Universal Gym.  I learned very early that a nice room has very little to do with how good a wrestler decides to become.

I graduated and moved to the room at Cypress College in Orange County.  Again we shared, this time with gymnastics and PE classes, but we had an organized coach from Pennsylvania, Ray Haas, who taught us solid wrestling.  I watched Ray diligently clean the mats every day, using a push broom and towel soaked in solution.  I remember thinking, "Wow, this whole thing is important to him."

After Cypress, I transferred to UNLV, for the inaugural Runnin' Rebel wrestling season.  The room was small, but our own, fully wall-matted and ready to go.  NCAA Champion Bill Murdock from Washington was our assistant coach.  Bill was at my weight, so we wrestled daily, and he usually won every position.  I rarely scored, but one day I managed to ride him for over a minute.  He grinned, grabbed a pencil, and wrote on a piece of wood trim above a wall mat: Today, Craig Foster rode Bill Murdock for one minute.  Many years later, long after the program had been dropped, I made a pilgrimage back to the room while on a family trip to Vegas.  The room had become an aerobics studio, but there, on the wood trim, I could still make out Bill's writing.  He died in a motor vehicle accident not long after coaching us.

Las Vegas wasn't a good fit for a young hooligan, so I found my way to Eastern Washington University, first as a wrestler, and later, as the coach.  The room was red–red mats, red wall mats, and red names of All-Americans on the wall.  It was my first room that felt like a real wrestling facility–two mats, fully padded walls, cleaned by the athletic department staff.  I arrived in spring, and that summer before my senior year, I scrounged for training partners.  One day my coach–former National Team member Stan Opp–told me, "There's a guy here from out of town for a few weeks.  He wants to train with someone."  The guy was NCAA All-American Dave Allen, from Iowa State.  We wrestled, lifted, hit the town in the evenings, and became friends.  I was taking a summer sports history class, and Dave agreed to help me re-enact a legendary Olympic match involving Milon of Croton.  We rehearsed in the room, and one day, in front of a class of college kids, we transformed into ancient Greek wrestlers wearing togas (naked and covered in olive oil would have been a little too historically accurate), and threw each other in the dirt outside the athletic facility.  Eventually summer ended, Dave returned to Iowa, and that winter I got my red name on the wall.

I found my first teaching job in Oklahoma, where I became the assistant coach at Shawnee High School.  I worked under head coach Mark Leen, who would go on to win National High School Coach of the Year, and father future NCAA Champion Jordan Leen.  I remained there for just a year, but I clearly remember one practice when Mark and I divided the kids into two teams, and ran a mock dual between the "USA" and "RUSSIA."  Colorful, future state champion Shawn Davis, competing for team "USA," pinned his opponent, sprung to his feet and shouted, "Take THAT, Hitla!"  Mark and I collapsed onto the mats of that tiny room, laughing and cracking jokes about a Shawnee education.

The next year, I became the head wrestling coach in the neighboring town of McLoud, Oklahoma.  I was hired by wrestling-fanatic Athletic Director Warren Boles, who was old school before old school was cool.  We didn't have our own room, so one day in the fall, Warren said, "How about you use the two old classrooms above the elementary gym?"  He gave me an open account at the local hardware store, and I went to work–with no building experience, no permits, no inspections, no help, and few tools.  I learned to use a masonry blade by cutting out a cinderblock wall between the two classrooms, with no concept of load bearing or safety.  I needed a hole, so I made one.  I drove to Oklahoma City and purchased dense foam, vinyl and a staple gun, and fashioned homemade wall mats for the entire perimeter.  To an outsider, the finished product must have been hideous, but to me, my team and Warren, it was beautiful.

After a year at McLoud, I returned to my room at Eastern Washington, and trained for the Olympic Trials.  In hindsight, I had no chance at the Trials, but I trained as if I did, flew to Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa, and competed.  Dan Severn ended my dream.

I spent several seasons coaching in the Eastern room, but eventually left for upstate New York, where I took a dream job as head wrestling coach and fitness center director at S.U.N.Y Delhi.  I had an office upstairs, and just downstairs was the fitness center, and adjacent wrestling room.  I told the AD, Gary Cole, that I was an experienced wall mat technician, and he allowed me to reproduce my efforts from McLoud.  I worked alone through Thanksgiving break in the deserted Delhi Tech athletic complex, 3000 miles from my Washington home.  I finished the mats, and coached two seasons in that room, before returning home to marry my girlfriend, and become the head coach at Blaine High School.
I spent my first 11 years in Blaine's old room, with its cinderblock walls, orange, hand-painted state placer names, and decades of tradition.  For the past 14, I've been in my room, where ultra-high ceilings create echoes when I teach skills, or yell at someone for lying on his stomach–and not fighting.  Pull-up bars, ropes, and a row of single words line the walls:  RESPECT.  LOVE.  COMMIT . . .

Sometimes I come to my room in the mornings, before school starts.  I leave the lights off, but early natural sunlight seeps in.  It's dark enough to feel hidden, but light enough to see.  It's quiet.  I move about, picking up a forgotten headgear, cleaning a table with a Clorox wipe, collecting towels and mop heads to wash.  I invent things to do, because I love being here.  It's peaceful.

At some point I drop to my knees on the soft mat, close my eyes, and just breathe.  For an instant, I wonder what passing students think, but I don't really care.  I'm in the most comfortable place on earth.

A furnace kicks on, and air rumbles through exposed ceiling ducts.  I open my eyes, and emerge from a trance.  I peak up at the boards featuring the names of our state placers.  The medals and the years are listed, but I could care less.  I see only names of kids I love.  College graduates and laborers.  Airmen and Marines, Sailors and Soldiers.  Carpenters and prisoners, teachers, pilots, and addicts.  Entrepreneurs and homeless, and some no longer with us.  Kids from the right side, and the wrong side of the tracks.  Hundreds of others never made the wall, but submitted to this room's demands and called it home, just the same.  Here, cut off from mommy and daddy, electronic devices, and the world, they all suffered and became men.  They were equals here, and no matter their position today, they still are.

Absently, I daydream across the vacant mats in the almost-dark, and I can see a takedown in progress.  I hear grunts and other quiet sounds of brutal work.  Across the room, a phantom wrestler climbs a rope, hand over hand over hand.  Nearby, an elbow dislocates.  I watch sprints, and see a boy slip in a pool of sweat, sprain his knee, and finish the work.  I see push-ups and sprawls, and blood, everywhere.  I watch a fistfight between best friends, and later, a hug.  I hold a senior, brought to tears following his very last practice, after 10 years in my room.

My room, and every wrestling room, holds a thousand stories of work, and sacrifice, and love.  Only those who have lived in these rooms will understand.  

I have to say, I love my room.  I will continue to come here alone, whenever I have the chance.  It is home.



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  3. Once again, thank you for taking me through your journey! What gifts you have, coaching and writing. Thank you for sharing both with so many.

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