A Saturday of Wrestling in Iowa (Where That Really Means Something)

If you live in Iowa, there’s a pretty good chance that you have at least a small interest in wrestling.

After the crops are in and the temperature drops to near arctic levels, young men and women move their athletic endeavors indoors for basketball and wrestling competition. And the throngs that followed them on the football field follow them into the high school gyms and spend hours cheering on the home team over the course of winter.

Of course, our state’s love affair with wrestling is also enhanced by our history of collegiate wrestling.

If you have had as many trips around the sun as this writer, you can easily remember when Harold Nichols and the Iowa State Cyclones were the cream of the crop. The names of many of those Cyclone wrestlers dot the record books, including one outstanding wrestler named Dan Gable.

Gable, of course, would travel across the state after graduation and take the reins of the Iowa Hawkeyes program, where he would build a dynasty that will, most likely, never be duplicated.

While neither program currently occupies the high-rung level of those years, they are still worth watching.

The Iowa high school wrestling tournament continues to draw record crowds. For three days, wrestlers and fans pack the arena in Des Moines for hours of pageantry, revelry, and some of the best high school wrestling in the  country.

Along with the thousands of fans in the stands, there are a  lot of college coaches looking for the next blue-chip recruits. And, with the wrestle-back bracket format, it is like watching 9 “instant death” matches at a time.

As one who has broadcast hundreds of sporting events, I have no problem ranking the Iowa state tournament as the most exciting event I’ve covered. (The fact that I had a son medal in the tournament probably has something to do with that.)

But, here in a couple of weeks, I will be in the audience for a tournament that I am anticipating more than any other. I am going to watch two grandsons wrestle in a “little kids” tournament.

Most Iowa high schools have such programs. Usually run by volunteers, these programs are for kids that run from 5 years old to junior high age.

Many of the older kids have been in the program long enough that they have started to develop a pretty good package of moves and counters, and it’s neat to see them perform. But my favorites, by far, are the little guys…and sometimes little gals…that are making their trips to the mats very early in their careers. That’s where Carter and Talon, the two grandsons, are entered.

Before the match, these young warriors are concerned about the most important facets of competition.  They’ll want to map out where they get their popcorn and hot dogs between matches, make sure that mom and dad have a bottle of Gatorade at the ready, and find out where their friends are sitting. Then, the announcer calls their name and they head out to one of the mats to meet an equally prepared opponent.

More often than not, these finely tuned grapplers are so skinny that their wrestling singlets hang on them like mumus. And, just prior to the opening whistle, they prove that they have practiced the menacing glare and crouch that they use before the action begins.

They are coiled. They are primed. They are ready. The official starts the match.

And, then, the wrestlers usually stand there.

After a few tense seconds of sizing up their  opponent, one will make the first offensive move and the two will spend the next minute or two rolling on the mat like a pair of playful puppies, both looking intently toward their coach, or their dad, or their mom, to get advice on how to get out of this mess.

Granted, some coaches and parents take this a little too seriously and act like their child is the next Cael Sanderson (the undefeated ISU champion and former Cyclone coach who took his talents to Penn State). But, for the most part, those that guide the wrestlers are content with letting them flop around until one ends up on his or her back and other lands on top of them for the pin.

Then, they will stand together in the middle, shake hands, and one will get their hand raised. At this point, they both head off the mat, looking for that Gatorade and hot dog. They are the happiest people in the building.

Well, except for that grinning Grandfather sitting in the stands.

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