Bill Miller spoke at a Captain’s Club meeting a few weeks ago. Having been my wrestling coach over forty years ago, Bill enjoys a special niche in my memory. I was lucky enough to have a few minutes’ conversation with him after the meeting, and it was lovely catching up. We shook hands, even hugged, and exchanged the typical “How are your kids?” questions and eventually wished each other a sincere farewell. We spent no time reliving the good old days.
Which is remarkable, particularly when it comes to the sport of wrestling. Of all the sports we undertake here, I think wrestling creates the strongest, most unbreakable bond between coaches, especially those who no longer spend their time on the mat. Of course there are contenders for that honor like baseball and lacrosse – actually, I think lacrosse finishes a close second – but when you put two former wrestling coaches together they simply cannot resist talking about this incident or that from their days in singlets. Make it three or four coaches, and at that precise instant the rest of the world will cease to be relevant to them.
I am not being critical here. You want every coach to be passionate about his sport, and there is a collegiality among former coaches that is generally positive. But it tickles me how inevitably grapplers will engage in remembrances of things past (forgive me, Monsieur Proust) when they sit and talk with each other.
Wrestling, I think, produces those connections for the same reason that it is not as popular with the students as it might once have been. That is, wrestling is without doubt the most intimate of sports. It is based entirely on the skill of physically manipulating another person’s body. As such, it requires the most constant and intentional skin-on-skin contact. Many boys in young adolescence these days will react to that fundamental fact with “Eeeewwww!” To work out on the mat with a classmate practice after practice is to get to know that person very well. Wrestling is also completely dependent on aggression as a motivator. The kind of gentleman that would rise to the level of a wrestling coach has somewhere in him a ferocity that when met with equal and opposing ferocity gives rise to respect and friendship.
I wrestled my junior and senior years here because, at least initially, Mr. Massey told me to. I was helpless as a basketball player and had no desire to play soccer slogging around in the mud on 35-degree afternoons. (Yes, soccer was a winter sport lo, those many years ago.) And when Mr. Massey informed me one November day that we were short one heavyweight and that I had been nominated for the post, my response was, “Yes sir.” In 1969 one simply could not say “no” to Mr. Massey.
Coach Miller welcomed my arrival on what was the third or fourth day of practice without ceremony. He then made the next three or four weeks a living hell. In addition to getting me into wrestling shape, he understood that I might be at actual physical risk. You see, “heavyweight” was in those days called “Unlimited.” My second match was against a young man from St. Christopher’s who weighed in well above the 300 lb. mark, and it ended poorly—at least for me. After 50 or 60 seconds of submergence and the consequent pin, I could not help but detect a smile on Coach Miller’s face as I dragged my flattened self back to the bench. I asked him what was so funny, and he said that I had made the sound of air being squeezed out of giant bellows. I saw nothing remotely funny at the time.
See? There I go. Forty-odd years later I remember that moment as clear as crystal and cannot help retelling it. I think that’s because in the weeks and months and years after that moment Coach Miller pushed me beyond that which I thought I was capable of. I can remember sitting on the locker room bench after one particularly grueling practice, unable to rise to my feet and wondering why on earth I was permitting this sort of foolishness to continue. But you know what? I can also remember walking out to my car twenty minutes later in the cold dark of a winter evening feeling strong and full and very happy.
The image of some present senior shaking hands or even hugging a 70-year-old Coach Runzo decades from now fills me with delight. I wish more of our guys could have that to look forward to.
Great seeing you, Coach Miller.