One of the greatest spectacles in high school sports — the Ohio High School Athletic Association Wrestling State Tournaments — are taking place this week in Columbus.
It has been several years since I covered a state wrestling tournament, but back in my days as a regular sports reporter, I covered lots of them.
I enjoyed them all, but actually had a deep appreciation for wrestling before I ever covered a wrestling match. Other than a time or two gym class, I never wrestled in high school. I played basketball and ran track, and figured that running anything from 400 to 1600 meters was about as strenuous as it could get.
But I had never really wrestled until I joined a fraternity in college.
I was a junior then, and three years removed from those track days when I was in pretty decent shape. Still, when I learned that Tau Kappa Epsilon, my fraternity, had won the Morehead State University intramural fraternity wrestling championship for like 11 straight years, and that all new members were expected to wrestle when the season rolled around, I figured that despite being a little out of shape, it surely couldn’t be harder than running until I puked.
We practiced at MSU a couple times, then the one-day tournament rolled around. My first match was a battle. Midway through the third period I was leading 17-13 and we were rolling around on the mat when my opponent started screaming in pain. That ended the match and I was declared the winner.
Since several of my fraternity brothers were big, tough types, I was pretty proud as I walked off the mat. Not only had I won a match for my brothers, I had somehow (to this day I have no idea how) put a hurting on my opponent. And it did not hurt that several pretty coeds were looking on. Yep, I was feeling pretty good about myself, until the adrenaline wore off and someone told me I had another match coming up.
By then I was laying flat on my back, more physically exhausted than I have ever been. In track, it’s mostly your legs and lungs that suffer. In wrestling, it is every inch of your body.
My second match did not last long. I ran into a guy with lots of muscles and wrestling experience, and in about 30 seconds he had me wrapped up like a pretzel to the point that I could not do much more than wiggle my fingers and toes.
That was the end of my foray into the wrestling world until I became a sports writer.
Hillsboro had no doubt its best wrestling teams ever in my early days as a sports writer, including one year when eight Indians qualified for the state tournament. I always enjoyed covering that event. There was one year I stayed overnight in Columbus with the Hillsboro coaches and a couple parents of wrestlers, and many other memorable moments. But there is one memory tops them all.
There were a couple years the state wrestling tournament was held at the Cincinnati Gardens, and one of those years, Hillsboro’s one and only Gerold “Buzzard” Wilkin rode along with me. We had watched some matches and had two or three hours before the next match we were interested in. So, Buzzard asked if I wanted to go get something to drink.
The Cincinnati Gardens was not in the best section of town, and as we started walking away from it, I began to wonder what kind of establishment we were going to find. The pickings were not many, and none of them looked like a place I wanted to enter. Finally, we came upon a long, low building that looked like it should be condemned. Its outside walls were covered with something resembling shingles, there were bars on the windows, and the broken front door was propped open with a broken wooden chair.
I was more than hesitant to go in, and even considered telling Buzzard I’d meet him back at the Gardens. But he said it would be fine, so I took a deep breath and stepped inside.
It was the middle of the afternoon and the place was full. I do not mean to sound biased, though I surely was at the time, because when I saw that there was not a single person in the place with the same color of skin as Buzzard and myself, well, my apprehension rose to a whole new level.
Buzzard was well aware that I was not comfortable, so he walked up to the bar and ordered us both a beer. There were not many places to sit, and Buzzard noticed a back room with a couple pool tables.
“Let’s go play a game,” he said.
I felt a brief sense of relief when I saw both pool tables were occupied. But then, just like it was nothing, Buzzard walked up, slapped some money on a table, and said, “We’ve got the winners.”
The word fear is not strong enough to describe what I was feeling. About that time the game ahead of us ended and the winners invited us to the table.
Other than the fact that if I was an artist I could draw you an exact picture of what that little room looked like, I remember absolutely nothing about the game, or if we played more than one.
To get the point, not a single person in the place said a cross word or even looked at us funny. In fact, they were much more welcoming than those in many places I have visited.
In my formative years, I heard many church lessons about not judging others. But the lesson never really stuck until a day at the state wrestling tournament with Buzzard Wilkin.
Jeff Gilliland is the editor of The Times-Gazette. He can be reached at jgilliland@timesgazette or 937-402-2522.