July 22, 2009 by David Gillaspie
Car accidents send a wave of emotion across family and friends and anyone reading the news. Some attain iconic status. James Dean. Steve Prefontaine. Rick Sanders.
One is a Hollywood actor killed in a Speedster, the other a speedy sports star killed in a sports car. Rick Sanders hitchhikes through Yugoslavia and gets into the wrong car.
A teammate and I made plans after hearing about it. We would hitchhike to Iowa and win wrestling plaques the size of stop signs. We’d do it Rick Sanders-style.
A little research revealed how it had to happen. Our parents wouldn’t want us hitchhiking. Who would? So we didn’t tell them. They would think we were with the Oregon All-Stars wrestling team Abraham put together for the nationals.
One problem, we needed state championships to qualify. I’d already traveled from the coast of Oregon to Oklahoma to get beat twice and come home. I’d been to Colorado for fourth place in a national freestyle that isn’t recorded anywhere. I have to be a state champion for Iowa? He made it sound like everyone there was a wrestling champ. I learned later they were angy if they weren’t.
By luck and fluke I won the 190 pound Oregon greco title in ’73. My buddy did well enough to make the team. We grew Rick Sanders hair and hit the road.
Before I left I told my Dad the plan, man to man. If he said no, I wouldn’t have gone, but it still seemed man to man. I said I had the number of my Iowa family when I got there. I’d call him when I could in between. Cell coverage wasn’t very good. We hugged and shook hands. I could tell he didn’t like it. I could also tell he wasn’t worried about my safety. I was a wrestler traveling with a wrestler cutting weight. What could go wrong?
We spent the first night swarmed in bugs at a KOA, the next night stranded in Boise and even more bugs. A nice policeman gives us a ride to the city limits on the east end of town. We told him we were wrestlers on a mission. He was a wrestler. He thought we were criminals at first. Who else is waundering around lost at three in the morning.
We show up in Iowa exhausted and call the family we would stay with. They pick us up off the freeway and act like we’re right on time for their evening plans. Without cleaning up we hit the drive-in triple bill. The next morning we got hustled down to the school to weigh-in for a local freestyle tournament. We wanted to sleep.
To say we lost isn’t enough. We wrestled like zombies, like we’d never been on the mat before. We had enough to avoid pins, but not enough to avoid embarrassing scores. In those days you could lose 33-2. I can tell you it’s worse than it sounds. The guy asked if I was really a state champ. He said he’d look for me up in the stands at nationals.
The Oregon All-Stars showed up the next day in a van and a Land Cruiser. We spent the next month facing teams of Illinois all-stars and working out, staying with families like a Cultural Exchange trip. Japan. New Zealand. South Africa. Brazil. Chicago? It was a different sort of exchange, a trip for triple crown guys who’d been on every trip available. Roy Palm, Kevin Kramer, Larry Bielenberg. Those were the guys on the traveling team.
Barnstorming through Illinois brought out thoughtful social invitations. Their coaches invite us to the outdoor swimming pools in the Midwestern sun before our matches; our coaches don’t fall for it, using good visitors’ manners and saying we’d love to tomorrow.
We started out looking for Rick Sanders and found the road, a country four lanes wide. Every ride an adventure, every driver quirky, every day closer to the nationals and erasing 33-2.
O’ I had plenty to do in Iowa.
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