October 19, 2011 by David Gillaspie
Wrestling greats tell a comforting story.
No matter how dire the circumstances, they’re still wrestlers. No matter how much adversity they face on and off the mat, they’re still wrestlers.
But that’s not enough.
Dan Gable leads in both adversity and triumph. His story gives you hope. His legend is well known from his early years to now. If you follow his museum on Facebook you’ll see a video interview giving his opinion of saunas.
Even that has a familiar intensity.
While John Smith didn’t ride an undefeated record through college, he caught up after his redshirt year and bent the wrestling world his way. He didn’t run the table on team championships with his Cowboys the way Gable did with Iowa, but he got a load of them.
If teams you coach hold the record for wins at your school, you’re doing something right.
Then there’s Cael.
His legend grows with each new challenge, as if he hasn’t had enough. Undefeated college career, Olympic champ, and college coach at his alma mater. He jumps to Penn State to win his first national championship and feels so good about it he returns to the mats after seven years out.
After that national championship and fifth in the world, what’s next for him?
Let’s hope it’s not a book diving into his secret life. Better yet, how about no book from any of the three that lower the bar they’ve raised so high.
Legends have a particular mythology you buy into. When the story changes, so do the accomplishments; the memories aren’t so memorable.
Two examples from other sports bear this out. Neither are wrestler stories.
One man is The Logo of the NBA, Jerry West.
Another man has the NFL Man of the Year trophy named for him, Walter Payton.
Both men are champions in their sport, guys who glowed in the bright light of fame.
Mr. West wrote a book, West By West, with a co-writer. Mr. Payton’s book, Sweetness, was written by a biographer. Both stories strive to show the human side of the lives they portray.
Jerry West, Hall of Fame LA Laker from West Virginia, struggles with self-esteem and depression. His nickname was Mr. Clutch. Dan Patrick interviewed him on his radio show, asking about self-esteem and depression. Mr. West answered clearly. He said his father beat on him. After laying hands on West’s younger sister, Jerry told his dad he’d kill him if he ever did it again.
As an eleven year old, he kept a loaded shotgun under his bed.
Walter Payton took another branch in the road. The man named Sweetness wasn’t as sweet as he sounded, and no one is better off knowing it.
The lives of great athletes laid bare take away a certain innocence from their fans, from all sports fans. When they achieve their greatest goals, don’t we want to believe they did it the right way? Didn’t they win because they were good guys who treated others fairly, who held family and faith higher than doubt and pain killers?
This season, after you condition and lift and drill your way toward your goals, find someone who takes shortcuts and ask how they feel about their success. Compare what they say with your feelings about your success.
If the other guy wins and wins and keeps winning, but you know he’s got a dark side, it’ll come out. Who knew the Jerry West and Walter Payton revelations would be so hard to hear?
Let’s hope Gable and Smith and Sanderson have a better handle on their lives.
You might hear bad things about other sports, but it’s worse when it’s wrestling. Keep this in mind when you see a shortcut and think, “Who will ever know?”
You will, and that’s enough.