December 21, 2011 by David Gillaspie
by David Gillaspie
(written for http://www.oregonsportsnews.com/)
A dark and cold winter makes warm well-lit indoor spaces all the more attractive. Instead of clouds and rain, we seek a clear, dry, place.
Warm, well-lit, clear and dry?
This sounds like an ideal place for a wrestling match, and Oregon has had many of them. Two Oregon wrestlers belong in the company of the state’s greatest athletes.
Sports fans usually think of the midwest and eastern states when they think of wrestling. They expect battle tested athletes to emerge from the barren landscapes of Iowa and Oklahoma, from New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
You find the same guys in Oregon wrestling rooms. Athletes from coastal towns like North Bend, from inland cities like Roseburg, and farm towns like Hermiston all rode the wrestling bus to places bigger than they started from. Wrestling loves rural roots. It’s an odd twist that the two who rode it to the first World Championships in American wrestling history both came from Oregon’s biggest city.
While most casual sports fans attribute regional manual labor for successful wrestlers, it doesn’t always hold up. Roseburg wrestlers aren’t always the strongest because they’re loggers in the off-season anymore than Hermiston guys get strong from working the fields, or North Bend wrestlers from pulling crab rings.
Iowa wrestlers might be strong from pushing pig carcasses in a slaughter house. Oklahoma strength might come from bulldogging steers. Wrestlers from Portland, Oregon don’t have those advantages. Kids from Lincoln High and Marshall High took a different track, one that led to world titles.
Rick Sanders took the wrestling bus from Lincoln High School to Portland State University, then to Mar del Plata, Argentina when he became the first World Champion wrestler from America. Fred Fozzard rode the bus from Marshall to Oklahoma State University to Argentina with Rick Sanders. He became the second American World Champion only because Sanders was a lighter weight and wrestled first.
Sports fans might wonder if the two men from Oregon would have been good enough to compete at traditional wrestling schools. Mr. Fozzard answered the question by attending Oklahoma State after winning two Oregon high school championships. As an OSU Cowboy, Fozzard was a three-time all-American with one national championship medal in 1967. He accomplished this with one arm, carrying the effects of childhood polio in the other.
Imagine winning big in a sport that requires extreme gripping strength and you only have one-handed grip.
Fred Fozzard proved he could roll with the big boys. NCAA Championship Wrestling history lists Oklahoma State as the Division I team winner thirty-four times. It doesn’t get much bigger. And he wasn’t finished.
A close inspection of the record from the 1969 World Wrestling Championships show Fozzard as the gold medalist with no medals awarded to second or third place. During a later interview Fozzard refers to a behind-the-scenes deal for cheating, for trying to throw matches by other countries so their wrestlers could move up. Once the dirty dealing came to light, tournament officials paid special attention to the 180.5 weight class and the right guy won.
Rick Sanders at Portland State University poses a different question. Why didn’t he attend a traditional power program instead of PSU? Wouldn’t a better wrestling school make him a better wrestler?
Following three state championships while a Lincoln High student, including 1963 when he and Fred Fozzard were both champions, Sanders walked across the street to his college. Would he turn out to be a high school wonder and burn out, or would he have more in the tank?
The answer came right after graduation.
In 1963 Sanders attended a training camp aimed toward the ’64 Tokyo Olympics where he worked out with a youngster named Dan Gable. His Oregon Sports Hall of Fame citation credits him with beating Gable 6-0 in a match, the only time Gable failed to score. While any link to Dan Gable is impressive, if their match was in ’63, Gable would have been a high school freshman to Sanders’ graduated senior status. Good timing for our man.
As Portland State grew, Rick Sanders blazed a trail no one will ever follow. He finished his college career as the only wrestler to win titles at every level from NAIA, NCAA Division II, and NCAA Division I while being named outstanding wrestler in each. In another odd coincidence, he and Fred Fozzard were both college national champions in 1967.
Besides collegiate wrestling, Sanders was committed to freestyle wrestling on the international stage. He climbed the ladder to the top of the podium, finishing third in the world in ’66, second in ’67, an Olympic silver medal for second place in the ’68 Mexico City Games, then his World Championship gold in ’69 where Fozzard again joined him as one of the best.
Rick Sanders’ wrestling career ended with a silver medal at the ’72 Munich games. After the Olympics Sanders decided to hitchhike through Europe the way he traveled America. He died in an auto accident at 27.
From all accounts, Rick Sanders was a free-spirited wanderer blessed with more athletic skills than an entire league of basketball players. His methods may have run counter to the greats of his sport, but he led from the front and didn’t look back. With beard and long hair, he seemed to have more in common with others who passed away early.
Those who died at the same age in the ’70’s include Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Duane Allman, and Jim Morrison. More telling is blues great Robert Johnson who died 1938 and was suspected of trading his soul for greatness.
The twenty seven year old Johnson’s song titles could be Rick Sanders’ biography.
Cross Road Blues:
Standin‘ at the crossroad, I tried to flag a ride
Standin’ at the crossroad, I tried to flag a ride
Didn’t nobody seem to know me, everybody pass me by
I woke up this morning, people, I looked ’round for my shoes
You know I had those mean old walking blues
Yeah, I woke up this morning I looked ’round for my shoes
Yeah, you know I had those, ooh, mean old walking blues
And, Hellhound On My Trail
Gotta keep movin‘
Gotta keep movin‘
Hellhound on my trail
Hellhound on my trail
Rick Sanders was poetry in motion to watch. He moved with a free form style of the moment instead of memorized repetition, then disappeared into the mythology of sports too early, leaving bits and pieces for others to pick up and use.
That’s the way of the greats. Their legends never die.