July 4, 2012 by David Gillaspie
Relationships with teams usually ebb and flow with success since no one likes a loser. But it’s different in a relationship to a sport.
If someone loves cricket, don’t get between them and their sport. Same thing with rugby and Australian rules football.
But no sports link is stronger than a bond to wrestling. In a sport that asks so much to be bad or average, it’s no surprise to see the loyalty wrestling draws.
That is what I felt when I heard about Lee Allen’s death, loyalty. His biography defines wrestling above and beyond the call of duty.
If he belongs to the bigger family of wrestling, and he sits at the big table, then he brought his own family with him. Who else goes to two Olympics, once for freestyle, then Greco, when once in a lifetime seems like a miracle? Who else starts a women’s wrestling team where his two daughters win national titles?
If a four time high school champ goes to college and graduates with a degree he might recommend his school to a young wrestler. When that happens it carries enough weight to change a kid’s mind. The strongest gravity pulls harder.
Maybe it’s happened to you.
This is where the problem is. Former wrestlers from schools that quit on wrestling can’t tell high schoolers to follow their path. Lee Allen couldn’t promote University of Oregon wrestling or Portland State Wrestling any more than Larry Owings could aim kids to University of Washington Husky wrestling where they could learn how to ruin a perfect career the way Larry did Dan Gable.
In a way, wrestlers from defunct programs are the orphans of sport. They might be true to their school, but it comes with a touch of bitterness. Athletic administrators praise wrestling, but when the talk drops to budget and sacrifice that’s who hits the door first. But it’s more. Department leaders miss the most important part of wrestling.
They miss the relationship part.
Wrestlers with Lee Allen’s legend create a long tail of influence, a lasting impression. It’s like that with all the greats. I went to Iowa City to win a junior national championship as a high school senior. My third place Greco plaque is nice, but the lasting memory was meeting Dan Gable when he worked out with the Oregon All Star team.
In a similar manner, the young Lee Allen met a kid he cleaned the mats with like Gable did to most everyone. His name was Tony Russo. The place was the Multnomah Athletic Club in Portland, Oregon. The kid was a wrestler out of high school whose top finish was third in state. He kept getting worked over at the MAC, but he kept coming back. And he kept getting better.
The Allen-Russo friendship moved from the wrestling room to tournament matches. From getting stomped, to losing, to losing close matches, Russo improved. A few years passed and the question of why a wrestler as good as Russo wasn’t in college came up.
Another Russo, Tony’s brother Pete, had signed with Arizona State. The coach, Ted Bredehoft, remembered seeing an Allen vs Tony Russo match and invited him to campus. Eventually the Russo brothers both became Sun Devils.
While Tony first worked on his eligibility he wrestled in open tournaments. One featured a match against Lee Allen, that Lee Allen. It was his first win against his mentor. It signaled what was to come. Their story is part of the recent memoir, Wrestling With The Devil.
Would there be a Tony Russo, a teacher with an advanced degree, if there had been no Lee Allen? Would there be a Lee Allen without Oregon Duck wrestling?
This is the long tail mentioned earlier.
It runs from Allen to Russo to multiple individual and team champions from the Newberg Oregon wrestling room. It runs from Allen to Russo to Tony’s nephew Neil who coaches Newberg today.
And it runs to two time state champ Peter Russo III who heads to Stanford in the fall. This is what a wrestling legacy creates, a momentum of excellence beyond sports, maybe beyond reason.
These are the guys colleges miss when they quit wrestling. Harvard gets them. Cornell gets them. So does Stanford. These mentoring schools take the wrestling lead others should follow; they may not win it all each year or any year, but at least you get the guys, the wrestlers and the coaches.
To misquote the poet Dylan Thomas, the force that drives the water through the rock is the same force wrestlers and coaches like the Allens and Russos of the world harness in competition and later give their teams.
Lee Allen played a huge part in keeping Tony Russo on the wrestling mats. When it comes down to getting better or quit, and it always does, having the right guy pushing you makes all the difference.
It’s the force that drives the right decision, the force colleges need when their wrestling teams land on the block. It’s the same force athletes notice after wrestling is over. Suddenly everything else is easier. Can you say that about other relationships?
(posted on oregonsportsnews.com)