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Foxcatcher and Wrestling Memory

Having a good book and the time to read is about as good as it gets for me. Thus, Sunday brought near perfection.

Early morning honey-dos transitioned to late morning/early afternoon reading of Foxcatcher: The True Story of My Brother’s Murder, John du Pont’s Madness, and the Quest for Olympic Gold by Mark Schultz and David Thomas. If you follow the movies like I do, you know that the film adaptation of this book will be well represented at the upcoming Academy Awards. Steve Steve is a Best Actor nomination for his depiction of du Pont and Mark Ruffalo is a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his role as Dave Schultz.

Cast and Crew of Foxcatcher at Cannes Cast and crew of “Foxcatcher” at Cannes

Wrestling — the real wrestling — is fascinating. Foxcatcher gives the reader an insider’s look into that world along with ringside seats to a madman in du Pont. Now I’m looking forward to seeing the movie, if I can find a theater that’s showing it.

Anyway, the book triggered a lot of thoughts, mostly about wrestling and some of what I’ve experienced while covering sports.

Thomas Boswell, the well-known Washington Post sports columnist, once wrote about writers “collecting string” during their careers. Meaning the longer a writer goes about his business, the bigger the ball of string of stories collected grows. Foxcatcher allowed me to sort through my personal ball of string to come up with a fond memory.

Mentioned in the book are Dan Gable, Kenny Monday and Bobby Douglas, all wrestling icons. While writing for The Tampa Tribune in August of 1991, I spent the day with all three when the U.S. freestyle wresting team prepped in Tampa for the Pan Am Games.

Monday, who was the reigning Olympic freestyle wrestling champion in the 163-pound division at the time, had created a new wrestling singlet. I referred to him as “Calvin Klein in tights, but rather than denim his creations are in Lycra.”

That proved to be a fun story, but Gable interested me most.

So after the team’s morning workout at the Brandon High School gym, Gable agreed to meet me in the afternoon at the University of Tampa’s Howell Dorm.

Work required sleep, so the fifth floor proved to be a slumber village. The masses supine on mattresses throughout the dorm made up the U.S. freestyle wrestling team. Sleep brought a brief respite before their afternoon workout. Under the sheets in Room 514 with a window unit blowing cool air on him rested the wrestling legend, Gable.

He was 42 at the time and serving as an assistant coach for the team. This was the same guy who inspired a generation of wrestlers during the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich. Wrestling in the 149.5-pound freestyle division, Gable won the gold medal without allowing a point. In the process, he personified everything a wrestler would want to be: Talented, dedicated, and relentlessly driven to be the best.

A theory in sports says the best athletes never make good coaches. Gable proved to be the exception. Somehow he managed to channel his zeal for the sport into the instruction of young wrestlers. In 1976, Gable took over as wrestling coach for the University of Iowa and proceeded to lead his team to excellence, accruing John Wooten-like numbers along the way.

Alas, wrestling is a strange creature. To excel, requires more sacrifice than any sport, yet the sport has historically received far less recognition. Sleeping arrangements in Gable’s room personified that point.

Asleep in the bed across from Gable was Douglas, the coach of Arizona State and the Pan Am wrestling team, and out running errands was U.S. national coach Lee Roy Smith. Three of the finest wrestling coaches in the United States were housed together in stuffed quarters. Picture Bobby Knight sharing a room with Tom Izzo and Mike Krzyzewski. Of course those famed basketball coaches didn’t get into the middle of a scrimmage like these former wrestlers turned coaches did, either.

Gable proved to be one of the more intriguing interviews I’ve experienced. We talked for close to an hour before he finally shut it down. A half an hour of sleep could still be had before the afternoon workout. And, as always, there was much work to be done.

Gable pulled the sheet over his head.

bchastain19@gmail.com

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©2020 by Bill Chastain. Photo credits: Jill Doty Photography