Wrestling has been on my mind lately. ESPN broadcast the NCAA Division 1 wrestling championships last weekend. The Star published its all-star wrestling team last week. And the 10-year-old who frequently appears in his mother’s column in Sunday Life recently took up the sport.
I’m quite enjoying the experience.
My son attends East Alabama Wrestling Club in Anniston. Its coach is former Oxford High champion Eric Lee, who is one of the finest youth sports coaches I’ve ever seen. Eric’s club includes everything from grade school kids just learning the ropes to high school wrestlers honing their skills in hopes of winning a big title.
Watching practices, I’ve realized that wrestling is a great equalizer. In football-obsessed Alabama, the top linemen are 6-foot-4 or taller and weigh more than 250 pounds. Even in the skill positions, where size is less important, the backs and receivers usually weigh 200 pounds or more. Wrestling, however, is a sport for athletes who don’t (and can’t) tip the scales at 200.
Size doesn’t matter in wrestling. There’s a place for high school wrestlers of all sizes, even those who are just a shade over 100 pounds. Wrestling by weight classes ensures that competitors are evenly matched. The test, thus, is more than raw, brute strength; it requires balance, conditioning, mental preparation, agility, strategy and discipline.
John Irving, author of The Cider House Rules and The World According to Garp, started wrestling when he was 14. As a novelist, he has worked the sport into several of his works. Of the sport, he has written, “I think the discipline of wrestling has given me the discipline I have to write.”
Though I doubt the young wrestlers at the Anniston wrestling club have considered it, wrestlers such as Irving are proof that skills developed on the mat can be exported beyond it.
Which brings me to Paul Wellstone.
Wellstone was a 5-foot-5 high school student who was struggling with his grades when he discovered wrestling at his suburban D.C. high school. Two things quickly followed: Wellstone’s grades soared, and he found a sport that his short and muscular frame was literally built for, according to his biographer, Bill Lofy.
“Wrestling had a profound and enduring impact on Wellstone’s life,” Lofy writes in Paul Wellstone: The Life of a Passionate Progressive. “He reveled in the grittiness of the sport and its lack of pretension and felt at home in the world of wrestling.”
After high school, Wellstone wrestled at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, where he went undefeated in two seasons of competition, winning a conference title in his sophomore year. Then Wellstone left the sport behind to concentrate on finishing college in three years. He went on to earn a Ph.D. in political science.
In the late 1980s, Wellstone was a college professor and an established activist in Minnesota when he decided to set a big goal for himself — the U.S. Senate. Despite facing an incumbent and being outspent 7-to-1, Wellstone, a Democrat, was elected in 1990 thanks to a massive grassroots effort.
Lofy ties the political and the wrestling together, writing, “It was during his years as a wrestler that Wellstone began demonstrating a trait that would reappear throughout his life: an ability to come from behind and win. He enjoyed being the underdog and studied his opponents’ strengths as carefully as their weaknesses.”
Once in office, Sen. Wellstone set out to pursue a progressive agenda. He was fond of a Franklin Delano Roosevelt quote, “The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.”
Over two terms in the Senate, Wellstone set out to pass FDR’s test.
He was seeking a third term when he was killed in a plane crash in 2002. This October will mark the 10th anniversary of the crash that killed the senator, his wife and one of his daughters.
“You see, you couldn’t meet Paul Wellstone and not be drawn to him. He was so engaging,” wrote one of his friends from North Carolina at the time of the senator’s death. “[H]e never savaged anyone personally for their beliefs, a pleasant view in today’s world of attack politics.”
Wellstone respected his opponents, and never forgot about the other underdogs.
Bob Davis is editor of The Anniston Star. Contact him at 256-235-3540 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: twitter.com/EditorBobDavis.