A moment of clarity: What does your college wrestling program mean to you?
I’ll preface this by saying I am very proud to walk into my office each day and see a degree from Old Dominion University placed on the wall. It’s no big secret to people within our sport that I attended school there for seven years (hold the Van Wilder jokes until the end). People bring it up frequently, and like any alum, I’m proud of my school.
I had a gutcheck a short time ago. A moment of clarity, if you will. I really don’t like to write about the ODU program much anymore, because, as most of you might guess, my opinions could be viewed as biased towards my particular alma mater. I’ve always made sure my coverage was down the line and fair, equitable and most of all, professional.
But in responding to a post on the CAAZone, a message board for fans of Colonial Athletic Association teams, I took a moment to think about what that program has meant to me and has done for me as an individual, a friend, a writer, and a broadcaster.
Honestly, I really want all our fans, fans of wrestling, to read this.
I posted a link from The Virginian-Pilot and then replied to “DABIGBLUE,” a username based off the mascot, Big Blue, who simply said:
Thanks, Good story. I like the way you feel the aggressiveness and the drive of the team. We sometimes forget that we have two nationally ranked teams going into the Winter sports.
It got me thinking, everyone has a story in our sport. We have great storytellers, we have great storylines, we have great people. We have some not-so-great people too, but EVERYONE who is involved in wrestling has a reason why. They have reasons on WHY they are who they are and how wrestling factors into it.
When you read Jim Brown’s weekly blogs, you feel his excitement about wrestling jumping off the screen. You can hear his words. You can feel that passion for wrestling. Jim simply states, he’s “just” a wrestling fan.
When you’re in the media, you’re not supposed to be a fan. But my fellow writers, broadcasters and journalists are in this sport for a reason, one you cannot put true finality on. Early on, my reason was simply “because I like it.” But wrestling has meant so much to me.
What makes Tim Johnson passionate about wrestling? He’s a fan. What makes Mike Finn so descriptive? He’s a fan. What makes the message boards so volatile? We’re fans. I don’t think you can work in this sport and NOT be a fan.
You might not agree with me on some of my opinions, columns, blogs or message board conjecture, but I think you all can agree that those of us who are passionate about the sport, know why, but it might not be really easy to write down.
In responding to a simple post on a message board, I felt compelled to share my story on what an impact a college wrestling program can have on someone’s life. I never competed on the college mats, other than two intramural appearances (yes, we had tournaments!), but my life was surrounded by wrestling and has been for nearly half my life. Many out there have been involved in this sport since they were tikes, I wasn’t so lucky.
Why are Hawkeye fans so passionate? Why are Cowboy fans so passionate? Why are Lehigh fans so supportive? Why are Cylcone fans so passionate? Why are wrestling fans just so different from every other fan you will find?
Well, this isn’t intended to be a puff piece for my alma mater, but the feelings I have about what this sport has done for me as a human being cross all platforms. You can replace your school with the references below and you will understand how it impacts people.
Here’s my post. I felt compelled to post it here for all to see. Like all my rants, this one is long. But I implore you to read it and tell your story.
While I’ve been supportive of all sports at Old Dominion as an alum and during my long tenure in Norfolk, I always felt wrestling would always get the short straw when it came to any discussion around campus, on the boards and in the media.
I’ve covered wrestling for 14 years in one form or another and I’ve made many great friends through my association with the sport AND my affiliation with ODU. I announced matches for years in front of 50 fans. It was a real thrill to get on the mic at The Ted and announce matches the last three years. I’d drive down from Pennsylvania to announce a dual. Last year against Bucknell, I drove down, announced the match, got back in the car and drove five hours back to Pennsylvania.
Now I’m in Minnesota and can’t do that anymore.
While I never competed on the mats for ODU, I was always involved with the program. From my time as a student, to as an alum coordinating and putting together “This Week in Monarch Wrestling” during Steve Martin’s first year. When I took a job with the national wrestling media, I had to put away the Blue and Silver in my professional life. I had to distance myself from my close ties with the program, which was painful, but a necessity to be impartial when covering a sport as small and as close-knit as wrestling.
During my days, ODU wrestling wasn’t very good on the grand scheme of things. We had limited success, some individual success but generally went ignored. How many people knew Jeff Rusak was the #4 ranked wrestler in the country his senior year?
I was always disappointed with the lack of well-rounded support for all teams other than basketball. Field Hockey won a national title in 2000 (which I announced) and there was little buzz around campus. Yeah, pockets of alumni were proud. Soccer emerged as a national player that magical season which saw the Monarchs rise to #2 in the polls. Slowly, but surely, fans came out.
What ODU wrestling did for me as a person means so much. Gray Simons, the previous coach, is one of the most graciously humble people I have ever met. Talking with him, you’d never know he was a two-time Olympian and one of the baddest dudes to ever step on a wrestling mat. My best friends to this day wrestled at Old Dominion.
I wouldn’t be living where I do in Minnesota if it weren’t for ODU wrestling. When I moved out here, I knew a handful of people, but one was the brother of a former ODU wrestler — Charlie Busch. If it weren’t for ODU wrestling, I wouldn’t be sitting here right now doing what I love to do. Coach Simons, a Norfolk native, represented what’s good in coaches. He really allowed me to be involved more than other sports would allow a non-athlete, non-trainer, non-manager. I’d go into his office and just talk wrestling, learning from a legend. Gray won FOUR NAIA titles at Lock Haven and THREE NCAA Championships.
I lived with members of the wrestling and sailing teams in college … both are sports which get overlooked on campus and don’t get any spectator support (compared to basketball). I saw first-hand what these athletes did on a day-to-day basis and saw how some athletes were raised above others in terms of importance. They never let it phase them. It’s a testament to their drive as individuals.
When I look around at the people who have been there to see my own personal victories and accomplishments, ODU wrestlers have been right there. People like Joe Wright, Charlie Busch, Ben Summerlin, Jeff Rusak, Chad Filson, Brad Fitzpatrick, Tim Goodale, Jamie Kelly, Mark Strickland, Dennis Whitby, Jake Cairns, George Sable, Nicky Hall, Robby Gosnell, Josh Tyler, Adam Wright … I could go on forever. My high school wrestling coach, Billy Ruff, wrestled at Old Dominion. He’s the one who took me away from the mic and got me on the mat for the first time at age 16. If it weren’t for that singular moment, I would not be able to have achieved all I have in my life.
Not everyone was great, not everyone was good, not everyone started or was in the line-up. Some got hurt, some failed out, some I still talk to two or three times a week.
There’s something to be said about the type of people who support you, no matter if you did or didn’t compete or step into practice. They accepted me as one of their own and for that, I will always be appreciative.
It’s a sport of minimal rewards. No pro contracts, no highlights on SportsCenter, very few, if any, full scholarships. I respect the sport and the people in it, but the impact ODU wrestling has had on my life cannot really be described here with any justice … it’s just too ingrained into who I am as a person.
I miss sitting courtside with Cassie Calwell, Jeff Cunningham, Dr. Ruben Brown, Woube Gebre, Dave Agudelo … I miss being on the call for men’s and women’s basketball, but instead of 9,000 watching ODU open The Ted with North Carolina, I’d have rather been in a nearly-empty Fieldhouse on the PA announcing ODU and Delaware State or U.Va.
Now, there’s a winning edge sweeping through the wrestling program. It’s ranked and we’re winning and we’re making people nationally notice — it’s an exciting time and the more fans we can get to support our athletes, those whose names you don’t know, can only help bolster the new feeling of excitement with the new football program and the entire athletics department in general.
Great things are happening … don’t forget about the wrestling program. I respect all sports and athletes at ODU, but you won’t find anyone who works harder than the 20-something kids in that wrestling room EVERY day.
Sorry for the novel, but in formulating a response, I really want people to know how important those non-basketball and non-football programs are to the alumni base. I’m sure there’s people like me with soccer, field hockey, sailing, lacrosse, the now-defunct cross country programs.
Our little piece of ODU means a lot more than people think. It’s something I will never take for granted.
How has your college program impacted your life? Former manager, dated a wrestler, student assistant, roommate, classmate? You’re involved, but how much does that fanhood factor in to why wrestling is so important to the people in it? I want to hear your story.
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