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My time machine: One of the best — and toughest — stories I’ve ever written

I’ve had the opportunity to write about a lot in my life. Not all of it about sports, but the majority of my time writing for the Daily Press, W.I.N., the Poquoson Post, The Mace & Crown and several other wrestling publications and web sites have been about wrestling.

When Mike Finn interviewed me a few years ago after I was named W.I.N.’s Wrestling Journalist of the Year, he asked me about the best story I’d ever written.

I’m proud of some of the social commentaries I’ve penned about trying to save programs at Longwood, Eastern Illinois, Fresno State and Oregon, but my response didn’t require a lot of thought.

It was on a kid named Caleb Sparkman. Some of you might know him, some might have seen his name on All-American lists from his days wrestling on the USA Kids circuit. So I e-mailed a buddy who still works down at the Daily Press (even through all the newspaper downsizing) and asked him to pull the story from the archives.

I wrote this over six years ago. I was covering wrestling and was a part-timer at the paper, a post I’d held since 1996. I was in my sixth year at ODU and lived in “The 12 House.”

The raw emotion couldn’t be truly captured, but I tried. Tears were shed by parents, friends and teammates. In writing the story, I was even overcome by emotion. Years have passed and when I go back to Norfolk, I’ve run into Caleb from time to time. It’s hard to tell someone that their difficulties led to what I note as my best single story. I’ve known the guy a while, but when I think about writing and the impact people have in others lives and the sport of wrestling has on people, I also think about this story.

So here it is:

Following his heart: Medical condition prompts wrestler to quit after winning district title
By Jason Bryant, Daily Press
February 21, 2003

An accomplished wrestler from his days with the Hampton Jaguars and Pin2Win wrestling clubs, the Hampton High sophomore won the 171-pound championship in the Peninsula District last Saturday.

Sparkman has dozens of medals, trophies and awards. He will not, however, compete in this week’s Eastern Regional or the upcoming state championship this year.

The bushy-haired, happy 15-year-old wrestled his last match in the district finals, a 3-2 decision over Heritage’s Akeem Wilkins.

That wasn’t his last match for the season. It was his last match for life.

Sparkman has aorta stenosis. The condition, a narrowing of the heart valve, applies pressure to the aorta valve as the heart works to get the amount of blood it needs to function properly. He was diagnosed with the condition when he was 3 months old.

He and his family made the decision late in January to stop wrestling — after three more matches in the district tournament.

“I wanted to help the team win the districts. I thought we had a good chance,” Sparkman said.

But his participation was not without risk.

The doctor advised the Sparkmans that the decision to continue to wrestle was theirs, but the recommendation was not to wrestle, according to Sparkman. Among the potential dangers, Sparkman said “heart attack.”

But after considering all the facts, the family decided it was not a life-threatening decision.

“I wasn’t really going to be pushed in the district tournament. If I would have had super-hard matches, then I probably wouldn’t have wrestled,” Sparkman said.

Denbigh’s Zack Winfrey, a returning district champion and state place-winner, also played a role in Sparkman’s move up to 171.

“Wrestling a guy like Winfrey would probably have been pushing the envelope. But had I felt any dizziness or light-headedness I wouldn’t have wrestled,” he said.

The intensity of this weekend’s regional tournament would require more physical exertion than the district tournament did.

A normal heart has a pressure of zero. When he was four, the pressure was 20. As of November, it read 43. A pressure of 50 would result in a balloon being inserted to try to force open the aortic valve.

“I never thought it would be a problem, at least not until high school,” Sparkman said.

The condition began to cause Sparkman problems as he grew from a 130-pound middle school wrestler to a 152-pound freshman and has become worse as he has grown.

Caleb’s parents, Charlie and Chesley Sparkman, met with doctors in November as part of his regular checkups.

“We had the echocardiogram done,” Chesley said. “Charlie and I met with the surgeon and talked to him. We tried to get the procedure (cardiac catheterization) done over the Christmas break, but had to wait until right after school started.

“He wasn’t aware of a meeting with the doctor in December, but just before Christmas, we told him we were going to do the procedure.”

After the catheterization, a procedure in which a tube is inserted into an artery in the leg and sent up to the heart, the decision had to be made.

Sparkman would stop wrestling.

Last week, Hampton, Denbigh and Woodside were in a battle for the district championship. Each team had a chance to claim the title. Hampton, which had just two wrestlers in 1998, hoped having Sparkman would improve its chances of claiming its first district title in decades. Woodside won, but Hampton finished second, three points behind.

As Sparkman, the team captain, stepped off the podium, teammate Mike Rutkowski was in tears. He’d known Sparkman since they were 4 and came up in the same wrestling clubs.

“Of all the people I’ve ever known, he’s had the most heart. You’ve got to love him for that,” Rutkowski said.

After the district tournament, Fenner was happy with his team’s finish, but somber about losing Caleb.

“We turned out great this weekend,” Fenner said. “Next year we can take it up another notch, but we’re really going to miss Caleb. He wanted to do this (wrestle in districts) to help us win.”

Rutkowski’s mother, Sherry Thacker, also has memories of Sparkman’s wrestling career.

“He had a lot going for him as a wrestler,” Thacker said.

“After getting his medal, he ran up to his dad and (Pin2Win coach) Steve Pittman and gave them big hugs. We were hoping he could stick it out, but it was just too much.”

As the regionals start today, Sparkman will be at Churchland supporting his team. He still goes to practice for some light drills and to encourage his teammates. He’ll likely be found near the corner of the mat.

“He says he wants to coach and wants to referee,” Chesley Sparkman said.

Sparkman wants to contine playing soccer, too. He split time between the varsity and junior varsity squads last spring.

While he is done with competitive wrestling, his love of the sport keeps him around.

Two weeks into the Peninsula Youth Wrestling League, the league where he got started, Sparkman wears an official’s shirt, red and green wristbands and a whistle, refereeing the next generation of wrestlers that will stand on top of the podium.

And that’s how Sparkman went out, on top of the podium.


* WHERE: Churchland High School, Portsmouth
* WHEN: Today: First round at 11 a.m., then quarterfinals at 6:30 p.m. Saturday: Semifinals at noon; finals at 7:30 p.m.
* IMPACT: Top four wrestlers per weight will qualify for next weekend’s state tournament.
* PREDICTION: Great Bridge is expected to take the region title, but Peninsula wrestlers aim to qualify for the state tournament.
* PENINSULA’S BEST SHOTS: Andre Bland, 103, Hampton; Kyle Gular, 112, Kecoughtan; Todd Gular, 119, Kecoughtan; Jamar Sumpter, 135, Hampton; Duder Edmunds, 135, Gloucester; Devon Alston, 140, Heritage; Dustin Chaney, 145, Denbigh; John Nicholson, 145, Bethel; Nick Chrismon, 152, Woodside; Zack Winfrey, 160, Denbigh; James DeGroat, 189, Menchville; Antoine Adams, 215, Bethel; Quest King, 275, Phoebus.

Written by Jason Bryant

August 10, 2009 at 1:15 am

Posted in Blogging, Good Stuff

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