Respectful but not intimidated, was how I perceived Keith Pattison’s reaction to my approach. Comparatively taller, heavier, experienced, and maybe stronger than me, he was solidly built, no real gut overhanging his waistline. He was perhaps what I might become if I were to wrestle for three or four more seasons. And for the first time in my wrestling career, I sensed the same difference in him that I had. Whether he was aware remained to be seen, but he was definitely a wolfcat.
Pattison’s story was one I didn’t know beforehand but would rapidly assimilate once we touched. It didn’t matter against the desires and responsibilities I felt to my team that compelled me at that moment. I’m equally uncertain whether his story stood out much above all the other wrestlers I confronted because, since the district matches, I just didn’t know any of my competitors personally. But there was a certain level of commonality in her shared, if obscure, heritage
His was a compelling story, nevertheless. His coach took him away from the situation of his origins. A juvenile whose future was greatly at risk. His broken home was hell-bent on twisting his potential toward the same corruption to which his older siblings succumbed. Once removed from that situation, he seized the opportunity with both hands and held on. A coach who believed in him took charge, raising him in his own home, among his own children. He sought to undo what early-on pain and suffering taught him. Somehow, Keith rediscovered the soul he might have otherwise lost.
Beyond the moment, there was a life for each of us. After our inevitable collision of courses, our destinations awaited the outcome of a single wrestling match, two strangers whose paths now intersected. The ultimate goals of the day or the entire season for our separate teams rested like yokes around the necks of two oxen. All season we’d pulled our shares of the load.
The story was mostly written before we took to the mat. Our teams depended on us to punctuate the final few paragraphs of a fitting epilogue to an incredible season. What remained to be seen was how it would conclude. Would it be ‘if things had gone differently’? Or might it read ‘what a fantastic finale for a fairytale season’.
As athletes, the experience gap loomed largest. I could deal with the weight differential. All season, I faced heavier guys and handled them adeptly. Pattison was wary of me, mainly because I defeated Heath on multiple occasions, a riddle no one solved before me and since, only one other wrestler in the state had accomplished. As the spoiler of dreams, Keith sought to prevent me from souring his season in his last high school wrestling match. But it was also my last. Penn State recruited him. His future would not be darkened with the setting of this Saturday’s sun before our final round matches began. But his record might be tarnished.
Glancing toward the crowd, I saw my sisters and parents standing, joining in the cheers Pam, Catherine, and Aunt Claire were leading. No matter what, this was something only I could finish, the end of my private journey as a public persona, from Brent Who to Brent Woods, the heavyweight competitor. What did I care about how many years Pattison had been wrestling or his cumulative record? This was the first time we met. The slate was clean as far as I was concerned.
I closed my eyes focusing but refusing to allow the knowledge I should not possess from entering into the equation. There would be no secret keys to defeating my opponent that no one else could access. I would give exactly what I received, responding in kind, to win this fairly if I were to win it at all. I would only use magic if he did. And I knew that if he was aware of his attributes, he also knew we were the same. But for the immediate moment, my concentration drowned out external noise, settling my internal confusion.
When the notion of what to do came, it took hold and the craziness of it lured me to deviate from Coach Ellis’ instructions. There was symmetry in it, almost poetic justice. If for no other reason than it tied the beginning of my season to its conclusion, it would work to end the season with the same simplistic plan. Although it seemed an accident when it worked before, and it was clearly the result of a gross lack of experience at the time, it succeeded for an instant. It was not the first time I deviated from the coaches’ many suggested somethings for one insane idea all my own. Was it a gamble? Certainly. But if it was mostly luck that determined the outcome of wrestling matches between otherwise equal opponents, taking risks was not only necessary but also required.
When the referee’s whistle blew, instantly I dropped to one knee shooting it between his legs. Sliding under as I pulled both his knees into my chest, unbalanced he fell back. Surprised and off guard as he was, unlike what I did when Heath fell to the mat in my first ever match, my follow-through was precise. Grabbing an ankle in each hand, lifting as I stood up, I elevated them as I had in my last match against Heath.
Resisting what I attempted, rocking his shoulders back and forth, still he could not overcome it. With nine seconds elapsed, Keith Pattison, the state’s top-ranked wrestler was pinned.
Once the referee declared it official, I shook Pattison’s hand. He patted me on the back as he started away. Then, he turned. Looking at me with a smile, he summed up my wrestling career. “You got some serious balls, my man.”
“Sometimes crazy is what works.”
He nodded, turned, and walked into whatever indignity of consolation his team as well as his surrogate father and coach might suffer upon him.
I started for the mat’s edge, only to be delayed, and then abruptly seized. Hoisted onto shoulders. The team, including the cheerleaders, carried me from the mat. I felt as wonderfully appreciated as I did the first time I won a meet for the team, only this time I savored it because I knew how brief this incredible feeling would last.
Set back upon my feet, Kevin embraced me. “You crazy son-of-a-gun! Whatever made you think of doing that again?”
“It’s been a while.”
He chuckled, shaking his head.
I pointed to Ralph. “Taken care of,” I shouted across the triumphant jubilation. He pointed back, giving me thumbs-up.
Wishing the event would stretch to fill the void of my desire for it to endure, I noted the seeming acceleration of cacophonous confusion contained in the present’s persistent progression. The events around me were spinning, spiraling fast-forward.
The announcer called for everyone’s attention; the awards ceremonies would begin momentarily. Would it be different or somehow better than last night’s euphoric episode? I was going to miss having such moments now that the season finally concluded. Ending on a happy note, maybe that would help with the empty feeling that remained once all the excitement was rendered down to nothing. I could not for long remain in such intensity, but I could completely understand how someone might want to feel that way repeatedly. Still, I also appreciated how rare opportunities like them were.
Coaches Ellis and Friske gathered us together. The cheerleaders surrounded us. Jason rested his hand on my shoulder. I turned. He smiled. “How does it feel?” he asked.
“I’m not sure how to describe it. How does it feel for you?”
“I’m happy for everyone.”
“No, for you. What about you?”
“I didn’t do anything?”
“Sure, you did. All season long: taping ankles, applying cold or heat to injuries while knowing which worked better, treating cuts, applying bandages — you helped save a life! That’s far from not doing anything. We were all in this together, Jason. You, Kenny, and the cheerleaders are as much a part of this as anyone else.”
“At least you feel that way. But maybe you think that way because for a while you were one of us.”
“I’m still one, Jason. You’ve been part of this team from the first day you accepted your role.”
One by one, the wrestlers in ascending order of their weight classes received their trophies and medals from fourth to first place. There were no losers, not at this level of competition. On any given day, almost anyone present could have taken the top prize. There was a common appreciation of that fact. Today, the wrestlers from a relatively small suburban Springfield school had the most wrestlers who answered the call.
Chuck and Gary both took third place. Ralph took second. Tommy, Timmy, Kevin, and I took firsts. In that combination, the efforts of ‘The Magnificent Seven’ delivered the state’s team wrestling title, Countryside High’s first.
The coaches motioned for all of us to ascend with them, standing atop the awards platform, same as it had been at the league championships. But this time, I waved for Jason and Kenny to join us along with the cheerleaders as pictures were taken of the combined team of champions.
After, with trophies in hand, everyone headed for the locker room. As I passed by Pam, she offered to care for my awards while I dressed. I paused to kiss her, and then hurried along to rejoin the procession.
After dressing, I stuffed my wrestling tights and warmup back into my bag and was preparing to leave when Kevin stopped me. “How do I look?”
“Like a champion, I guess.”
“No, I mean, my hair.”
“It’s still a little wet.”
“I know, it’s just…well, I want to make a good impression when I meet her.”
“This is really important to you, isn’t it?”
“I thought you understood that.”
“Kevin, you kid around a lot. I mean — that part about meeting your future wife…”
“Well, you never know, do you? Anyway, I’m dead serious about this.”
“I knew you wanted to meet her but–”
“I have to meet her, Brent. It’s crazy, but as you say, crazy is necessary sometimes.”
“I’m not sure those were my exact words.”
“If they aren’t, I’m not the writer, now, am I?”
“I don’t know Kev, that sounded pretty good.”
“I’m nervous. I’m never this way. You know me, right? Am I ever this way?”
“Not about a girl.”
“I wonder what she’s like: how her voice sounds when she laughs, what does that sound like? What perfume does she wear? Do we have anything in common?”
“Well, she likes wrestling.”
“That’s a beginning, right?”
“I don’t think you need to be stressing out about this. When I saw her at lunch, she was asking me about you. She seemed interested.”
“And you didn’t tell me that?”
“What? And inflate your ego even more?”
“No, no, you’re right. I didn’t need to know. I might not have concentrated on the match, and then…well, it all worked out, didn’t it?”
“Are you ready to go outside, now?”
“Are they right outside the door?”
“I don’t know. Probably. That’s where Pam usually meets me. I would imagine everyone else followed her there.”
“I want this to be perfect.”
“It can only be what it can be.”
“Brent, I’m serious.”
“I know you are. Look, she’s nice. She’s a lot like Pam. How could she not be? But she’s different, too.”
“What color are her eyes?”
“What does that mean?”
“You know how some people’s eyes change colors with whatever they’re wearing, or even how much light there is in a room? I mean, Pam’s are that way. Maybe it runs in the family. They’re like the kind of eyes you never get tired looking at, you know?”
“She sounds magical.”
“She is,” I said. He didn’t begin to know.
He drew a deep breath. “Let’s go meet this lady.”
Out into the corridor, I emerged first with Kevin in my wake. As expected, Pam was there. She continued to hold my trophy while waiting for me to receive hugs from my sisters, my dad, and mom. That had to be as good as I have ever felt like I was the champion of everything. Then, I leaned over and exchanged hugs with Aunt Claire and finally Pam’s mom, dad, and sister. Her brothers took turns shaking my hand and patting my back. Finally, Pam handed off my trophy to my dad so that she could properly kiss me. After adding a hug, she proceeded to kiss me again. This time it lingered a little longer, until Kevin, who had been standing patiently behind me the whole time waiting to be introduced, cleared his throat.
“Oh, yeah.” I pulled back. “Sorry, Kev. I got a little carried away. Everybody, this is my friend Kevin, our team captain and newly crowned state champion at 185-pounds. He’s also an all-around nice guy who has a great sense of humor and-”
“I think that’s enough, Brent,” he stepped forward, then over his shoulder, he said, “Remind me later to pay you that bonus.”
“So, you’re Kevin,” Catherine stepped toward him.
“And you’re the sister I was hoping Brent’s lady had…if that makes sense.”
“I think it does. Congratulations, Champ,” she said, leaning into him and kissing him on the cheek.
That may have been the first time I ever saw Kevin blush. Catherine and he continued talking off to one side while Pam pinned my newest medal onto the letter on my varsity jacket, in the exact place she’d left for it the night before. When she finished, she stepped back. “There! It’s perfect! Exactly what you were missing,” she pronounced.
“Dad, I was wondering if you and mom could take my trophy home. I’ll never fit this beast into my car — not as is, anyway.” Honestly, I didn’t want to risk shrinking it down to fit into my car and forgetting how to restore its original dimensions.
“I think it will fit in the backseat,” Mom said.
“Anyway, I’m heading to Pam’s house for the night. If her faeries don’t mind, I’ll bring the other trophy home tomorrow night, so we’ll have the full set for the fireplace.”
Dad nodded, but then smiled as if he was maybe not telling me something. Both he and Mom smiled and hugged me again. “We’re very proud of our son.”
“Thanks, Dad, Mom. Thanks for coming.”
While the group was beginning to break up, I expressed my gratitude to everyone. “It was amazing. And the cheering helped everyone. Everyone felt it.”
“Once it started, it just kept growing,” Aunt Claire said.
“Because you got involved, I think that’s why it really took off.”
“You noticed that too?” She laughed, winking at me.
“It was fun,” Jean added. “I never thought wrestling would be this exciting.”
“Wrestling’s the best,” Mr. Roberts said. I wasn’t sure why, but it had never occurred to me before that moment that he had wrestled back in his day. But of course, it made complete sense.
“We’re going to go out for something to eat if you’d like to join us,” Mrs. Roberts said. “We came in Aunt Claire’s van so there’s more than enough room.”
“I’d best ride home on the bus so I can get my car.”
“We can swing by your school for your car,” she countered.
“I think his team will want him along on the ride home,” Stephen interjected.
“Yeah, and I’m sure he won’t want to miss that experience either. Besides, all of us can go out to dinner tomorrow night,” David suggested.
“After a long afternoon of tennis, we’ll be hungry,” Pam said wrapping her arm around mine but winced as she bent over slightly.
“You okay?” I asked.
“Yeah, with all the jumping around. I think I pulled a muscle or something.”
* * *
After everyone was seated on the bus, Coach Friske stood to address everyone. “Nothing tops this, guys and gals. I wrestled in high school and in college — right here at Ohio State. None of my teams won like this. I overheard Brent and Jason talking earlier. What was said really sums up how I feel about this group. Everyone on this bus contributed. There are no small players on a team. It takes everyone to win a championship.”
We all clapped and cheered as he returned to his seat.
Coach Ellis took his turn, holding the team trophy in his hand. “Gentlemen and ladies, we did it!” He paused, waiting for the noise to settle. He set the trophy on the floor and wiped tears as they rolled down his cheeks. Then, he continued. “It feels great, doesn’t it?” He waited again for the chanting and cheering to settle. “It is an honor to be associated with this group. Every one of you is a winner. You all earned this one.” He touched the trophy. “And you deserve the trophies and medals you won along the way. We are the first in Countryside history to accomplish anything like this!”
“And we will not be the last,” Coach Fiske added.
The cheerleaders chanted, “Go Eagles! Go Eagles!”
When everyone settled again, Coach Ellis continued. “What we did today is something for each of us to treasure. Whenever you think back on this day, the moments we shared, you’ll always remember what it felt like to be state champions.”
The bus began to make its way out of the parking lot, taking us back to Countryside. The fantasy of the last few days wasn’t over. We’d linger for a while longer in the limelight of congratulations from our friends, teachers, and pretty much everyone back at home who would enjoy our success vicariously. And maybe we’d be discussed for years to come. I didn’t know then, but I wondered as I stared out the bus window at the lights of the city passing by as we headed home.
Coach Friske came back to sit across the aisle from me. “You say some crazy things, but then you say something like you did to Jason.”
I shrugged, although I was certain it couldn’t be seen in the dark. “It needed to be said. Since the cheerleaders have been with us, it seemed like the whole team was complete.”
“I think they were surprised when we pulled the ladies up on the awards platform with us. But you’re right, they deserved it. What they did today transformed the event. I’ve never seen anything like that.”
“That was good, wasn’t it?”
“We owe some of that to your lady.”
“I know we were rough on the two of you. Tell her, thank you. I know Don was as moved by it as I was. They made it extra special for all of us today.”
“I’ll tell her, but I think she already knows.”
“I hope everything works out for the two of you. You seem to be happy together.”
“Yeah, I don’t know what I would have done without her. I don’t think I’d have made it here.”
“You have plans for tonight?”
“It’ll be kind of late by the time I get to her house, so I doubt we’ll go out. I’m staying overnight. My sleeping bag is in my car. Her whole family is home. It’s Spring Break for Ohio State.”
“That makes it nice. You’ll get to know everyone.”