Secrets and Plans — Bring It: Chapter 13
The coach looked toward me as I approached the bleachers and waved me over. “Have a seat.”
“What were you and Mark talking about?”
“I figured that much.”
“He says he knows how to beat me.”
“Really? What good does that do him now?”
“Nothing for tonight. He says he knows he can beat Thompson.”
“So, the three same heavyweights meet next week.”
“That’s what he figures, and he thinks that somehow he’ll win.”
“Yeah? Well, he could have beaten Mike.”
“He knew how to do it, just missed the chance.”
“I figured you saw that.”
“I just don’t know what he’s up to with this psych job.”
“It has to be that.”
“What does he know that makes him confident against me?”
“Mark doesn’t show everything he knows because he uses it only when he must. So far, when you have beaten him, you have always had him in a situation he couldn’t get out of.”
“So, he can beat me.”
“Anybody can be beaten, Brent.”
“So, all that about being the best is just bullshit?”
“No, it’s not - not at all. You must be the best to even get the chance to wrestle at this level. People like Mark know how to win. You showed him how to lose.”
“I’m not sure I understand the distinction.”
“Mark never lost. When it happened, he over-reacted. Same as when Mike beat him last week. You beat him too, and probably would have anyway — ”
“His mind wasn’t in that match.”
“No, that was not the real Mark Heath you wrestled last week. That was a beaten man. Mark’s put that behind him now. He’s figuring out how he won all those times. A lot of it was luck. More of it was intimidation. He won the state title, multiple times. You don’t do that without knowing the secret of winning.”
“That’s how they beat you when you tried out for the national team.”
“It’s exactly how that happened, Brent. There’s good reason for most adages in sports, like ‘any given day’. The only way to prevent being beaten is to be stronger, quicker, smarter, and luckier. Every one of those you control, except for the last.”
“That’s why they also say it’s better to be lucky than good.”
The coach laughed. “It’s not just in wrestling. Any sport there is, that’s true. Heck, it’s true about life in general. All the practice, conditioning, training, and strengthening are to get you to a level where everyone is as good as everyone else. Then it’s a matter of execution and luck that determines the outcome.”
“That’s why you wanted to practice on Sunday?”
“Yeah, but I’ve been thinking about what you said. You’re right, too. I’ve been giving you the crash course, catching you up on the experience factor. Other than your bulk, that’s really what you were missing. It’s like I told you a while back. You’re the guy on the mat, at the moment. I can’t do that for you. I’m too old to wrestle at this level, even though I’d love to flatten Heath. I have more respect for Mike because he has never quit. I saw Mark give up last week. That bothered me. Real champions may lose, but they’re never beaten. He gave up.”
I nodded. “I know how to beat Mark. How do I not lose?”
“As stupid as it sounds, you let him lose first. Ensure that your opportunities to lose are minimized. Basically, you work on your weaknesses until they can’t defeat you. That’s why we practiced neck bridging. You never thought you could do it for as long as you do, now you could do it for an entire period if you need to.!”
“I don’t think I ever want to.”
“It’ll never happen. Any wrestler good enough to put you on your back for an entire period is also going to know how to force you into lifting up against his weight.”
“From now on, you need to be extremely careful with everyone you wrestle. Once you’re past this tournament, you won’t have any experience with most of the people you face. You’ll have to rely on your training, instinct, and experience countering.”
“And I’m still lacking in experience.”
“Wrestling against Mike and Mark has trained you well. Because of them, this is probably the toughest league in the state for this weight class. Mike is the reason Mark has been champion for the past three years.”
“Mark always knew Mike could beat him.”
“And then you come along and now Mark has another wrestler to worry about, one who’s been smarter and quicker from the outset. You’ve grown into his worst nightmare. The only things he has on you are eighty or so pounds, and the experiences of wrestling at a level of competition you’ve never seen.”
The coach gave me a lot to think about. As I waited and watched the other matches progress, I considered the most unlikely of all scenarios and how it came to pass. We were going to win the league championship as a team. I could feel it. It was all but done. The team was still dressed, even the wrestlers who lost earlier in the day. They continued to be a part of every match, inspiring and cheering us on as much as the cheerleaders. We needed five of our seven remaining wrestlers to win their titles, but we wanted all seven, of course.
Ralph took his match, as expected. It was a struggle for him and took him longer than he might have wanted, but he won by pin late in the second period.
One of the surprises of the tournament was Tommy. Unseeded, he beat three seeded wrestlers to get where he was, in the finals against the top seed. It was improbable, but for him, nothing was ever impossible. He always believed in himself and the team. He drew inspiration from everyone else believing in him. All of us were there cheering him, helping him through every challenge and desperate situation. He neck-bridged for the last half of the second period of the final match. No one does that without having a burning desire to win.
Going into the third period, he was way behind in points and ride time. He could have given up. Accepting the other wrestler was better and letting him pin him or allowing him to ride out the clock to the end were the likely alternatives. Maybe his opponent thought that was what Tommy was thinking. Appearing to be going through the motions, resigned to whatever already happened, Tommy lulled his opponent into a false sense of confidence. Then unexpectedly, Tommy reversed to score a quick and definitive pin with only twenty-five seconds left in the match. From almost certain defeat to instant victory, Tommy inspired everyone else on the team.
Don’t quit! That became our unofficial motto.
Like Tommy, Chuck was where no one other than his fellow teammates anticipated he would be, in the finals. He also defeated three seeded wrestlers. Overall, he won against four wrestlers who beat him previously in the season. If there was any doubt whether he deserved to be where he was, it ended forty-seven seconds into the match when he pinned the defending league champion.
No one dared suggest what each of us sensed. There was a good chance at taking seven wins. Of the remaining wrestlers, only Gary had a losing record against his opponent. Still, he beat him a week ago.
Gary trained hard all week, wrestling against Coach Ellis, Chuck, and Timmy. Better prepared than ever, and contrary to his initial approach from the previous week, he seized control of the match from the first whistle. He worked his opponent, dominating in points and ride time when the first period concluded.
Coach Ellis gave him specific instructions and a new tact to pursue. As the period began, Gary countered perfectly his opponent’s attempt to sit out and escape. It happened, seemingly in the blink of an eye. He rolled him onto his back into a well-executed cradle for the pin.
Having beaten the number one seed, Timmy was pitted against the tournament’s third seed. Forty-seven seconds into the match, our team’s league tournament victory was assured. Standing triumphantly over a supposedly better wrestler he’d just pinned, Timmy pointed to Kevin, clearly defining the next Countryside wrestler’s challenge.
For Kevin, it was not about the team as much as it was personal. The spoiler of last week’s clean sweep was across the center circle from him. A stupid mistake cost last week’s match. He’d been thinking about it ever since. He was determined not to repeat the mistake.
Vindication came with twelve seconds elapsed in the second period. Kevin came off the mat, the league champion in the 185-pound class. He pointed at me. I nodded, acknowledging his passing of the torch. The burden was mine.
In the unlimited class consolation match, Mark had been his usual, dominating self. He destroyed Chris Thompson in thirty-two seconds, ensuring the likely scenario for next week that we discussed.
As Mike and I stood across from one another on the mat, we shook hands. Neither of us said a word. Mike felt he had to do this. This was his last opportunity to win the league title. He defeated the defending champion. Now, he was up against his spoiler, his new nemesis.
Unlike Mark, Mike didn’t have a secret plan. He was tough, in your face, and challenging strength against strength. For me, he was the tougher opponent, stronger than Mark, heavier than me, and nearly as quick. So far in all but one of our matches, I survived by always being a step ahead, a few planned moves in advance of his expectations.
We danced around the center circle, sizing one another, cautiously looking for any chance. We were both warned for stalling. Mike attempted a move. I countered. Still, no points were scored for either of us.
Late in the first period, I tricked him. Deftly, I forced the wrong counter to a ploy. While Mike shifted his weight in the wrong direction, I used his momentum to upset his balance, dropping him, immediately rolling him, and grabbing an arm and a leg to lock him out for the pin. Exhausted from the combined efforts of the past two days and all the practice preceding it, I sat on the mat taking a few seconds to grasp the reality. The tournament was over.
“You’re the best,” Mike said, as he sat beside me, resignation in his voice.
“For tonight I am,” I took a deep breath using only my leg strength I rose from sitting cross-legged to standing tall. I offered him my hand, but he brushed it aside as he also pressed his legs to stand.
The referee grasped my hand and raised it triumphantly.
Mike gave me a quick hug and a pat on the back. “Good job, Champ.”
Hurriedly, several of the host team’s reserve wrestlers carried out the award stands and placed them in the center of the gymnasium floor.
Weight class by weight class, the top three wrestlers were called out to receive a trophy and a medal, then find their places on the three-tiered stand for others to take commemorative pictures. The press was there, though not quite as well-represented as I might have expected.
When the heavyweights took our turn, we stood and took our respective places, remaining on the platforms for the barrage of photos. Then, I motioned for both Mike and Mark to join me on the top tier for a picture, one I hoped would find its way into the Sunday newspaper. The three of us stood side-by-side. Mark was on my left side, Mike on the right, each of us holding aloft our individual trophies, our medals around our necks.
The finishing order of the teams was announced. Our wrestlers, still wearing our gold and black warm-ups, assembled with Coaches Ellis and Friske on the top tier of the stand.
Following the congratulatory hugs and handshakes, most of the wrestlers hit the showers in the locker room and dressed. I remained behind, wanting to personally congratulate Coach Ellis. Except he was talking to a squat, heavyset guy I recognized from a week earlier, a small recorder in hand. I smiled, wondering if ‘Bullshit’ Bill Winters would get the coach's memorable quote right when it appeared in tomorrow’s paper.
After showering and getting dressed, I carried my belongings out to my car. Everyone else was on the bus, getting ready to go home. Some of them slid the windows down and taunted me, asking how I was ever going to squeeze my huge trophy into that little yellow car of mine. Skeptical too, I figured, worst case, I could disassemble the top of it. Following a couple of failed attempts, reclining the passenger seat provided just enough room to sit the base on the floorboard tilting the remainder to rest between the seats and poking into the luggage area behind.
In the mood to listen to Deep Purple’s Machine Head, I waited until I was out on the open road. Then, I cranked up the volume of my car stereo to enjoy Highway Star. By the time Smoke on the Water concluded, I was pulling into Pam’s driveway.
Surprised to see her on the front porch, I parked. Shutting off my engine, I opened the door and stepped outside.
“You’re early.” She smiled.
“I thought it was just about the right time.”
“I just got home myself.” She hurried out to greet me. “Of course, we had to clean up a bit after the tournament.”
“How’d your team do?” I embraced her.
“Second. The team that won took nine titles. We only won two but we finished second in six others. Shane was one of them.”
“Great, he’ll be at district next week, then,” I said as I escorted her around to the passenger side. “Do you think you have room to keep this here?”
“Congratulations, Champ!” She threw her arms around my neck, and I leaned over for a kiss.
“Now, that was what I was really looking for all this time. Keep the trophy and the medal. The kiss is all I needed.”
“No one else kissed you, did they?”
“Good.” Pam laughed, really looking at the trophy for the first time. “It is big.”
“Yeah, well the team trophy isn’t much bigger.”
“Your team won too?”
“That was the amazing part. Seven first places.”
“Wow! That’s fantastic.”
“I was thinking you can keep this beast in your room.”
“Until you take it home tomorrow?”
“Maybe just keep it here.”
“I would have never won this without your inspiration.”
“Well, that deserves another kiss.”
When I caught my breath again, I chuckled. “You know, I can keep coming up with things like that all night long as long as you keep rewarding me.”
“Let me help you inside,” she took the trophy from my hand while I picked up my bags. She held the door while I stepped through.
“Well, hello,” Mrs. Roberts said. “I take it you won.”
“Yes. The trophy is a bit large.”
“I see that.”
“I’m not going to haul it around tonight. I was thinking of just leaving it here, though.”
“I think it would look wonderful in your family room on your TV next to the other one.”
“I kind of think it makes the Lake one look puny,” Pam said.
“My point exactly. That’s why you need it in your room.”
“Oh my,” Mrs. Roberts said with a laugh. “Where would you put it?”
“By the faeries.” I suggested. “That way they can pretend it’s their magic castle.”
Both Pam and her mother laughed.
“Hey, I was being serious.”
They laughed harder.
“Okay, I see how it is, now.”
“Well, since you seem to be in a playful mood, I’ve decided we’ll finally go see Blazing Saddles,” Pam said.
“Great! I’ve wanted to see that for the last month.”
“The next showing is at nine-forty.”
“Then we need to go pretty soon.”
“Yeah. Hopefully, they won’t card me.”
“That’s right. You’ve still have a month to go.”
“I’ll make you something to eat for when you get home,” her mom said.
“We can get something on the way home.”
“It’ll be late. Besides, I need to fix something for Theodore anyway. He’ll be home soon.”
“It’s kind of late, where did he go?”
“Pam didn’t tell you?”
“It didn’t come up in conversation.” She looked at me. “Sorry.”
“David and Stephen wrestled in the Big Ten tournament at Purdue.”
“Yeah, Theodore said it was too bad you couldn’t go there with him.”
“I would have gone, too, but I’ve been kind of busy for the past couple of days.”