Wrestling in Nebraska

Coach Pazzo made all of us wrestlers run hurdles on our high school track in the winter months.

“Legs win matches,” he’d say.

Now, we were Nebraska farm boys. We knew what it was to work out of doors in subzero wind chills with no alternative but to keep working no matter how numb your feet were or how bad your fingers stung. You could say we were we more than conditioned to handle the elements already.

So when I tell you that Coach Pazzo made us run hurdles in the winter for wrestling practice, this is not a lament for the fact that it was cold as hell running sprints on that flat, wind-swept expanse of high school track. No.

It is, without question, a lament for the fact that this was the full extent of our wrestling training and instruction.

We just ran hurdles.

Outdoors.

In all sorts of weather.

In our wrestling singlets.

This is what we did for all of our wrestling practices. Every last one of them. No work on the mat. No learning moves or techniques. Just running and jumping a raised barrier and running some more until the next raised barrier.

When we’d ask him when we’d actually get to doing some practice in the gym on the mats, he’d look at us like we were the one’s who were crazy.

“Gentlemen, it all starts with building the will to win,” he explained “And that’s what we’re doing. Until we have it, we don’t belong on the mats.”

They said he’d been the coach of some wrestling powerhouse back East that competed for state titles year after year. This was the first year our high school had a wrestling team, so I guess they were looking to bring in a proven winner, albeit one whose methods were extremely unorthodox.

One of them was his admonishment us against mentioning any of our training to anyone, complete with a signed pledge.

“I don’t want any of you boys squandering our competitive advantage.”

And like fools, we obeyed him.

So we ran.

Snow came early that year. Not the monster blizzards that would dump 2 feet in less than a day, but dribs and drabs of light dustings starting second week of November.

In a way, we’d have preferred running in 2 feet of snow to 2 inches. And if we had to conduct our version of wrestling practice while it was snowing, it definitely would have been a little less precarious if he had let us shovel off the track – something we had repeatedly asked of him and were repeatedly refused.

“Gentlemen. Let me introduce you to the three R’s of wrestling – react, recover, rebalance,” he said. “Develop your balance out here, your feet will feel like fly paper on the mat.”

We lost Tim Buckley, our 106-pounder, to a broken ankle 2 weeks before our opening dual meet. Our 113-pounder Bill Storms went down 3 days later – torn lateral meniscus.

By the time we were due to square off against Rockland, 4 others had succumbed to various lower body injuries and we were down to only 8 healthy wrestlers – which meant we would have to forfeit 6 of 14 weight classes.

This is didn’t phase Coach Pazzo in the least.

“This only means that there’s no margin for error. And guess what? I like that.” he said. “I like being in those type of situations. Why? Because they bring out the best in you.”

Down 0-18, after forfeiting the first three weight classes, our first wrestler up, also the first wrestler on our squad to stand on a wrestling mat all season, was our 126-pounder Virgil Wilder. The ref blew the whistle and if you happened to turn your head to wave to a friend in the stands, or put down your soda, or do just about anything else, you missed the entire match. A pin in 8.75 seconds. That marked a new Nebraska state record for fastest pin in a high school wrestling match.

That rather dubious record stood for all of 4 ½ minutes – until the very next match, where our 132-pounder Bob King got pinned in 8.1.

I was up next. I knew I would lose, but I wasn’t prepared to lose in record-breaking fashion. I didn’t want that type of baggage around my neck. Let the guys in the higher weight classes have that ignominious honor. I also knew the kid limbering up on the other side of the mat was Wimp Patterson, who was anything but, being a 3-time state champ. So without any training and with the sole intent of delaying the inevitable for as long as possible, when the ref blew his whistle, I simply ran around with around the outskirts of the circle until Wimp came within striking distance, at which point I’d simply skip safely outside of the circle.

Apparently this is frowned upon in the wrestling community. I took 2 stalling penalties until the ref told me one more and I’d be disqualified. I looked at the clock, and 14 seconds had passed. I had made it. The state record for fastest pin might be broken in the 182-pound or 220-pound classes – let Tim Anderson wear history around his neck – but not in mine.

I turned to face Patterson, who, despite weighing less than 138 pounds, in my memory was built like Lou Ferrigno. When he came toward me – instinct took over. Maybe it wasn’t so much instinct as much as muscle memory taking over, for instead of helplessly succumbing to his take-down, I attempted to hurdle him just as he came at my knees.

My legs hit his shoulder, I did a backflip and after it seemed like I spent an eternity in a blur of red mat, crowd, and gym lights, I landed with a loud thud on the mat.

Broke my coccyx, although back then, before I was a doctor, it was still a tailbone to me.

Patterson could have simply touched me with his finger to pin me. But he was a Rockland wrestler – and a 3-time state champ. Rather than taking the merciful route to victory, he wrapped my arms into a pretzel, did a move that lifted me off the mat and bent me backward and only then did the end come.

They rushed me to the hospital in an ambulance. I didn’t get to see the rest of the match, which is now legendary in Nebraska state wrestling lore.

What happened to Coach Pazzo remains a mystery to this day. No one could find him after the match. No one’s seen him since. Some say he just drove off in his car and left town. Other says they saw a dark Crown Vic with men in suits jump out an escort him away in a rather brusque fashion.

In any case, that night marked both the beginning and end of the wrestling season. We forfeited our remaining matches. Those of us who had yet to succumb to our training, our coach’s insanity, or our ruthless opponents – we looked upon ourselves as winners for simply having survived.

The following year our high school started a bowling team to replace wrestling in the winter sports schedule, and I’d take great delight in sneaking in a game of Asteroids or Pac-Man between games. After all. I’d earned it.

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