Monday, March 19, 2007

Relationships and the NCAA Wrestling Championships

Back in February, one of my high school wrestling coaches, Dave Porter, called to tell me that the NCAA and the University of Michigan had asked him to attend the NCAA wrestling championships hosted by the U of M and held at the Palace of Auburn Hills. Because he was a 2-time National Champ and wrestled for the Wolverines, the request was for him to walk in the champions parade, and present the All American and National Championship awards to the heavyweight division. Dave called to tell me of the invitation, to say that he was not particularly in favor of attending, but to ask me whether I would be interested in accompanying him. So, two of my former teammates -- my brother-in-law Daren Bebee and my current teaching colleague Jim Price -- and I greedily agreed to go with Dave to the Palace, and what a treat it turned out to be.

I could complete this entry with rhetoric about how sports bring people together, about the important role people play in deliberate, selected ways in our lives, and I would struggle to keep it from sounding trite. And yet, the cliches are all verified by this trip. While most wrestling coaches and wrestlers alike are physical learners, Dave had the singular and unique ability to verbalize his technical instruction, he was the most technically-able coach I have been around. Dave's memory and knowledge of the rule book was thorough and encyclopedic, and likely won him many unwinnable arguments with wrestling officials. Primarily, though, Dave reached and motivated athletes with his own style that sometimes provided the missing link for certain individuals, breaking down mental barriers that necessarily needed to be crossed to achieve success. It's honorable to play that role in people's lives, creating those achievements and memories and relationships, and he repays some of his former athletes with a trip that included rare access to a sublime event, and we are thankful for that link.

Our itinerary:
0805: Depart Grand Ledge for Palace in Dave's SUV. Everyone is excited, with much animated wrestling talk that makes for a quick drive.
0940: Arrive @ Palace of Auburn Hills and queue for tickets @ will call window. The Palace lobby is a beehive of anticipatory action, teeming with wrestling fans.
1000: Wind our way up stairs and around the concourse, bump into coaching colleagues, take elevator back down to the correct level and a friendly chat with the attendant, locate suite and receive stern lecture from attendant @ door to return valued Fifth/Third wristband that allows us entry into the Fifth/Third lounge, saying "Lloyd Carr will shoot you on the 50-yard line of Michigan Stadium if I don't get that back."
1010: Settle into the UMich suite with bewildered looks on faces, noting the unexpected buffet and waitstaff. We had only expected to get regular seats in the arena, not in a suite, much less one with food. It turns out that we were in the Piston's owner's personal box, which was loaned to the U of M. The morning's notable moments include Nick Simmons' disappointing 3rd place finish @ 133, despite his top seeding, and his placement match inspires his opponent to shove him because he took his time disentangling himself, and, seemingly, because of his reputation as a choker. A highlight was Missouri's Matt Pell, as the 9th seed, pinning Michigan's Eric Tannenbaum to finish in 3rd place, and win the Gorriaran Award as well, with 4 pins for the tournament.
1330: At the conclusion of the morning wrestle-backs and placement matches, luncheon in the Club 53 suite. We make our way to the Palace's inner circle and to the appointed lounge for lunch, and we were joined by the University of Michigan Head Wrestling Coach, Joe McFarland, and an assistant, Kevin Vogel. More wrestling discussion, both historical concerning Dave, and current considering MSU's recent woeful performance.
1505: Dave wants to stretch his legs and get outside, so we head across the street to a forgettably-named restaurant.
1645: Dave is due back to the Palace for a reception, and to prepare for the march. Wanting for something to do, we head to a technique session hosted by the NWCA. Held in a tent. Outside. In Michigan. In March. Actually, you couldn't tell you were outside, the tent was cozy, and the athletes weren't freezing.
1945: We reconnect back at the suite to settle in for the championship matches. Highlights include local wrestler Paul Donohoe overcoming three previous losses to conference foe, Sam Hazewinkel to win it all at 125; Derek Moore, in a match of unbeatens, getting taken down first, then scoring all the subsequent points to tech fall Ryan Lang 17-2; fan favorite Ben Askren notably getting taken down and actually not pouring on the points, but doing enough to win his second national championship; and, seemingly underappreciated Cole Konrad pinning Penn State's Aaron Anspach, a repeat of the Big 10 finals result, in the championship to help propel Minnesota to the team championship. As a team, Missouri finishes 3rd, their highest ever finish.
2315: My turn to drive, we depart Auburn Hills with initially excited occupants, who then all turn quiet. Considering that it's a high holiday for beer lovers and faux-Irishman, there is a significant police presence on the drive home, but no incidents.
1220: Arrive back at Dave's house, check out his NCAA charts and championship medals, and his Gorriaran award.

Here we are watching the NCAA basketball tournament after enjoying lunch in the spacious U of M suite in Club 53: from left, Dave Porter, myself, Daren Bebee, and Jim Price.

Jim, me, and Daren. It was St. Patrick's Day, so we all wore green. Jim's shirt said "My wife is pregnant so I'm drinking for two." Note my Missouri Wrestling shirt, which I wore not knowing that we would be sitting in a UMich suite. D'oh! I kept my coat on nearly all day, to be gracious and inconspicuous.

I took this photo when I suddenly realized that Dennis Hastert, U.S. congressman from Illinois, and former Speaker of House, was sitting adjacent to our suite.

During the closing ceremonies and team trophy presentations, I bugged the former Speaker of the House, Dennis Hastert, and interrupted his conversation with what I would guess was an aide of his -- the woman in purple on the right -- and he agreed to have a picture taken with me. He was very gracious with my excited abruptness, and ever the politician, asking if I was from Missouri.

The Detroit Free Press noticed the former Speaker as well.

Dave Porter, handing the chart and award to 2007 NCAA Heavyweight Champion, Cole Conrad, from Minnesota, who won with a convincing pin, much like what made Dave's wrestling especially notable.