Thoughts from Omaha: Once again, if you haven’t experienced the 3-day Div. I NCAA Wrestling Championships, make plans to attend next year in Pennsylvania Proud Philadelphia at the Wachovia Center. It really is one of the premiere events in sports.
The Quest Center in Omaha is one of the nicest arenas I have ever been in. It had an indoor walk-way over the street below connecting the Hilton Hotel where the WIN Memorabilia Show took place and access to the arena. It also had a huge convention center connecting the building which was great for the NCAA Fan Fest. And what a treat for the fans? They had the NCAA team trophy on display, physical activities for the kids such as combatant fights with pads to use, basketball shooting contests and a football throwing and kicking contest. The Big 10 and Big 12 had a freestyle match using post-grads from those schools competing for the U.S.A. World Team which drew a packed audience of over 3,000 fans. Free posters were given out for autograph sessions each day to help the young folk get to know the past great collegiate wrestlers. Such college superstars were there including 3x NCAA champions Gray Simons, Ed Banach and Barry Davis along with NCAA champions Jim and Bill Sheer and Olympians John Peterson, Nate Carr and Bruce Baumgartner.
The wrestling action is unbelievable. The intensity, scrambles, the flexibility used to defend takedowns such as full splits, the “funks” and “re-funks” must drive officials crazy. And the emotion from the coaches, parents and fans is extraordinary. I must give credit to the Iowa Hawkeyes; they wrestle the full 420 seconds! At least five of their opponents let up thinking they had the win in the books, but the Iowa dynamos just keep on coming like warriors.
The greatest moment for me and probably most spectators was the comeback by Jayson Ness (133) of Minnesota in the finals as he was down 4-1 with less than 30 seconds in the match. He proceeded to gain an escape, maneuver for a takedown with 10 seconds remaining and hold Daniel Dennis of Iowa on his back for the 2 second count he needed before time expired to win 6-4. Another thrilling moment was watching Kyle Dake of Cornell become a national champion as a rare true freshman. After his win, he ran to the edge of steps of the platform and when he saw the TV crew trying to stop him for an interview, he jumped off the platform to avoid them and ran to the stands and jumped up into his dad’s waiting arms for an emotional embrace. His father showed great strength in lifting his son up in midair! I hope the people watching at home saw that exciting moment.
Newspaper coverage of the event was good as the Omaha World-Herald dispatched 5 writers to cover the 3 days of grappling that included half-page colored photos. The crowds were great for all 6 sessions with few seats available and hundreds of people outside were jockeying for tickets. Next year looks to be an even harder ticket since Philadelphia is in such a large metropolitan region. When you look at the population base and the popularity of the sport in New York, New Jersey, the Washington DC area and of course Pennsylvania, a new attendance record for the NCAA Wrestling Championships is a great possibility. An added bonus is the fact that this region encompasses the largest media market in the world. It will make it convenient for TV outlets, newspapers and hopefully radio stations to access information and feed it out to the public. Maybe USA Today Newspaper will jump on the bandwagon. That paper has done a dismal job the last few years of covering the tournament. And once again, ESPN did a fabulous job of covering the quarter-finals, semis and finals live!! Go ESPN, You Rock!
The celebrities at the championships included actor Billy Baldwin, who was there to cheer on his alma mater Binghamton University where he wrestled. Baldwin was very accessible to the fans. Also, NFL lineman and World champion Stephen Neal was on hand to root on Cal-St. Bakersfield where he was an NCAA champion. Neal has 3 Super Bowl rings as a member of the New England Patriots-not bad for a guy who never played football in college. Bakersfield wore black singlets to protest their school’s decision to drop wrestling because of state budgetary issues. Neal said he is trying to get the program saved and has a meeting with the school president in the coming weeks. Both Neal and Baldwin served as honorary coaches for the Big 12 vs. Big 10 Freestyle match. Another celeb in the stands was Robin Ficker, the famous heckler of pro basketball who now devotes all his fan spirit to the Maryland wrestlers where his son was a member of the team. Ficker is a lawyer and former representative in the Maryland House of Delegates. He attended all of the Terrapin’s home matches as well as a dual at Virginia and the ACC Tournament. He gives all the wrestlers nicknames and is very creative with his chants. As Max Olson reported in the Omaha World-Herald, he especially supports Hudson (Taylor) River. “Girls run and hide. Brave men shiver. Get ready, here comes the Hudson River.”
Another interesting celebrity fan was in disguise. The Big Red of Cornell had a person dressed up in a full-body, red spandex outfit with a white singlet over top, a headgear, and sunglasses with white rims. This wild fan got the large section of Cornell faithful all fired up by leading the cheers for Dake and Mark Lewnes in the finals.
I found it fascinating that Brent Metcalf (149), champ for Iowa and Chase Pami of Cal Poly, who was a runner-up at 157, both played football in high school. I also discovered that Jermail Porter, who placed 6th last year for Kent State, now is a member of the Kansas City Chiefs. Remarkably, he never played football in his life! The 6’6”, 340 lb. tackle is not a starter, but stay tuned.
A great quote from Binghamton’s first semi-finalist, Justin Lister (157) a sophomore, “Believing is the hard part; you can’t do anything until you believe in yourself.” I saw a fitting quote on a shirt worn by an Iowa fan. It read “Show up-Dominate-Go Home.”
Finally, I ran into my college coach while at LHU, Neil Turner, wrestling ambassador, who runs the Mat-Town USA Wrestling Club in Lock Haven, PA “Where the Mats are Always Down” and he is the director of the high school division of the NWCA. Coach Turner wants to see wrestling get so big that they have to bring the wood into put down over the wrestling mats to play basketball!
I will defer Lesson #2 on the Extraordinary Success of Former “Wrestlers” from A to Z for my November column. Until then, keep your grades up, your weight down and be like Jayson Ness – Go 4 the PIN!