HERSHEY, Pa. — Every March, the sights and unmistakable sounds of high-stakes wrestling swirl into a sweaty, sometimes bloody, elixir of life for three longtime friends.
Fred Ulmer, Bert McGann, and Gordon Webster were teammates at Upper Darby High School and the world’s toughest sport forged something unbreakable among them long before most people in the Giant Center were born. On Friday afternoon, they shuffled down the stairs and into their seats at the arena, along with the thousands of others, to watch Pennsylvania’s best wrestlers compete for a state title. When the AAA quarterfinal matches began, they each took out their programs and began writing in the score or the time of a pin along the brackets.
Down below, across six mats, wrestlers bounced meditatively from foot to foot while they waited on deck. Some rushed up to the seats after their match, with smiles across their red faces. Others cried on their father’s shoulders. Every now and then, a collective blast of “Two!” would rise above the whistles when the crowd felt a referee blew a takedown call.
“Man, I’m telling you, I feel like I’m 70,” Ulmer said from Section 121.
Ulmer, like Webster, is 86. McGann is 87.
The three men have been attending the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association’s high school championships for decades. They’ve missed only a few times, including one recent year when McGann’s wife passed away. They don’t root for one specific team or wrestler. They’re here to support a region, Southeastern Pennsylvania’s District 1, instead. All three men were District 1 champions at Upper Darby under legendary coach Pete Bernardino in the late 1940s.
District 1 traditionally hasn’t fared well in Pennsylvania, a wrestling mecca, but the men just love the sport.
“We started out with a group of about 50,” said Webster, a Newtown Square resident.
That busload of wrestlers, coaches, and friends from all over District 1 has been whittled down by time, the only opponent that remains undefeated. Today, Ulmer drives to Hershey because his car has the best safety features. Webster takes up little room, just a few pounds heavier than his varsity weight of 133. They turn the radio off along the way to recount matches they wish they could get another crack at. Also, McGann’s hearing isn’t so great.
“I’m telling you, I had the kid pinned flat three times and they didn’t call it,” Ulmer said, recounting a high school match.
Ulmer, a former high school principal from Springfield, was the best wrestler of the three. He still has a bulldog’s jaw and the heavy hands of a punishing grappler. At Drexel University, where he’s in the athletic hall of fame, Ulmer was a team captain and a two-time MAC champion. At Upper Darby, he was recruited out of the hallway his junior year because the team needed a 185-pounder. He had never wrestled before.
“Pete [Bernardino] taught me everything I know,” Ulmer said. “I owe it all to him.”
McGann won a national prep title after Upper Darby, before going on to Franklin & Marshall College. McGann said he was undefeated his freshman year, then was injured until his senior year.
Webster, who worked his entire career as a doctor at Lankenau Medical Center, wrestled at Brown University. He once faced off against former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, a captain for Princeton University’s wrestling team.
“I didn’t do well,” he said.
In many ways, the fundamentals of the sport have stayed nearly the same over the last 70 years. There’s three positions and myriad assortment of moves to score points. But moves the three Upper Darby wrestlers used often, like the fireman’s carry and the sit-out switch, aren’t seen as much today on the mats. Techniques popular today, such as giving an opponent a point in order to score two were unheard of back in their time.
“They frowned on giving up a point. Any points, no matter what,” said McGann, a Media resident.
At Upper Darby, the men said they were lucky to get 10 matches a year. Now, high school wrestlers can get on the mat 50 times before the year ends.
“Kids out there are a lot tougher," Webster said.
They also know the kids are much safer, with restrictions on how many pounds they can cut to make weight and how they’re allowed to do it.
“Back then, I hate to say it, but we really just used to dehydrate ourselves,” Webster said.
Kent Sweigart, 56, of Lancaster, couldn’t helped but overhear the conversation. He leaned in to pat Ulmer on the shoulder. Sweigart was also at the Giant Center with an old wrestling buddy, just to watch.
“It’s a sport that requires so much discipline,” he said. “It’s more than just a sport.”
The three older friends said they’ll spend the weekend in Hershey, getting meals and possibly a movie between the wrestling. As the matches moved into the upper weights Friday, the men’s eyes moved from mat to mat, and it was clear they were reveling in one more March.
“Man, I’ll tell you that kid right there is a fighter,” Ulmer said after a match ended.
“Ain’t he, though?” McGann replied. “What a match.”