The funeral for my high school's wrestling program would draw a light crowd as usual.
Gloucester Catholic rarely ever fielded a full lineup. We didn't win much when I was there in the mid-`90s and that didn't change when I left. Opponents never feared when our bus pulled in, and few in the frenzied world of South Jersey wrestling will be surprised that the small, Gloucester City school recently dropped the program. Last year, the team was 0-20. It was just a matter of time.
But for me and some of my former teammates, the wrestling room that sat deep in the bowels of an old, brick building by the Delaware River was at least as holy as the school's chapel. We called it "the pit" with a deep reverence. My dad, a former teacher at the school, refurbished it one summer with his own money. Sometimes the room flooded and ceiling panels would fall down on the practice mat that had been rescued from a school that burned down before we were born.
On the best days, though, that room would burn hot like a forge and not just because we cranked the radiators on full blast. We hammered and bent and ultimately, toughened one another the way iron sharpens iron. Today, we might be soft around the belly with bad knees, but every wrestler keeps a bit of that toughness inside.
"It's hard to explain the sport to people that never wrestled," said Mike Donahue, a former Gloucester Catholic grappler who won a District 28 title in 1994.
In recent years, Donahue has tried to revive the team, actively recruiting new coaches to come take over a program that has steadily lost numbers. Last year, the team sent only six wrestlers to the district tournament, and none advanced past the first night of competition.
"It's just a shame," he told me.
Wrestling is the most difficult scholastic sport, and I don't entertain argument about it. You bleed, you starve, you dislocate fingers, and your forearms cramp and burn from locking up opponents in cradles. Sometimes your lungs can't deliver oxygen fast enough, and you can wring out your clothes into a puddle of sweat. Sometimes, that sweat covers up the tears.
On the wrestling mat, there's no one to blame. If you lose, it's your loss, utterly alone, and yet it's the only sport where you can lose well and still help your team. I've seen a kid carried off the mat as a hero because he lost without getting pinned — saving his team a crucial point at the end.
"There's nothing more humbling than having someone hold you down on your back, and there's nothing you can do about it," Donahue said.
On some days, we'd wake around 5 a.m., and I'd spit into a cup to try to make weight while my mom drove me to school, gagging. We'd run laps in the dark gymnasium for 90 minutes with a strobe light on, then take a cold shower, go to classes, then practice for two hours afterward.
"I mean, we used to break into the school to practice," Donahue, 42, recalled with a laugh.
Sometimes I had to wrestle my friend Dee, the star of our team, and I liken it to grabbing at a tornado. His body moved faster than I could think, and he made me bite my tongue, literally, more times than I can remember.
My late and beloved friend, Anthony, was my main partner in the room for three years. We had to carry one another up the stairs to get in shape, and later in life, we helped each other carry heavier burdens.
When I was on my back, which was often, I developed my own style, rolling through to reverse position, moves that no one teaches kids when they are young. My moves were ugly, sometimes referred to as "funk," and I did them so often that my coaches called it "Narko-Roman wrestling." Once I lost 23-17, which has to be some kind of record for points scored in a match. I think I made it fun for the few fans who came to watch us, though, and often made my dad have a heart attack while he tried to film me.
Narko-Roman would have been drilled out of me at a school with a better pedigree, and yet it remained a motto for me, a mantra to repeat when things got tough in life, and I thought about giving up. Often, when I was losing badly, I won.
Both of my sons wrestled. Looking back on it, I'm not sure they loved the sport the way I do, and that's fine. They were both more talented than I was and learned to wrestle the right way, sans the funk. My older son had ice water in his veins, able to eke out 1-0 matches by being smart and conservative. My other son was more volatile, blessed with a headlock sent from heaven, and he hated losing more than he liked to win.
Both beat kids who'd beaten them before, and that's a goal I always told them to strive for. I hope I'll see them both on the mat again, someday, ideally in a singlet or perhaps later with their own boys. I pray they've taken something from the sport the way I did.
Just before Christmas last year, my older son wrestled in Gloucester City and pinned an opponent on a Gloucester Catholic mat, the first time anyone named Nark had done that on the maroon and gold in two decades. That will never happen again, for me or any other dad, and while the GC legacy is small, yes, it's still one that a few of us will carry forever.