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For Wrestlers, a Swelled Sense of Pride

By Preston Williams
Thursday, March 6, 2008

It sounds like an ingredient for a highfalutin vegetarian recipe. Or maybe a flower indigenous to the West. And it would make a marvelous band name.

But what, exactly, is "cauliflower ear," and why are some wrestlers proud to have one, some desperately hoping to get one and still others covering their non-cauliflower ears at the very mention of possibly acquiring one?

Cauliflower ear is the condition that develops when one is repeatedly struck in the same ear. When bruised, the skin gets separated from the cartilage, loses its blood supply and dies. That prompts a shriveling of the cartilage and gives the ear a gnarled or puffy look.

It will harden permanently unless treated within days, often by draining and with compression, but that could mean missing matches during the season. Even when drained, the blood and pus often return. It can usually be corrected with plastic surgery.

For some, cauliflower ear is a desired deformity, like a tattoo, except that you earn it through prolonged hard work and sacrifice on the mat (and probably from not wearing your headgear).

Area wrestlers and coaches, even those who are anti-cauliflower ear, refer to it as a "trophy," a "battle scar," a "rite of passage," a "kind of a macho thing" or even a "conversation starter." And there is conflicting anecdotal evidence as to whether it attracts or repels the ladies.

It's all in the ear of the beholder. The rough equivalent would be the boxer with the crooked nose from all the breaks or a hockey player with a jack-o'-lantern smile.

"The general public probably look upon them with disdain or as being kind of barbaric, and I guess in a way, that's true," Hayfield Secondary Coach Roy Hill said. "But within the wrestling community, it's sometimes looked upon as a badge of courage."

Either way, cauliflower ears are worth looking for during downtime this weekend at the Maryland state championships at Cole Field House or the Virginia A and AA championships in Roanoke.

Hayfield senior Steven Ours, last year's Virginia AAA champion at 152 pounds and the third-place finisher at this year's state competition two weeks ago, is more than happy to flaunt his cauliflower ear, his right one.

"You see people walking down the street and look at their ear, and if they have cauliflower ear, 'Oh, that guy's a wrestler,' " said Ours, who finds his to be a source of motivation. "If I'm going through a hard time or something," he said, "I'll be like, I did this, so I know I can get through" a challenge.

One wrestler might not even acknowledge another's cauliflower ear, but non-wrestlers sure are interested. What happened to your ear? Ours, who will wrestle next season at Clarion University in Pennsylvania, has heard it in school, at the pool and at the grocery store.

"They always want to touch it," he said. "Always."

Hill, in Iowa several years ago to attend the NCAA wrestling championships, dined at a restaurant near a table of older men who were former college wrestlers. The waitress, spying a cauliflower ear in every seat, asked the men whether they were related. They just laughed.

To a large degree, cauliflower ear is avoidable, if wrestlers wear properly fitted headgear. They are required to wear the protection during school-sanctioned competitions but not during practice or during the freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling in which they compete during the offseason.

Ours believes he is less likely to get headlocked if he wrestles without his headgear. Other wrestlers complain that the headgear is bulky, generates too much heat and prevents them from hearing instructions.

But mom and dad often will make the headgear mandatory. When Junior waltzes in with cauliflower ear, they get cantaloupe eyes.

"Their parents will freak out: 'Oh my God! My baby!' " an amused Ours said. "There was one kid I used to wrestle with over the summer. He wanted it so bad that every night after practice he'd go home and beat his ear with a shoe. I laughed at him because he could never get it."

Hill said some guys punch each other in the ear to try to cauliflowerize themselves. At a national tournament in Las Vegas last year, he saw a female wrestler who had put star tattoos on her cauliflower ear to accentuate it.

Hayfield junior Raymond Borja, state runner-up at 119 pounds, is among those who would love to have one. He's not willing to beat himself in the ear with a shoe, but he does eschew his headgear every chance he gets. He got cauliflower ear once at wrestling camp and had it drained, hoping it would return in fuller blossom, as is the norm. He's still waiting.

"If I could get it, it'd be awesome," he said. "I'm going to keep trying. My mom and dad know that I want it. They said it's your choice if you want it, but you're going to have to suffer through the pain and stuff. I'm fine with that."

Damascus senior Dan Obendorfer was not fine with it. It required three surgeries in the span of a month or so this winter to get rid of his cauliflower ear -- he never got numb during an excruciating second procedure -- and it still hurts when he bumps it.

Obendorfer, who enjoyed wrestling but did it more for fun, left the team toward the end of the season because of all the recurring cauliflower ear problems he was experiencing. His condition developed inside his ear to the point that he could not put an earphone in it while listening to his beloved Pink Floyd or Smashing Pumpkins. And his hearing suffered.

"He didn't want to be deformed for the rest of his life," said Obendorfer's mother, Catherine. "His whole ear, from top to bottom, would be black from the blood and pus. It looked like this big swollen bruise."

So now, if there ever is a band called Cauliflower Ear, Obendorfer should be able to listen to it in comfort.

Varsity Letter is a weekly column about high school sports in the Washington area. E-mail Preston Williams atwilliamsp@washpost.com.

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