"There are only two things for which Iowa is internationally known: (1) It produces corn; and (2) It produces wrestlers," Mark Kreidler writes in the book "Four Days to Glory: Wrestling With the Soul of the American Heartland."
"Everybody there understands the difference between a good wrestler and a champion, and everybody -- just everybody -- understands the difference between a champion and a four-timer," he writes. "A champion rattles a community. A four-timer shakes a state."
"Four Days" details the senior season of two potential "state shakers" in Iowa.
And Kreidler, a Sacramento Bee columnist who embedded himself in the state's stuffy small-town gyms, offers more than a mat-side view of seniors Dan LeClere and Jay Borschel as they vie to join the 14 other Iowans who were four-time state titlists over the past eight decades.
Their quest, he writes, is "a profoundly lonely thing to do."
More than anything, the book offers an inside look at what makes high school wrestling so different from other prep sports: the starvation diets to cut weight, the superhuman workouts, the pain management, the knowledge that one false move can result in a crushing pin in an otherwise spotless career.
With its chronicling of high school sports in small towns, "Four Days" is promoted as akin to "Friday Night Lights" and "Hoosiers." It probably will fall short of such high school sports royalty -- after all, not everyone is as crazy about wrestling as Iowans apparently are -- but it will be devoured by wrestlers and fans like a steak dinner after a championship.
In only one other year had two four-timers been crowned in the same season in Iowa. The 11,000 spectators in Des Moines for the finals, at Veterans Memorial Auditorium, known as the Barn, are well aware of this.
LeClere is a 140-pounder at rural North Linn High, a 1A school with a senior class of 50. His family, which has a history of depression, is bound by wrestling.
His father, Doug, is an assistant coach and in some ways is the emotional core of the book, because of his unwavering devotion to the sport in which he and all his sons have competed.
"In the end, Doug is a wrestler. He just ran out of teams to wrestle for," Kreidler writes.
The unassuming Borschel, from 3A Linn-Mar High in suburban Cedar Rapids, about 20 minutes from LeClere's school, has a sneaky sense of humor. Borschel is fueled more by doubt, perceived or otherwise, than by lineage. There is good reason to question his chances: He has won state titles at 103, 125 and 152 pounds and as a senior is up to 171. No Iowa four-timer has climbed that high on the weight ladder.
And when Borschel reaches the state tournament, he is battling bronchitis.
For casual readers, there probably are too many blow-by-blow accounts of matches over the book's 262 pages, and the story often strays from its main characters and becomes more about their teams. The usual suspects are here -- the kid who could be great if he took the sport more seriously, the chronically injured kid, the kid who is too hard on himself, the kid who turns in a better year than expected -- but because wrestling often is a solitary endeavor, the team dynamic is not as compelling as it would be in a book about football or basketball.
Although the grind of the season is part of the pursuit, "Four Days" works best when Kreidler tackles the sociology of the sport.
He is an outsider documenting athletes who consider themselves outsiders. They suffer privately -- in their training and eating habits, for instance -- and yet when they lose, they do so publicly, with no one to blame but themselves in what Kreidler describes as "a sport that reveals character as much as shapes it."
The author also deftly lays out why Iowans, who are known as such decent people and who have the highest literacy rate in the country, have such a love for a "gladiatorial spectacle" that entails two sweaty boys rolling into human pretzels, with blood, mucus or vomit only a scratch, sneeze or grunt away. "Chess with body parts" is how Kreidler puts it.
The beauty is in the commitment ("savoring the sacrifice") and in the basic mechanical skills that have survived the centuries.
Texas small towns rallied around football. Indiana small towns rallied around basketball. And Iowa small towns, spurred by one of their own, early-1900s legend Frank Gotch, embraced wrestling.
"Wrestling long ago became a surrogate for many of Iowans' perceptions of themselves, particularly those who spent days working the land," Kreidler writes. "It was basic and it was predicated on strength of body and strength of mind; and just about anybody could learn to do it. Iowa got better at it than anybody else. And over time, that became a calling card in itself, something that did distinguish the state. It became a thing to be cherished and appreciated and bragged upon, and one generation of wrestlers gave rise to the next until a century had flown by."
Aside from some minor missteps -- a misnamed Tom Petty song, a couple of not-in-quotes expletives that feel out of place -- "Four Days" does its subjects, and subject matter, justice. Any high school wrestling fan would raise Kreidler's arm in triumph.