The road to Grundy is a mountain twister that winds out of southwest Virginia and into West Virginia before dipping back into Virginia, then curving like a fishhook toward the coal fields of Appalachia. Grundy, population 1,000, sits in a hollow just a few miles east of Kentucky, treacherously close to a modest-looking but often mean Levisa River, which devastated the town with its flood waters in 1937, 1957 and 1977.
A welcome sign at the edge of town lists the years in which Grundy High has won Virginia AA wrestling championships, including 12 straight through 1998. A mountainside rock above the main intersection is painted with a golden wave -- the team's nickname is the Golden Wave -- to signify the school's wrestling success.
But Main Street also reflects repeated flooding and economic hard times that followed the coal boom of more than two decades ago. A number of ghostly stores have long been empty, several owners awaiting relocation to higher ground across the river, where a "new" Grundy is being carved out of a mountainside. People wonder if they will live to see its completion.
Relatively few move into this narrow ribbon of bottom land between almost vertical mountains. Two of the exceptions to have settled here -- one in 1988, the other in 1996 -- have been high school wrestling coaches from Iowa, where both learned from America's preeminent wrestler, Dan Gable. Requiring minimal equipment and the kind of determination that characterizes the people of the area, wrestling began growing in Grundy in the early 1960s until townspeople decided they should recruit top-flight coaching. In the late '80s, they turned to Iowa.
"I was a little freaked out -- really freaked out -- when I got off the airplane in Bristol, Tenn., and started driving to Grundy, then took a right-hand turn straight up a mountain to the gym," said Kevin Dresser, a national champion and two-time all-American at the University of Iowa. "It was July and it was hot, but they had eight or 10 of their best kids there waiting for me and wanting to wrestle. I had been wrestling internationally until then, and there they were lined up. So I went through their best eight. I don't know if they were trying to see how good I was or if that was the interview process."
Dresser stayed and led Grundy High to eight straight Virginia AA championships from 1989 to '96. Grundy and wrestling became synonymous. At length, Dresser felt the need for a new challenge and went home to Iowa, recommending a younger Hawkeye all-American to succeed him. "I had never been to the coal fields," Travis Fiser said. "They told me it was pretty remote living, isolated, pretty hard to get used to. I imagined it as an old-time town, with one general store and some old lady sitting out front chewing tobacco. I come in here and I'm going, 'They got a McDonald's, they got a Pizza Hut, they got a Subway.' Hey, I don't need the big city. I'm country, and the people here are country. I took a liking to it right away."
Under Fiser, Grundy extended its streak of titles two more years through 1998. With the exception of 1999 and last season, Grundy has won a state title 14 of 16 years.
All this time, the high school has drawn its talent from a rich resource, the Grundy Wrestling Club, whose eighth-graders down to kindergartners and even younger wrestle almost year-round. Locals insist there is nothing apocryphal about the story of two of the club's toddlers using a rest between periods to suck on their pacifiers.
At the other extreme, high school senior Albert Childress -- at 6 feet 5, 262 pounds -- personifies the mountain man. He is affectionately known as "Big Albert." On March 7-8 at the state tournament at Salem Civic Center, Childress will be seeking his fourth straight state heavyweight championship -- and nobody doubts he will get it. As recently as the other morning, a group of men in downtown Grundy were sitting around drinking coffee and reminiscing about the time "Big Albert" pinned an opponent in four seconds.
"I think it was quicker than that," said Bill Neeley, a lawyer who also broadcasts Grundy's wrestling meets on radio.
"If the referee had been in position, it would have been quicker than that," said Tass Robertson, an assistant coach.
Neeley: "It took the referee almost four seconds to get in position."
Robertson: "They blew the whistle and, bam, the kid's on his back. The ref's kind of looking like, man, that was quick. Then he gets down there on the mat and by that time four seconds are off the clock."
Childress will lead Grundy in its quest to regain the state team title from Christiansburg -- and here the plot thickens. Christiansburg's coach is none other than Dresser, who stayed home in Iowa only six months before realizing how much he missed southwest Virginia. Fiser already had taken the Grundy job, so Dresser settled in at Christiansburg, near Blacksburg, building a program and finally dislodging Grundy as champion last season, 1911/2-1871/2. This season's tournament is expected to make for another tense struggle between the two schools. "There are a lot of people in Grundy who want to whip my butt," Dresser said.
Change is taking place in Grundy. As surely as it once was a rich source of coal, Grundy produced annual wrestling titles. But titles no longer come with such certainty. People here point out that it has become increasingly difficult for Grundy to win Virginia AA titles with the town's population and the school's enrollment dropping while other schools throughout the state are improving dramatically in the sport. They also insist that high school titles have been primarily a byproduct of participation, that, more importantly, wrestling offers many young people a chance for "self-esteem" and the realization that they can be successful in life.
That said, they want to win.
Every now and then, Grundy has made headlines, although not always happy ones.
Francis Gary Powers, the U-2 pilot whose plane was shot down over the Soviet Union in 1960 and who was imprisoned two years, attended Grundy High.
Floods usually make the news. In recent days, the Levisa overflowed its banks and covered one street. That's typical. But the flood of '77 swept away lives and livelihoods, a tragedy vividly recounted by Grundy's Rachel Riggsby in her 2001 book "Miscellanea." She describes the mud "shin-deep in the street and on the sidewalk," the water pouring into the Rexall, destroying Grundy Dry Goods, rising higher than the posters of coming attractions at the Lynwood movie house, patients being evacuated by helicopter from the hospital.
Work is under way to move many businesses across the river, a short distance away, where a piece of flat land is being prepared for the "new" Grundy -- the biggest effort yet in revitalization. A decade may be needed to complete the project, a combined effort by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Virginia Department of Transportation, the town of Grundy and Buchanan County.
In January 2002, a failing student at the new Appalachian School of Law went on a shooting rampage, killing the dean, a professor and a student, and injuring three others. As with other tragedies, the people of Grundy reacted as they usually do: They banded together to lend support. And, more than ever, they embraced the idea of the school, one of the efforts by civic leaders to diversify the area.
"It brought everybody closer, as every tragedy will," said F.D. "Red" Robertson, a former mine operator who avidly supports wrestling in Grundy. "It changed a word, from the law school to our law school."
Enrollment has continued to grow, helping the economy among other benefits. "It's kept the housing market and a lot of local businesses healthy," said Jim Wayne Childress (no relation to "Big Albert"), president of the Grundy Wrestling Club, the high school's wrestling coach in the 1970s and a member of the law school's first graduating class in 2000.
But recently, a train of loaded coal cars inched around a sharp curve alongside the river and Main Street -- a reminder on a gray, snowy day that even though the coal business endures, it no longer flourishes as it did some two decades ago when miners equipped with their bare hands, strong backs, courage and faith could provide amply for their families. Since then, the number of jobs has declined as sharply as the population.
"We've exported a lot of good people," Childress said. As a result, Grundy finds it harder to compete with a Christiansburg program that is continuing to grow under Dresser.
"They're definitely a distinct rival," Childress added. "They're number one in the state right now. They won the state last year and they're favored to win it this year. That's a growing area and we're a declining area. The quality of kids we have is just about the same. We just don't have as many of them as we once did."
But the town's intense pride and stick-to-itiveness apply as well to the wrestlers. "That's just our approach to things," said Tom Pruitt, a lawyer whose son J.T. Pruitt, a senior with a 4.0 grade-point average and plans of attending the U.S. Naval Academy, won the 140-pound state title two years ago. "If you're going to knock us off the hill, you'd better be ready. The whole community feels that way."
It is that attitude that made wrestling the dominant sport in town -- an example of individuals' self-reliance and resourcefulness that has characterized life in Grundy.
"Our first coach was not a wrestling coach," said Childress, a sophomore when wrestling started at Grundy High. "He got this book and laid it on the floor and the guys would look at it and say, 'Okay, the half nelson, we need to learn this.' Somebody would get down on the floor and another one would say, 'Okay, put your hand under the arm and lower the neck like this and you turn the guy over.' Then they'd all practice the move."
It has come to this: More than 200 boys wrestle for either the high school or the club. Up to a thousand fans flock from the area to the state tournament to root for Grundy, and the self-described "Golden Oldies" lead the cheers. And for those who can't make it to a meet, there's the Bill & Bill show, Bill Neeley and Bill Crigger calling every headlock and takedown, home and away, on WMJD-FM, 97.7, Grundy.
"Whenever Grundy's on the mat, we're on the radio," Neeley said.
Once they failed to get on for the start of a meet and the station's switchboard was jammed with callers.
"Sometimes folks get into their vehicles and listen from their driveways because they can't get the reception in their homes," said Crigger, who works at a local bank.
"A friend of mine over in Abingdon, an hour and a half away, told me he could pick it up in his vehicle if he turned his vehicle a certain direction," Neeley said. "So he sits outside and listens to the state tournament each year. He'll holler into his wife and ask her to bring him out something to eat and drink."
The Great Equalizer
Grundy's wrestling gym sits on a small ledge of flat land halfway up a mountain on the outskirts of town. Red Robertson lives up there, in a Spanish style white-brick home. He had the gym built next door in matching white brick. It's a one-story building, with no windows and two large doors on one side. Inside, it quickly reveals itself as a wrestling palace, its principal room warm and matted. "I feel we're the envy of a lot of high schools and even some colleges," Fiser said.
All over the place, boys are locked in training with a bevy of assistant coaches supervising.
"I've never really liked to do anything and not give it an effort," said Robertson, known locally for understating his contributions to Grundy wrestling.
"We wanted to give the kids in this area every opportunity we could to succeed. So we gave them a place to wrestle. We looked for coaches who really knew what they were doing. In wrestling, you get to play against somebody your own size. They give you kind of a level playing field. There's 14 weight classes and there's something in there for just about everybody. If you get into wrestling and work hard enough, you can accomplish something."
The construction of the gym in 1983 and the recruitment of Ben Ward, an all-American wrestler at Old Dominion, as coach solidified interest in the sport. Grundy's title streak began under Ward. Once established as the best, Grundy wrestling and the perennial titles became even more a symbol of pride to townspeople. But Robertson, a businessman who formerly practiced law and operated a mining company, said he is less concerned with titles than the hope and character-building that the town's youngsters can gain through wrestling.
"We're in an area where you've got kids from sophisticated families, very well culturally raised, and we've got kids from as far back in the backwoods as anything you can think of," said Robertson, sitting at his desk. "Everybody gets treated the same. The things we're most proud of, of all the kids that have been in our program, all of them have finished high school and probably about 80 percent of them have attended some type of college course, and we've had a lot of graduates."
Robertson's son Tass, the assistant coach, almost broke down relating a story about one of the team's wrestlers. An excellent high school student now, the boy had been failing all classes in elementary school when Tass introduced him to the sport. "He had never been to a Dairy Queen. There was this big picture of an Ultimate Burger. 'You mean I can have one?' he asked.
"I said, 'Not only that, you can have fries and a Coke, too.' "
Similarly, Raymond Webb turned emotional talking about Grundy wrestling. A deputy sheriff with the county who also serves as an assistant coach, Webb knew hard times as a boy. "You have no idea," he said, his eyes misting.
He left it at this: "I was in elementary school and one day I was out riding a bicycle when Jim Wayne Childress came by and said, 'Hey, why don't you come by and see what's going on.' That one day, it changed my life around."
Webb said Dale Cox, a longtime assistant coach, "knew I'd had some problems at home. He always told me he'd give me a place to stay, and he did. I try to think where I'd be if it wasn't for the wrestling club. I can't imagine where."
Webb's son Andy, 3, already has a year's experience in wrestling -- but that's hardly unique.
"As far as when they start," Cox said, "they have to be out of diapers."
"Potty trained," Jim Wayne Childress said.
"I started when I was 3 and they turned me into the state champion," said Albert Childress, the senior heavyweight. "I don't want to sound arrogant, or nothing like that. But I'm confident."
"Every time I step out on the mat, that mat's mine," he said, firmly. "I've always looked at it as, whoever walks out on the other side of the mat is who's going to be walking off as the loser."
'Dark Horse' Candidate
On a recent Saturday, the bus to carry Grundy's wrestlers to a five-team meet at Christiansburg loads up in front of Peebles department store, down the mountain from the gym because buses can't make it up the curving narrow road.
Grundy fans follow the bus as it winds unhurriedly out of town. The sky is leaden. Snow is falling lightly. A sign near a coal and coke company reads: "Light flashes when steam covers road."
It's a 2 1/2-hour drive to the site of the meet, at Eastern Montgomery High, near Christiansburg. There, Grundy fans gather from all over southwest Virginia. Al Porter, known as "Big Al" (not to be confused with "Big Albert"), also known as "Grundy's biggest fan," has arrived from Fort Chiswell, near Wytheville. "I started going to the meets in 1981," he said. "I haven't missed but a handful since then."
Kathy Crigger, broadcaster Bill Crigger's mother, happily made the trip -- and told a story that gave one pause. She said her son had a benign brain tumor removed in November -- and four weeks to the day later, she had one removed, too. "I didn't worry about my brain tumor because I worried so much about his," she said. "But we're both recuperating."
He sounded excited and in top form as the "Bill & Bill" show went on the air.
"Today, Bill Neeley, we're going to be meeting the best in the state and this is going to better prepare us for the March 7-8 tournament, which is the big daddy of 'em all, that's the state tournament in Salem. . . .
"The Grundy team is in the huddle, doing the prayer. Gosh, they're ready, they're focused, they're pumped up. The atmosphere, with the music in the background, I'll tell you what, it just doesn't get any better than this, as George Jones would say."
But Grundy had a difficult time, losing to Warren County, 42-31. "Big Albert" pinned his opponent inside two minutes, but others weren't as sharp. Grundy's fans seemed both surprised and disappointed.
At noon, Grundy and Christiansburg took to the mat. Crigger told his radio audience that the two teams were "butting heads like two big Russian bulls." Christiansburg prevailed, 42-25. Grundy fans, who filled a sizable portion of the stands, fell silent -- if only briefly -- when a Grundy wrestler lost.
"It may have tapered off here in the last few years," said 320-pound Luke Owens, a three-time state heavyweight champion for Grundy and standout offensive lineman for Virginia Tech's football team the past two seasons. "But, to me, it's commitment. The community wants the program to be good, so therefore it's going to be good."
In the afternoon sessions, however, the team rallied strongly for victories over Turner Ashby from Bridgewater and Patrick Henry of Roanoke. Plenty of hope remained, but so did the question under consideration for almost a year: Could Grundy win the state tournament and reclaim the state title from Christiansburg?
"If everybody wrestles the way they could, the way they should, we could easily win it," said 145-pounder Adam Yates. "It's all in our heads, really. We work harder than anybody out there."
"We've got almost as much horsepower as we need to win it outright," Jim Wayne Childress said. "But we're the dark horse. We're looking for some help."
Meantime, Fiser was not discouraged, but realistic, after the losses to Christiansburg and Warren County. His jaw was set, his eyes steady. He had the determined look people in Grundy have been known to get when faced with a challenge.
"I saw some good things," he said, "but we've got some work to do."