COLLEGE wrestling may be the most exhausting of all college sports. It's individual. It's grueling. It's psychological.
It's not glamorous.
The Washington area has a number of healthy college wrestling programs, with firmly established teams at Navy, American, Maryland, George Washington, George Mason and Howard. While football and basketball players get all the attention, most wrestlers sweat and strain in private.
At Navy, the athletes perspire on their textbooks. They constantly talk about their endless struggle to splice in some sports within their study schedules. Wrestling coach Ed Peery knows all about it.
On the top floor of McDonough Hall, Peery tries to have his Mids do as much grappling and as little reading as possible. He has a sign hanging face down from the rafters which tells the story.
"IF YOU CAN READ THIS, YOU ARE PINNED."
Standing on the plaster of paris encasing his snapped Achilles' tendon, Peery looked at his team practicing. These guys have been at if for months on end. They've got to be exhausted and just looking toward the end of the season. But they can look back on a great year. They've shown a lot of people the lights (wrestling jargon for pinning someone)."
Navy had a staisfying season, winning 18 of 23 meets, including a 29-7 obliteration of Army. "The first words these guys hear when they come to Annapolis is 'Beat Army,'" said Peery. "They have lots of incentive-extended leaves -- just like the football team."
For Eddie Meyers, however, it hasn't been quite like the football team. When last seen, Meyers was flashing his keyboard smile for the television cameras following a 278-yard rushing day against Army. That kind of day against Army is the stuff Mid dreams are made of.
But when Meyers' focus blended from football to wrestling, he had the kind of season that falling grades and tumbling confidence are made of.
"I don't know, somehow I just lost it this year," said Meyers, currently hobbling on strained knee ligaments. "I was really looking forward to the wrestling season. Even though I had a good season rushing, I enjoy wrestling as much as football and I thought I was ready. But after a few bad days, I lost my confidence. My head wasn't all together."
Picking up his crutches, Meyers said, "I'll be ready next year. I have something to prove to myself. I can be successful in both sports . . . and I will be."
If Peery is looking forward to Meyers being successful, he's dreaming of John Reich being phenomenal. Reich is a 167-pound plebe. He showed 15 people the lights this year. The record at Navy is 18.
Reich talks about the benefits of being a wrestler at Navy. "You get out of a lot of the tough parts of being a plebe. You don't have to eat with your company where you practically have to sit at attention with your face in your food.I eat at training tables so everything's a lot easier."
Eating is a major topic of discussion on the Navy wrestling team. "The whole year is a constant battle to keep your weight down," explained Peery. "It's easier at other schools where if you don't want to eat you don't have to. Here you have to attend all meals whether you eat or not. These guys have a rough time resisting all that food."
The main question, for a Navy wrestler, as it is with any talented Mid athlete, is why. Why put up with the traumas of being a plebe?Why go to a place where you have so much pressure? Why not get a scholarship somewhere else and enjoy the cushy civilian life style?
"I planned to come here a long time ago," said Reich. "You come here for an education and you get it. I love to wrestle but I won't be making it my life. I gave it some thought to go somewhere else and wrestle but basically I was always coming to the Naval Academy."
Almost none of the books in the American University wrestling office is about wrestling. They are, rather, weighty treaties on the Internal Revenue Code and corporations and antitrust, and they are the real tools of Bob Pincus' trade. He will use them when he graduates AU law school this spring, takes his bar examination, and goes to work for the Securities and Exchange Commission.
"I was the assistant coach (to Bob Karch) for two years," Pincus explained. "Officially, I'm the interim coach. I might stay around the sport when I finish law school, but I won't do much. There comes a time when you realize there are other things more important than wrestling."
That realization came early for Pincus and his cocaptains, seniors Dennis Watson and Loren Danielson. The sport was a last resort for each.
"I was too little to play basketball," Pincus confessed mournfully. He still is. Five-foot-4 people don't cause large recruiting scrambles.
"So I was looking around for a sport I could enjoy. Besides, at my high school (Harriton in Lower Merion, Pa.) wrestlers got much more attention than basketball players."
So there, tall people. The short shall at least inherit the mats. And Pincus attracted enough attention to earn a scholarship to William and Mary, where for four years he grappled other 126-pounders.
The situation was equally elementary for Watson. His first love was gymnastics, but his Connecticut prep school had no apparatus, much less a team. And, at 5-8, his second love, basketball, was equally lost.
"I didn't have much else to do," he admitted. Four years later, he did. "By the time I graduated, I had wrestled in more than 100 matches. I had told myself I had no interest in continuing when I came here. I came for the criminal justice program, not wrestling. One day I was just hanging around the dorm and Karch called, telling me that my old coach had called him and that (Karch) wanted to talk to me. I knew what was coming. I guess I missed it more than I thought."
Still, there is nothing very glamorous about wrestling for American's team.
When Watson walks into Clendenen Gym, he sees on the marquee not a wrestling advertisement, but the times for "Street Suite," the theater department's latest offering. He and his teammates have to roll their mats on and off the linoleum floor. When he glances at the surroundings, he sees theater props.
"If a guy wants to visit campus, we can usually scrape up a few bucks to help him," Pincus sighed. "But it's basically volume. If you do enough, you'll get somebody. But you can't go after state champs in places like Pennsylvania. You can't show them Clendenen and say 'this is where you're going to wrestle for the next four years.'"
At Maryland, Coach John McHugh can show prospects Cole Field House and tell them they'll spend much time on its floor for four years. In the past, just one look was all it took. The Terps won 21 straight Atlantic Coast Conference championships, 1955-75.
Now one look isn't enough, nor on occasion is two or three. The bodies that once had "M" stamped on them now are branded with "State" or "Carolina." Maryland has not won the ACC title in five years, and last season the bottom fell out -- last in the conference and last in the conference tournament.
"We could see the fall coming," said McHugh, a former Terp wrestler who succeeded 32-year veteran Sully Krause in 1978. "When Carolina and State started to give full rides (scholarships) and we were all still parceling out our 11 scholarships, we knew we were in trouble. The first kid we lost to State in 1972 won the conference championship."
It was a fast trip to life in the slow lane. No more crowds of 4-5,000 at Cole. Say goodbye to a No. 12 national ranking, as in 1970, or any national ranking at all. Be thankful that friends, relatives and those who knew Krause still care enough to come to Cole, and that the baseball players, who won a keg of beer by having the largest group attendance at a recent meet, and other minor-sport atheltes express their empathy and solidarity by spending a match in the bleachers. And, like all those who have fallen from grace, wait till next year.
"The lack of recognition doesn't bother me," senior Mike Garry says. "It's something I've been doing since the seventh grade, and I never had great expectations. I didn't come to school to wrestle. I've known all along that there won't be anything in it after I graduate."
The only thing in it for senior co-captain Kevin Colabucci will be arthritis. Guaranteed. He already has it in his hands, and his knees are next. In his junior year he had a contusion to the bone in his right knee and ripped the lateral collateral ligament in his left. That was good for a hardship redshirt. He was luckier his sophomore year, when he only suffered from herpes and a dislocated thumb, the cast for which he ripped off at the NCAA finals after softening it in the shower. And he's been golden this year, with merely a torn hip muscle and tilted sacrum.
Colabucci practices five hours per day, including running a average of six miles. He purposely schedules his classes at 8 a.m. to leave more time for wrestling. He's spent his share of time with water pills, Ex-Lax and the steam room trying to stay within his 167-pound limit. And he concedes his social life is "nil" during the season.
"It's a strange sport," Colabucci conceded. "You're really doing things for yourself and the team simultaneously. But it entails your whole life when you're involved. I don't know if that's good or bad. I do know that when the season's over I'm going into antitraining."
This time he won't have to recover.