While his athlete is out on the mat, Gwynn Park wrestling coach Scott Brennan is the picture of concentration and intensity, shouting encouragement from the bench. Between periods, he is counseling the wrestler about strategy.
Brennan may seem like any other coach. He is aware of everything going on around him. He is blind.
Blindness is not uncommon for wrestlers, who use the same sense of feel as sighted people do to compete. But a coach usually relies on his own vision to pinpoint strengths or weaknesses in a wrestler.
Brennan, 26, doesn't need anybody to tell him what his wrestlers are doing. He knows his team's tendencies because he gets out on the mat and wrestles with them, creating the total hands-on teaching experience.
"You don't need a visual if you know your wrestler," said Brennan, blinded in an accident when he was 10. "It goes both ways. I demonstrate a move in practice and drill with them on effort."
He coaches the team by himself, but his brother Pat tells him how a wrestler is progressing during a match. Brennan also gets an idea of his man's status by listening to the referee, his team's reactions and crowd noise.
Brennan definitely has a vision of what he wants to accomplish at Gwynn Park, a school with no wrestling tradition and virtually no team at the beginning of the season. First-year coach Brennan has resurrected the program with a 5-6-1 record despite having just 12 wrestlers and only three with any experience.
It has taken great effort for Brennan just to get started. A former high school and college wrestler who graduated from Laurel in 1979, Brennan had begun teaching social studies at Laurel this year and hoped to become an assistant wrestling coach. He was informed that Gwynn Park needed a coach, and without one there wouldn't be a team. He quickly accepted the job despite the considerable distance he would have to travel each day out of his home in Shadyside, Md., to Laurel to Gwynn Park in Brandywine.
Gwynn Park Principal Mary Cunningham said she did not hesitate in hiring him after listening to his enthusiastic presentation. "Scott has a way of winning people," she said. "He handles the program and I expect him to do that."
He didn't have a lot to work with when he took over.
"There wasn't a lot of money for equipment," Brennan said. "But we built from that into a team with 12 tough kids, and they don't want to see that program die. It's a good program now. I've got to be happy with it."
Of the 12 wrestlers, 11 should return next year. Since some are freshmen and sophomores, the potential is there for a contending program within a couple of years. Gwynn Park placed 12th in the 16-team Prince George's County tournament the past weekend.
The transition has been smooth because the team adapted well to Brennan's confident style. "I came on strong," he said. "But I wanted them to know what I was doing. Not just as a way to perceive me, but the way I want them to be."
Brennan credits advice given to him by former Laurel wrestling coach Byrl Cohen. "He told me that if I'm there to teach wrestling, then I'm there for the wrong reason," Brennan said. "But if I'm there to teach an attitude, then I'm there for the right reason."
Wrestling is a sport in which attitude counts as much as ability and strength. Brennan has motivated his youths in that facet as well as mat maneuvers. They have responded well, although many of them had not even seen the sport before the ninth grade.
Brennan himself was a late entry into wrestling. He joined Laurel's team as a junior, at the end of their five-year unbeaten string. He had a 5-3 record as a senior, but he had to beat teammate Paul Debreau for a spot in the postseason tournament. Debreau beat him in practice and went on to place in the state meet.
Brennan went to Evansville University in Indiana on a partial wrestling scholarship, but the program there was dissolved after his sophomore season. He transferred to Vincennes (Ind.) University and finally Purdue, where he participated in intramural tournaments and club wrestling, and began to think about coaching.
Some of the Gwynn Park wrestlers were aware of Brennan's blindness when he was hired, but none were apprehensive about his ability to coach. Senior Carl Johnson, for one, credits Brennan with pushing him to improve.
"The best thing about the whole season is that he taught me to wrestle smart," said Johnson, who was 7-3 this season. "Before I went out on the mat he told me I was number one over all the rest."
Brennan's experience as a wrestler has motivated 142-pound freshman Steve Carpenter, who missed several matches this year due to injury and illness. Brennan knows that his ability to function as teacher and coach may have moved his wrestlers to work harder.
"If they are inspired by my being blind, all the better," he said. "Any way they can be inspired, all the better."