It was 5am in tiny Eau Claire, Wisconsin on Saturday and the bus was already started and roaring, ready for the trip to the hallowed ground. Five hours, 282 miles ahead – and later that day, back – past towns named Rochester and Waterloo and Cedar Rapids to Iowa City. On the bus was a family, really, the wrestling family of University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.
That included Tyler Kennedy, a former Eau Claire wrestler who drove in from his home in Minnesota just to get on that bus. He was awake by 2.45am. It included current grapplers on the college team and also John Peterson, an unpaid assistant coach who also was a 1976 Olympic gold medalist. He hadn’t been on a long bus ride like that in years. But for the hallowed ground, it was worth it.
“It’s a sport that really runs through generations of families,” said Tim Fader, a highly successful small college coach who recently took over the Eau Claire team. “My dad wrestled at Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa; my grandpa wrestled at the University of Michigan.”
The destination was Iowa City, home of the storied University of Iowa wrestling team. And on Saturday, Iowa, ranked No4 in the nation in college wrestling, would beat No1 Oklahoma State in an event that was a celebration of Americana. They wrestled at the Iowa football stadium in front of …
Forty-two thousand fans. Yes, 42,287, a record for American college wrestling. Actually, it was nearly triple the previous record. They called it Grapple on the Gridiron and it was a show of force.
“It’s great for wrestling,” Iowa coach Tom Brands said afterward. “There are people in Russia, in Turkey and Iran that are going to see this as well. They know about this.”
Sure, wrestling hotbeds around the world will notice what happened. After all, this was partly for show, too. But maybe more important was what the day meant here in the United States, whether or not it resonated across the country beyond maybe a glimpse on highlight shows.
It would probably come as a surprise to most of America that they filled a football stadium to watch wrestling, chant for wrestling, go crazy over wrestling. “TWO, TWO, TWO,” the crowd would roar every time an Iowa wrestler even came close to taking down an Oklahoma State wrestler for two points.
It is not a mainstream sport in the US, but it’s in the blood of the American midwest, and a few other pockets, such as Pennsylvania. Why those places? “You have farmers and you have coal miners, steel workers in those places,” Fader said. “Blue collar. Hard working. Strong family ethic.”
See, in Indiana, the lore of sports Americana says, kids from small towns, farm towns all grow up playing basketball. Towns live for and through their high school teams. In Texas, that’s how it is with football. In Minnesota, kids play hockey. In Eugene, Oregon, it’s distance running.
In Iowa, they wrestle. Sure, they do the other things, too. And the sports bleeds out to other areas in the midwest, maybe to Wisconsin and Michigan and Minnesota and Oklahoma. Even if they don’t do that around the country, they do it here, and it represents more than a passion for a sport. It represents a way of life, a culture, a toughness in the cold, tough midwest lifestyle. There is a pride in that here. Toughing the elements and surviving the cold and the conditions is worn like a badge in the midwest.
“That’s the way that the landscape of Iowa is,” Brands told the Guardian afterward in a private moment. “And the core things that they make a living with here fit the core things that you have to have to make a great wrestler. Being out in the fields late, getting up early and doing the chores that farmers and blue-collar mentality people do a lot. You even see it in the white-collar jobs here too, across Iowa.
“It’s a very difficult sport and when you take someone who isn’t used to that kind of work ethic or used to having another guy control you and trying to beat the living heck out of you, it’s hard to get up and fight that way, within a set of rules. It’s not normal, especially in today’s culture. That mentality comes from the land here.”
The scene Saturday was not exactly organized, but that only added to the atmosphere. Iowa’s wrestlers arrived on a bus and emerged to hundreds of fans looking for high-fives. They walked through some sort of fire show, or flames or pyrotechnic display.
Organizers had put a wrestling mat down partly into one end zone and filled that end of the stadium, filled maybe two-thirds of the place and left the other third empty. People packed in so tight that one security guard remarked: “We have gridlock at three gates. No one is moving in or out. They can’t.”
Iowa took control when 184-pounder Sammy Brooks dominated Oklahoma State’s Nolan Boyd, winning 17-2 on a technical fall – akin to a technical knockout in boxing or a 10-run rule in kids’ baseball. When it was over, Brooks toward toward the crowd and flexed his biceps.
“It was the perfect storm, a great day for wrestling,” Brooks said. “We’ve got crazy wrestling fans. I felt like my muscles were going to pop the roof off the place.”
Afterward, Brands spoke in some sort of odd wrestling language that you apparently had to be indigenous to understand. He said you could “pop your head off like a dandelion and we weren’t going to get your head popped off”.
Whatever that means. And: “We kept heavy hips on them.” And: “A couple of times we jumped that go.”
And nearly everyone on the Iowa team, Brands and his wrestlers, stopped to credit Dan Gable for the day, the culture and even the sport itself. Gable is the iconic figure of the sport in Iowa, similar to what Steve Prefontaine is to distance running in Oregon.
But Gable was there Saturday. He was an Olympic gold medalist in Munich in 1972, a superstar wrestler at Iowa State and then the creator, as coach, of the University of Iowa wrestling dynasty. He sees it as his job to continue promoting the sport. In other words: He was thrilled Saturday.
“I just think the state of Iowa has had a 100-year history for wrestling,” he told the Guardian. “And because of that, the tradition has just carried it on. It was there before me. I just helped it along. That’s what I still do.”
He said that the state high school wrestling tournament will draw 13,000 to 15,000 fans. “It sells out in minutes,” he said.
He listed not only Iowa’s 23 national titles, but also said that Iowa State has won several and University of Northern Iowa and even Cornell, exponents of a tradition “from a little teeny, tiny town in Iowa”.
And he talked about the success of schools at the smaller college level in Iowa. Meanwhile, Penn State, Ohio State and Minnesota have all built programs among the nation’s best – with head coaches who wrestled for Iowa. He envisioned them trying to break the attendance record now.
At the end of the day, buses went back to places in Iowa and also to Oklahoma. The Eau Claire bus returned home in a day that ended up being 10 hours on a bus and three hours watching wrestling.
“When I first signed up for it, I wondered, ‘Do I really want to do this?’” Peterson, who learned from Gable to be an elite wrestler. “Yeah, I do. It was worth it.”
It was history. Midwestern American history.