We were at a dual meet that Saturday and the other team didn’t have a freshman in the 167-pound weight class, so I’d already won by forfeit. Our sophomore team didn’t have a 185-pound wrestler, so our opponent had already won his match by forfeit. The two coaches talked: “Hey, since these guys didn’t get a chance to wrestle, why don’t we let them square off in an exhibition?”
Our coach asked me about it. My opponent was a year older and twenty pounds heavier, but I didn’t hesitate. “Sure,” I said, “I’ll do it.” After my victory the night before, I was feeling pretty good about myself. After one match, I’d already developed some ego over my wrestling ability. I thought, Hey, I’m 1-0. I’ll take on all comers.
Then I saw who I was up against. The guy was blond, huge, and ripped. He looked like Ivan Drago, Dolph Lundgren’s character in Rocky IV. I was afraid he might take my head off.
My fears were well founded. Once the match started, this guy dominated me. Early in the second period, he was ahead of me 13-0. I didn’t know many moves and was on my back most of the time, but I wasn’t going to just give in and let the guy pin me. “Ivan” was frustrated because he couldn’t finish me off.
He got so frustrated that midway through the second period, he lifted me off the mat and body-slammed me onto my shoulder. The referee blew his whistle, calling a timeout and awarding me my first point—a penalty against my opponent.
This was ugly. I couldn’t help thinking, what am I doing out here?
My coach came over to talk to me during the timeout. “Hey, Bruce, you all right?” he asked quietly.
“Yeah,” I said, breathing hard. “I’m all right.”
“Hey,” he said, “if you say you can’t go on, they’ll end the match and you’ll be awarded the win.”
For a split second, I actually considered it. Then I shook my head. No matter how good that sounds, you can’t quit.
The match continued. I didn’t know it at the time, but my parents were dying in the bleachers. Mom was crying and Dad was thinking, oh, no, what have I gotten him into?
One of the great things about my foray into wrestling was my conversations with Dad. I told him about the pit in my stomach and the feeling of dread I had before every match, which always intensified, since I was always one of the last people to wrestle. I’d think, Man, I want to be anywhere but here right now. I would be nervous and anxious before football games too, even when I was forty years old, but nothing like what I experienced as a kid in wrestling.
Dad agreed with me. “The only thing worse than waiting to begin a wrestling match,” he said, “is waiting to go into the ring to box. Those guys are trying to knock you out.” I saw his point.
On the other hand, one of the greatest feelings in all of sports is that moment when you scrape and struggle to pin your opponent’s shoulders against the mat and the referee slams his palm down with a thwack that echoes throughout the gym, signifying the end of the match. Suddenly, all the tension is released, replaced by an indescribable mix of exhilaration and relief.
I was expecting to be on the wrong end of that sound in my match against Ivan. It seemed just a matter of time. Then, no doubt because of his mounting frustration, my bigger and more talented opponent made a mistake. I was on all fours and he was on top of me, trying yet another maneuver to get me on my back. I felt his weight shift and realized he’d moved too high—that is, his center of gravity was too far forward. Without pausing to think about it, I reached back with my left arm, grabbed him somewhere, and flipped him. Suddenly, he was on his back and I was on top, squeezing his shoulders down as hard as I could.
The crowd let out a roar. I was in disbelief as the referee raised my arm, signifying that I’d won.
In the bleachers, Mom was smiling through her tears, while Dad had tears in his own eyes. He later told me he almost ran onto the mat to celebrate with me, something he would never do. When I greeted my parents a minute later, Dad said, “Bruce that was one of the greatest things I’ve ever seen.” Considering all that my dad had seen and done, it was quite a statement. The proud look on his face was one I’ll never forget.
Only now, as a father, do I understand how emotional it must have been for my parents to watch their son getting whipped, and suddenly turn disaster into triumph. Nothing hurts more than seeing your children struggle and nothing is more rewarding than seeing them succeed. Even today, I get choked up when I think about that day.
Dad and I continued our living-room lessons for the rest of the season. I’d come home from practice and we’d start messing around, Dad still wearing his suit pants, when he’d throw in a wrestling move I’d never seen before. “Dang,” I’d say, “what is that?”
“That’s an arm bar,” he’d say. “It’s a defensive move that can lead to a reversal. Here, I’ll show you.” And, pretty soon, I’d have another maneuver to add to my repertoire. Likewise, if I was having trouble with a certain opponent or move, he was able to demonstrate the perfect solution. He was my secret weapon.
I improved rapidly and finally began beating the teammate in my weight class. I finished the season with more wins than losses. But what I remember and cherish most from that season is the time I shared with my dad. It was when I began to truly understand how much he cared about me and our whole family. I’ll take those memories over a victory on the mat every time.
This excerpt from Inside the NFL’s First Family was taken by permission from Howard Books publishing.
Huddle Up Question
Huddle up with your kids and ask, “What is your favorite memory of us together?”