I began wrestling in Upstate New York at the age of seven. I still remember what I wore to my first practice: a red Masters of the Universe muscle-tank with He-Man front and center.
Come to think about it, there’s a lot I remember from my life as a wrestler; most of it having to do with the people I met and wrestled.
My school was in New York’s Section 4, the Binghamton-centric district that produced four-time national champ Kyle Dake and former UFC Champion Jon Jones. Wrestling was as big of a deal in that section as it was in any part of the country — Iowa included.
As a wrestler on the mat, I was average. But my knowledge of the sport — including its history — was probably second-to-none for a kid my age. That said, you didn’t need to be a wrestling historian to know about Dan Gable.
He WAS wrestling, and never in a million years did I think I’d ever meet him — let alone shake his hand and have an entire conversation with him.
That happened probably about 26 years later in Lincoln, Nebraska.
I ended up in Omaha by way of an enlistment in the Air Force. I married a local girl and lucked into a father-in-law who loved attending sporting events — especially wrestling.
One day, he asked if I wanted to join him and a couple of his friends to go watch Nebraska wrestle Penn State in Lincoln. I knew a couple of his friends, and I knew a few of them were former wrestlers. One of them had even wrestled for Gable at Iowa. I was more than happy to attend a match and be able to chat about wrestling with other wrestlers.
On the way to Lincoln, I was excited at the prospect of seeing Cael Sanderson in person. Sanderson had only recently taken over as Penn State’s head coach, and I was well aware of the impact he could have at a school in the heart of one of the nation’s richest wrestling recruiting regions.
And then my father-in-law hit me with it. “Gable is gonna be sitting with us,” he said. I tried to play it cool and contain my excitement. I was just told I would be sitting in a group — likely chatting and trading stories — with the greatest wrestler the sport had ever seen. I was quiet the rest of the way to the arena.
When we arrived, I fully expected to see guys in their 20s, 30s and 40s mobbing Gable in his seat, trying to get autographs and selfies. Instead, all I saw were what seemed like hundreds of kids roaming the bleachers and concourse wearing Penn State wrestling attire. Sure, you had your typical “Sea of Red” you see at every Nebraska sporting event, but this was different. These kids hadn’t all traveled from Pennsylvania. They were from Nebraska. They were young wrestlers from Nebraska, and they were there to see their idol — their Michael Jordan — Cael Sanderson.
We made our way to the mezzanine and to our section. I knew we had reached our destination when a couple of guys hollered a few “Hey, how ya doin’s” to my father-in-law. I started shaking hands and introducing myself to most of the guys in the section. One of them never stood up. He sat there, staring at the mat as a couple of wrestlers rolled around and warmed up.
It was Gable.
The national anthem came and went, matches began and ended, and Gable just sat in his seat, offering a word or two quietly to the one guy sitting next to him. The rest of our group didn’t seem to care. They were loud and having their own conversations during and between matches. But I was in fanboy mode. I wanted to talk to Gable.
That was my dilemma, though. Nobody else in the arena seemed to even notice his presence. He was dressed like he had just pulled a 12-hour shift at a lumber mill. He wore a trucker hat and a Carhartt-like jacket with jeans and work boots. He was just another guy in the stands. A nobody.
Finally, the match was over and we all kinda mulled around and talked about the match and what our plans were before we headed home. As we stood there, a father with a couple of young boys approached Gable and asked if he could get a picture.
That was my shot.
Now, even though I was sitting amongst the same group of guys, I could go and be a fan. After the father and boys walked away, I walked over to Gable, shook his hand and introduced myself. I told him what he meant to me as a wrestler growing up — a story he’d probably heard a million times before. Then he asked where I grew up, which led to a conversation about all of the wrestlers he had recruited from that part of the country.
By now, our group was headed toward the exits and Gable and I did the same. I ended our exchange with “Well, sir, it was nice to meet you,” and he replied with something along the same lines.
And then we just walked. We walked amongst the few thousand other fans trying to leave the building, and still, nobody noticed him. A small arena full of fans of a niche sport were oblivious to the fact that the greatest wrestler who ever lived was right there with them as a spectator.
Then, as we continued toward the building’s exit, now on the ground floor, we saw a crowd of kids mobbing a large bald man in a corner. It was Cael Sanderson, and the kids were holding out whatever they had for him to sign — and he was signing it all.
I know Gable saw him, but he didn’t say anything. And for a moment, I saw Sanderson glance into the crowd and spot Gable. They acknowledged one another without actually doing so, and both just kept right on doing what they were doing. Sanderson went back to the kids, while Gable blended in with the crowd, out of the building and into the Nebraska night — unnoticed, unrecognized and invisible.
In my eyes, wrestling’s torch had been passed, and the handoff went just about the way you would think Gable would want it to: unnoticed.
Like the first shirt I ever wore to wrestling practice, it was something I’ll never forget.