Lock Haven, tucked away among the ridges and rills of the Bald Eagle Mountains in north central Pennsylvania, is the home of Piper airplanes, of several new department stores along Main Street and, temporarily, of a slightly bowlegged, scrawny, 5-foot 5-inch transplanted Southerner named Elliott Gray Simons Jr.
A senior at Lock Haven State College, Gray Simons is the best college wrestler in America and a heavy favorite to retain the National Collegiate Athletic Association 115-pound title (which he won as a sophomore and as a junior) at the championships this week in Stillwater, Okla. Simons has won 81 consecutive college matches—a record.
As small as the 22-year-old Simons is, he has big hands, exceptional balance and muscles that feel as though they had been sculpted out of marble. On the mat he is an aggressive, canny foe who can move with the speed of an opportunistic cat and make opponents pay dearly for their slightest blunders. During the season he wrestles at 123 pounds, but for tournaments he gets down to 115, and it is at that weight that he has won most of his trophies, which include, among others, the award last year as the Outstanding Wrestler in the NCAA meet. Saturday night he won the NAIA (small college) championship for the fourth time in a row (nobody else ever has), and for the fourth time he was voted that meet's outstanding wrestler.
Only twice has Simons lost in college. Both defeats came in his freshman year, and since then he has been unbeatable—almost. He did lose two bouts at the Rome Olympics, but Simons had two serious problems there: his wrestling style, which is perfect for college rules but unsuited to Olympic rules, and his weight. "I found that in freestyle wrestling I could use the same takedowns as in college, but I had to change, oh, I guess you'd call it my philosophy or strategy, when I was on top of my man," Simons said recently. "I had always been taught to be prepared to counter the other man's moves. In the Olympics you have to initiate the action when you're on top. You have to go for the pin and not worry about being reversed."
Even more bothersome for Simons was getting his weight down and keeping it there. In college tournaments, wrestlers are given two or three pounds' allowance after the first day of competition. Simons had to get down to 114.5 pounds and hold the weight for six days. Even on his small frame, that was like stretching a squirrel hide over a bass drum. Still, it took him a brief 2:08 to pin his first opponent.
Simons led 2-0 in his next match against Ahmet Bilek, a Turk, and the eventual gold medal winner, when he made a minute tactical error. Before he could recover, Bilek rolled to his left, taking Simons with him and brushing Gray's shoulders across the mat for a touch fall, or pin. For Americans the touch fall is the most exasperating aspect of Olympic wrestling. It requires merely that a man's shoulders touch the mat for an instant. In this country a pin is not achieved until a man's shoulders are held to the mat for two seconds.
Before being eliminated, Simons scored one of the biggest upsets of the Olympics by winning a 6 2, decision from Ali Aliev, a Russian who was a world champion in 1959 and again last year. Although Simons did not win a medal, he finally placed fifth.
Shy but successful
Like many successful young athletes, Gray Simons has always been dreadfully shy in public, but around his family and friends the bumpkin in him disappears and his face, slightly hollowed and accentuated by dark, heavy eyebrows, becomes serene and confident. He began wrestling in the eighth grade at Granby High School in Norfolk, Va. By the time he had graduated he had won 40 of 44 matches and one state championship.
"I used to rassle in the front yard [and "in every corner of the house," according to his mother] with my brother Wayne," Simons says. ' "We'd try out different holds and tricks, and that helped me a lot." Wayne, too, benefited. Wrestling for Granby, Wayne became a four-time state titlist and was undefeated in 58 bouts. Now, as a sophomore, he is the varsity 130-pounder for the nation's leading team, Oklahoma State.
A week after Simons began classes at Lock Haven his father died. To cut expenses, Simons moved off campus and into a home in town with two elderly widows. In exchange for tending the coal furnace the women give him a free room. "They try to feed me, too," Simons says, somewhat awed.
Late in January, against Bloomsburg State College, Simons gave his finest college performance. Bloomsburg had taken the state teachers college championship for the past two years and victory again seemed certain when, a few days before the match, Simons tore a cartilage in his chest and appeared to be definitely sidelined. But on the day of the match Lock Haven Coach Herb Jack was taken to the hospital, a pneumonia victim, and Bill Radford, another Granby High boy, who wrestles at 157 pounds, was also hospitalized because of an infected boil. Simons, who had almost nothing to gain and a lot to lose, decided he would try to give his team a lift by competing in spite of his injury.
With more than 4,000 spectators crushed into every corner of Lock Haven's Thomas Field House, Simons took on Joel Melitski. As he almost always does, Simons got a first-period takedown, giving him a 2-0 lead. His injury, however, was more serious than he had believed, and he was unable to hold his man. Melitski's escape gave him one point. Thanks to his amazing speed, Simons was able to score more takedowns (each one after the first is worth one point), but always had to let Melitski escape. Thus Simons led 5-4 as the bout neared the end.
By this time the wrestling-wise crowd (Lock Haven people dote on the sport and point with pride to a local boy, Mike Johnson, who won a record 84 straight matches before entering Pittsburgh last fall) realized from the way sweat poured off Simons and the way he winced occasionally that he was hurt. Melitski sensed it, too, and went for a takedown. Simons staved him off, backtracked, moved out of reach—and then lunged in. He got another takedown, but again had to let Melitski go. A few seconds later the match ended, with Simons a 6-5 winner. Some people in the stands cried. Without Simons' victory (his 72nd in a row), Lock Haven would have lost. With it, the team got its 17th straight win, 16-12.
Simons is healthy now, and in practice he has been moving with his old, effortless grace, countering takedown attempts like a mosquito avoiding a swatter, then, with a flick, moving in for the kill. In the defense of his 115-pound title, Simons will compete against such outstanding wrestlers as Oklahoma State's Mark McCracken (who has been 17-0 in dual meets for the past two years), Colorado State's Gil Sanchez (8-1 this season, and a former AAU champion) and Lehigh's Bill Merriam (9-0-1), and if he gets by them, as he should, he will successfully close out college wrestling's finest career.