When you think of Laramie, Wyoming, natural associations come to mind: sixth-grade geography and televised adult Westerns indigestible even to a sixth-grader. It is quite difficult to associate the town with a major sports event, unless the sport is rodeo or the struggle for oxygen (a major contest for visitors) in an altitude of 7,165 feet. But last week in Laramie young men with Erich von Stroheim heads and deeply set eyes littered the sidewalk, and the conversation clung to cradles, guillotines, head levers, soufflés, pretzels and the price one had to pay in wrestling, which, to some, seemed exorbitant, considering Laramie.
The reason for all of this was the 35th annual NCAA wrestling championship, and the event, although smoothly managed, was as close to organized chaos as an Indian massacre Hollywood-style. There were 227 wrestlers from 24 states flopping about on six multicolored mats (approximately $20,000 worth). Spectators from New York to San Francisco swarmed from one mat to another, and for three full days (seven hours each) the University of Wyoming field house was rent with enough sounds to satisfy a disc jockey for years. But at the very end, in the final round of the last bout, there was an explosion and then stunned silence. Iowa State had won the NCAA championship by beating Oklahoma State 87-86. The king of college wrestling, the winner of 24 out of 34 championships, seven in the last 10 years, had been suddenly and shockingly toppled.
Entering the finals, Iowa State trailed the Cowboys 66-44, and few of those present would have given a whoop for Iowa State's chances of finishing even second. The Iowans, as they had at Cornell the year before, collapsed in the semifinals; entering with six wrestlers, they came out with only two finalists. Oklahoma State took five of its eight semifinalists into the last round. Another Cowboy title seemed just a matter of time. Then, almost unnoticed, the complexion of the tournament started to change in the consolation bouts, which count in a team's total score. Oklahoma State's Dennis Dutsch lost to Roger Sebert of Iowa State, as he had before, but Gene Davis, 137 pounds and heavily favored, was also a loser—to Bob Buzzard of Iowa State.
Still, the consolation victories were hardly enough to excite the many spectators who have long hoped for an Oklahoma State defeat. But Iowa State kept hammering away, and then came the 147-pound final-round match between Veryl Long and Joe Bavaro. Trailing with 12 seconds to go, Long suddenly reversed Bavaro to tie, sending the match into overtime. Long finally won on a referee's decision, and Iowa State led Oklahoma State 84-82.
The Cowboys were still in fine shape, though. They had three wrestlers in the remaining finals and figured to take at least two of these. The figures lied. In the very next match, the most important and no doubt the decisive bout of the evening, 177-pounders Bill Harlow and Tom Peckham fought each other evenly almost to the end. Then, behind with 25 seconds to go, Peckham executed an exceptional inside switch and won. Peckham was from Iowa State, Harlow from Oklahoma State, and now the Iowans were five points ahead of the Cowboys.
As expected, Oklahoma State rebounded to within a point of Iowa State in the next match when 191-pounder Jack Brisco pinned Dan Pernat of Wisconsin. The only event that remained was the heavyweight match between Syracuse's huge fullback, Jim Nance, and Russ Winer of Oklahoma State. Nance, who was the heavyweight champion in 1963, seemed unruffled by the importance of the moment, although he had a lot on the line himself. In 1964 he lost in the quarter-finals, and then did not show up for the consolations. "My pride was hurt," he said. There was nothing wrong with Nance's pride Saturday night. He decisioned Winer 5-3 and the field house erupted—but quietly. The fans flooded the mats, but instead of roaring they stood around as if in a coma, not knowing what to do. The Iowa State wrestlers rushed out on the mats, and carried Nance on their shoulders. But the sound of the gun that usually signifies an Oklahoma State victory was missing.
The reaction to Iowa State's victory was to be expected. "They finally caught up with Roderick's animals," said one coach. "My, what a good feeling." In short, more than a victory for Iowa State, this was for many a triumph of the purists over the proselyter, the master recruiter, Myron Roderick. Tadaaki Hatta and 130-pounder Yojiro Uetake, a gold medal winner in the Olympics, are the result of Roderick's pipeline to Japan. Bob Douglas, an exceptional 147-pounder, who suffered a concussion in the first round and was out the rest of the tournament (certainly a damaging blow to Oklahoma State), was discovered by Roderick in a match at Kent State University two years ago. Douglas, then at West Liberty State College in West Virginia, hitchhiked to the Nationals at Kent, and was runner-up in his class. The next year he was on the Cowboy campus. Asked why he decided to transfer, he said: "Man, this is a fat city. Why not?" But if life for a wrestler at Oklahoma State is a cornucopia of privilege and reward, it is also rigorously demanding.
"The alumni only want to hear how many straight dual matches you've won, and did you win the Nationals," says Roderick. "That's the tradition."
Actually, that is only part of the tradition. Toughness is the other half. (Legend has it that Roderick's ears are cauliflowered because he kept banging them with his fists; in Stillwater a cauliflower ear is a badge of honor.) Winning and toughness are inculcated in the mind of every boy entering the wrestling room for the first time. The 6,000 or more fans who show up for every match—Cowboy wrestling dominates coffee hour discussions—expect nothing less. Losers live everywhere except in Oklahoma, especially not in Stillwater.
Yet, there is nothing aggressive about the Cowboy style of wrestling; in fact, some label it dull. It is conservative, the emphasis being on takedowns and escapes. In contrast to Iowa State, the Cowboys do not like to "mat wrestle," and the last place they want an opponent is on his back. It is too easy to be reversed (presenting the other man with two points), and nothing infuriates Roderick more than a reversal. "His boys had rather die," says one coach, "than face him after being reversed."
Watching Roderick at the Nationals, it was easy to see how he can instill fear and spirit in his boys. His small, hard body jerking up and down, his fists thrust forward, he was a picture of fury. Again and again he would start to climb up on the mat, his fist shaking and his voice bellowing like a wounded animal: "Do you wanna win this match? Do you really wanna win it?"
The boy would just turn and look vacantly at him.
"Yeah, boy, I sure do mean it. Do you wanna quit? Or do you wanna win it?"
Once one of his wrestlers, with contempt in his eyes and voice, turned and shouted, "Yeahhh."
Later, over oatmeal on the morning before the finals, Roderick seemed emotionally exhausted. He finished his breakfast and then arranged for a victory dinner following the finals. "We've paid the price," he sighed.
So had a lot of others, and never was it more sharply apparent than at the morning weigh-in. The NCAA championships come high, and weights have to come low. One by one, the wrestlers marched up to the scales, their faces pale, their cheeks sunken, their eyes rimmed with brown circles. They had come from the field-house steam rooms, which each morning were cluttered with wrestlers, sitting almost on top of one another, their heads wrapped in towels and buried in their arms.
In addition to the steam, some did not eat or drink for three days; tournaments are the most difficult, because the boys have to make the weight every day. Abstinence from liquid becomes almost unbearable; the wrestlers become so dry their saliva becomes powdery. A Lehigh boy lost his last four ounces by chewing gum and spitting. Another boy, trying to stay at his weight, refused to carry money for fear he might be tempted to buy something to eat.
It is, it seems, an unending job of self-deception. The wrestlers react in different ways to the punishment. Some become sullen, others seem to derive great joy from the ascetic laws of the sport. "You push yourself beyond the brink," said one happily. "And it makes you feel good inside, like you are able to keep doing what nobody else can do." No other sport—it seemed brutally evident at the Nationals—demands so much of a performer as wrestling. Physically and emotionally, he is constantly paying.
The emotional strain on a wrestler before a match was even more obvious. Some sat on benches, their eyes cast downward. Others kept jumping about, unable to keep still. A few paced up and down in the same place, looking as if they were in a private world. Only now and then did they turn to stare out toward the mats—and then only when the crowd began shrieking: "Show 'im the lights," or "Plant 'im." This is the terminology for the pin—the most personal of all humiliations in sport.
"Sure," said one coach, "being pinned, especially in the Nationals, and even just losing is humiliating to them, but one day a lot of the boys will regard having competed in the Nationals, just being there, as a victory."
True, perhaps, but a large body of the fans is unlikely to share this viewpoint. Just being there was an ordeal. The weather was not exactly chamber of commerce perfect. High winds, constant snow and 10° temperatures provoked grumbling, some of it in jest. Overlooking the weather, there were those who complained about the almost monastic atmosphere of the town, which sits between the Laramie and Medicine Bow mountains. Little did they know that once Laramie was the haven—"with the exception of a few good and noble men and women—of gamblers, highwaymen, garroters, shady ladies and their necessary companions."
By Sunday morning, however, most of them had forgotten their complaints. They had watched good wrestling, gloried at the price being paid, and now they would travel home and talk of cradles and head levers and cackle at a singular fact: There is, at last, a loser in Stillwater.