Every day at 4 p.m. sharp, old John Pappajohn, the shoemaker who helps run the shop down on Fourth Street near South New in Bethlehem, Pa., shuts off his burnishing machine and wipes the tiny flecks of rubber from his white hair and spectacles. Then, shrugging into an old green-and-black-checked parka, he crams his pockets full of York's Mint Patties, Hershey bars and Life Savers, and hoofs it up the hill to feed the wrestlers at Lehigh University. At practice Pappajohn invariably finds a few of the boys in the steam room, sweating off a pound or two he helped them put on. But nobody is worried. After about 30 years of pampering some of the best wrestlers in the country old Pappajohn and his bulging pockets have become fixtures at Lehigh.
This year Pappajohn is more than ordinarily proud. His team is one of the best ever at Bethlehem. Lehigh has stretched its unbeaten streak in dual meets to 12 and, had Michigan State not defeated Oklahoma and tied Oklahoma State, the Engineers would be alone at the top. "It's just too bad," says Pappajohn and a host of Lehigh followers, "that we don't meet Michigan State this year."
The Engineers firmly established themselves as the best in the East two weeks ago by beating a good Navy team that had won 15 in a row. Last week Lehigh took Army 25-8 at West Point and, except for the traditional finale with Penn State, should cruise with ease into the national competition this March.
The big man in Lehigh's success for the last three years has been little Mike Caruso, twice national champion in the 123-pound division and now unbeaten in 38 consecutive bouts. In the victory over Navy—Lehigh's biggest since the Engineers upset endlessly top-ranked Iowa State on Jan. 13—it was Caruso, a step up in the 130-pound division, who set the tone for the evening.
February 20, 1967
With the teams deadlocked 2-2, Caruso scored a spectacular 22-4 decision over Steve Comiskey, dominating his man even more than the score indicates. Accomplished in full view of the rest of Lehigh's powerful lightweights, Caruso's momentum spilled over into the next three matches, which Lehigh won in succession. With the score 14-2 after the first five bouts, the outcome of the meet was never in doubt.
"He got us going," said Lehigh Coach Gerry Leeman afterward, "just like he always does."
Leeman, a stocky, crew-cut man of 44, who exudes a vague aura of winter-green—it comes from the Skoal snuff he likes to curl under his lip—knows good wrestling. As a 128-pounder at State College of Iowa he never lost a match under college rules and went on to win a silver medal in the 1948 Olympics. The second wrestling coach to be hired at Lehigh since 1911—the late Billy Sheridan brought him in as an assistant in 1950—Leeman has lost only 25 of 165 meets in his 15 years as head coach, with six of his wrestlers capturing eight NCAA titles. For all of this, he cannot stop talking about Caruso.
"I've always felt that everybody is born to do something," says Leeman, "but too often a lot of us never really find out what that something is. In Mike's case it's simple. He was born to wrestle."
Mike Caruso's teammates liken him to Superman, and when he struts around the periphery of the mat, filling his lungs with huge breaths of air and flexing his muscles, the comparison does seem apt. His brown-and-white leggings, however, tend to give him a Mighty Mouse air. A 20-year-old who fought his way out of the Clifton Avenue section of Newark's rough North Side, Caruso bursts with so much confidence that many of his opponents are intimidated before they ever get to the mat with him. Last December, when Lehigh traveled to Syracuse, Mike happened to be in the steam room shortly before the weigh-in. A Syracuse wrestler was there, too.
"Where are you wrestling today?" he asked Mike. "123?"
A few hours later Caruso won the 130-pound match—by forfeit.
There are those experts who have watched Caruso perform—observing closely his fantastic balance, agility, speed and stamina—who believe he is one of the very best in the history of the 123-pound division. And Leeman still shudders every time he recalls how close he came to watching Caruso at Navy or Syracuse instead of at Lehigh.
"Just before he was to graduate from high school, Mike visited our campus," says Leeman, "and frankly, he couldn't have been more uninterested. There were a lot of other schools that were hot after him, and they were in a position to offer him much more financial aid than we were. But he happened to come down to Maryland that spring and watch us in the Easterns, which we lost. All of a sudden he came rushing up to me and said, 'Mr. Leeman, I'm coming.' I said fine, but I told him I really didn't think he could get into Lehigh. It was awfully late in the year and the admissions office was swamped with applications. So you know what he did? He started calling the admissions office every day—every day—telling the dean how badly he wanted to come to Lehigh and why they should let him in. Well, I guess they just got tired of answering the phone."
Why Lehigh? "That day they lost at Maryland," says Mike, his brown eyes sparkling, "they lost like champions. There was something about the way they handled themselves, I dunno exactly what, but I just knew I wanted to be a part of it."
Whatever "it" is, the consensus is that Leeman is the man responsible. Certainly Pappajohn thinks so, and he feels he knows Gerry Leeman pretty well. "That Mr. Leeman, he is a very special man," says Pappajohn. "I never forget one time, eight, nine year ago, when he come to get a shoeshine. 'You no look so good, Pappajohn,' he says to me. I say no, things is bad. My daughter is very sick in the hospital and need blood transfusions. You know what he do? He not even let me finish his shoe before he go over to the phone, and he call up the captain of his team. Before the day is through, every single one of his boys is down at the hospital, giving blood so's my daughter can have her transfusions. No, I can never forget that man."
Leeman's wrestlers say that somehow he makes them feel like winners, that when they go out on the mat in Grace Hall—an arena hoary with wrestling tradition—they know they cannot let down. He treats them as individuals, they say. There are no favorites, and all he expects is the best they have to give.
"They know they've got to be awfully good just to be out there," says Leeman.
That might be so, but if tension is a barometer of confidence, the reading was stormy as his wrestlers got ready for Navy. Leeman himself was a confetti of tortured nerves hidden beneath a calm, coachly exterior. "Sure, I enjoy this," Leeman fairly croaked as he almost pried the expansion band from his watch. "It's building up to combat."
Just before the matches were to begin, Jon Rushatz, a 167-pounder and second only to Mike Caruso as the team's tension-dispeller, peeked through a door at the Navy team. "See?" he said, "they're overrated and they know it. Just watch us tonight. We're gonna chew 'em up." And in packed Grace Hall, where 4,000 people watched downstairs and another 700 on closed-circuit TV upstairs, Lehigh indeed chewed them up.
Midway through the evening, in the number-conscious way of partisans these days, the Lehigh people began chanting, "We're No. 1! We're No. 1!" Up front, in row 1, seat 1, taking it all in quietly with his legs crossed and arms folded, little Pappajohn could not have agreed with them more.