The sign in front of the narrow, decrepit restaurant with the dirty windows and the eight wobbly stools at the counter says AL'S LUNCH. But Al is dead. Everyone calls it Helen's. Helen Charo, 60, will never die; legends don't. Her place hard by the railroad tracks in Bethlehem, Pa. is a classic greasy spoon, so classic, critics say, that it's the kind of joint that gives greasy spoons a bad reputation. Nonsense. Helen's is one of the world's alltime great eateries. The menu on the wall offers sandwiches called Rat, Gigaroni, Audrey and Weber. Nobody knows what they are. Doesn't matter. You simply order what you want, and Helen fixes what she wants you to have.
A BLT on rye, please, Helen.
"Here's a hamburger on a bun."
An ice cream, please, Helen.
March 5, 1979
"Naw, here's what you get." She slaps down a piece of stale chocolate candy.
Helen's is a hangout for cops, garagemen, folks who need a rest on their way to the next street corner and Lehigh University athletes past and present. At the moment, it's especially home for Lehigh senior Mark Lieberman, the best college wrestler in the country. "I love Helen," says Lieberman. "Mark's a good little boy," says Helen. Over Lieberman's shoulder, in a sea of wrestling pictures on the wall, is a sign: IT'S 11 P.M. DOES YOUR MOTHER KNOW YOU'RE HERE?
To understand Lieberman, it's helpful to understand his affection for Helen and her restaurant. After all, the 23-year-old Lieberman was born to talent and brains and good looks and country clubs and prep school. Helen was born to, well, hardscrabble living and a lot of faith in mankind. The athletes get no checks for meals in Helen's, and she disregards the prices posted on the wall. You pay what you want. "This is a home," says Helen. "You don't charge in a home. Mark and all the others do plenty for me just by coming here and making me happy."
Yet, for all their differences, you scratch Mark or Helen and underneath is hard-core work ethic and a thorough understanding of adversity. Says Mark of his wrestling, "If it were easy, I wouldn't consider it worth doing." Both work very hard—Helen's is open from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. six days a week and for 7½ hours on Sunday. Both trust people—there's always money lying on Helen's counter for telephone calls. Both know what's important in life—she closes for all Lehigh athletic events. Ergo, it's no surprise that Helen and Mark are simpatico. In the final analysis, Helen represents a lot of what Lieberman admires most, and aspires to.
It's no surprise, either, that the academically gifted Lieberman feels very much at home at academically respected Lehigh, where his double major is international relations and accounting. "Drugs were never in here and fraternities were never out," he says of his school. "It has always been an old-fashioned booze-and-broads kind of school and always will." For Lieberman, a good Catholic boy, that qualifies as a grossly randy comment. In truth, he seldom can be seen at a college spot like Your Mother's Bloomers, which is only a block from the two-family house that he owns. "I've got those entrepreneurial instincts," he says of his house, "and with a little capital base, you can open new doors." But on those rare occasions when he does go to the saloon, he's uncomfortable. "It's guilt," he says. "I get there and spend all my time wondering if any of the guys I have to wrestle are out having a few beers." He always leaves early. "I know that if I'm not studying, I should be wrestling, and if I'm not wrestling, I should be studying. What's hard about that?"
It's an attitude that seems to be working. Lieberman has not lost a college wrestling match since March 1977, when he was whipped in the finals of the NCAA tournament by Oklahoma's Rod Kilgore. He has won 42 in a row since then, including last year's 177-pound NCAA championship. He is favored to retain his title later this month in Ames, Iowa, even though he is substantially better at the more wide-open Olympic freestyle wrestling than at the collegiate brand. Of Lieberman's six collegiate losses—vs. 80 career wins—four came when he was a freshman. After winning the 1978 NCAA, AAU and U.S. Wrestling Federation championships, he was named the No. 1 amateur wrestler in the country.
Dan Gable, head coach at Iowa and probably the best wrestler the U.S. has ever produced, says of Lieberman, "If you let up on him for a second, he'll throw you on your head." Lehigh Coach Thad Turner says of his prize pupil's style, "When he wrestles, it gets to be a brawl. He just hounds the other guy until he finally says, 'Oh, the heck with it.' " Lieberman excels at upper-body throws; he is weakest at underneath wrestling. And while he will not say he's the best wrestler in the nation, he concedes, "I'm the best brawler."
But some of Lieberman's defeated opponents are more reluctant to praise him. After he pinned Navy's Nick Mygas in 1:59 recently, Mygas said, "He's not that strong." Iowa State star Kelly Ward, who went to the same prep school Lieberman did but doesn't wrestle in the same weight class, only grudgingly says of his old schoolmate, when comparing him to other wrestlers, "He might be a wee bit more dedicated—maybe."
The fact is, Lieberman has everything going for him, with one notable exception. He lacks talent. As Turner explains, "I always thought you needed a certain ability level to start with. Mark is causing me to change that belief." Lieberman's self-appraisal is even less flattering. "I'm fair, at best," he says. "My power isn't great, my speed isn't great, my balance isn't particularly good." So how does he win? "I beat people in the mind." Coach Tom Hutchinson of Blair Academy in New Jersey, where Lieberman prepped for Lehigh, says, "In seven years here, I've had at least 15 wrestlers with better athletic ability."
As Turner observes, the key to Lieberman's success is his absolute tenaciousness, his open-throttle dedication. Lieberman says, "I have left the wrestling room with blood running down my face, tears streaming down my cheeks, soaking wet, and I can't help it. I just sit down and have a good cry. Then I go back into the room and get pummeled again. It's that kind of sport." Lehigh's Associate Coach Gerry Leeman, a former NCAA champ and a silver medalist in the 1948 Olympics, marvels at Lieberman. "There's nothing chrome and polish about him. He's just a grinder."
In the wrestling room, Leeman is hollering at the team, "It's dog-eat-dog. We're going to find out who's a Doberman and who's a Poodle. It's nose-to-nose and toes-to-toes." Nobody—but nobody—questions Lieberman's pedigree. During an all-out session with his talented teammate, 190-pound Mike Brown, the bodies fly. Says Brown, "If you take him down once, he'll get you six times. The madder I get, the tougher he gets. He's not that strong, but he makes up for it." How? "By how good he is." Another Lehigh wrestler, 134-pound freshman Darryl Burley, who has the look of a future national champion, says of Lieberman, "He's given me the attitude that I can be the best. He tells me that I can beat a lot of people who are better than I am because I love it more. Like him."
That is the crux of what makes Lieberman terrific. By his own calculation, he figures that wrestling is 10% physical, 10% technical and 80% mental. "There are just too many crummy athletes who win national titles," he says. "That means they have to have a heart eight miles wide. Even if I'm getting beat 20-2, I'm still going to give you every bit of my heart."
Of course, Lieberman isn't going to be getting beaten 20-2 by anyone these days, nor by any two men. But as recently as April 1978, he was thrashed by, among others, Olympic silver-and gold-medal-winner John Peterson. "John hasn't just beaten me," says Lieberman, "He's humiliated me." Yet losses—and coping with them—are another cornerstone in the sturdy foundation of success that Lieberman has built. "If you let losses beat you," he says, "you're beating yourself. I think it's important that people know you fail. It shows you're human. When you hide your losses, it makes you afraid to lose. Frankly, my goal is to lose 1,000 times, because I know that in order to lose that much, I'm going to have to wrestle anytime, anywhere, against anybody. And if I do that, I'm either going to become pretty doggone tough or I should quit."
Lieberman grew up in a household where the four kids had a lot of choices, but quitting was not one of them. Brother Mike, himself an NCAA champion for Lehigh at 177 pounds in 1975, says, "The thing Mark understands best is you don't quit. It's a word I don't think I ever heard in our house. It didn't sit at all well with Dad." Indeed, George Lieberman, chairman of the board of the Lieberman-Harrison, Inc. advertising agency of Allen-town, Pa. and New York City, says, "I always insisted that the kids give anything a real hard look before they started, because once they did, they knew that it had to be completed in some reasonable fashion." A conversation with George leaves no mystery as to where Mark got his steel.
Relaxing with a beer in front of the fire in his Allentown home, George Lieberman muses about "trying to be supportive but not overanxious, overpromoting parents. We never said to either of the boys, 'You ought to be a national champion.' " Says Mark, "You can't love something because you're told to."
Somewhat surprisingly, two factors that often harm promising athletes—affluence and an older, highly successful sibling—converged on Mark to make him better.
"It's not poverty or affluence that's important," says Mark's mother Jean, "it's the teaching of values. I raised the children on Kipling's If—the Lord's Prayer and St. Francis of Assisi." Mike and Mark are still learning values. Example: there are about a hundred wrestling trophies in the Lieberman basement. George suggested, and the boys readily agreed, that soon they should take off the metal inscription plates from all but the most significant awards and give those trophies to the local YMCA to be used again. "It'll save the Y hundreds of dollars," says George.
Leeman, for one, thinks that a favored family background is a plus. "It's not the money," he says, "it's the stability that a family like the Liebermans creates. Wrestling is a great test of character and integrity, and I think the best wrestlers come from families where parents have taught boys to believe in themselves. Money can't force kids to wrestle. And it only appeals to those few who can live with the idea that 'it's one-on-one, and there's no salvation except me.' " Says Mark, "My parents always encouraged me to take as big a bite as I wanted." Indeed, when he was in 10th grade and announced he wanted to be an Olympic champion, nobody laughed. His father simply responded, "Fine. It'll take a lot of hard work."
Showing an affinity for hard work, Mark was a prize prospect coming out of prep school. He could have gone to a number of colleges on a full ride. Nonetheless, he elected Lehigh, where students get financial aid based only on need. Mark got nothing, as did Mike before him. However, the school annually awards 10 Presidential Scholarships worth $1,000 each to its best and brightest; Mark, who clearly falls among the best—his average is a modest 2.8—has one of them. It still means his father has been given the chance to spend about $6,000 a year for Mark's education, which could have been free elsewhere. "I think he'll earn this investment back very quickly when he gets out of school," says George.
But an even bigger hurdle for Mark was Mike, who is three years his senior. Mike had all the ability one could hope for. In fact, eyes glaze over when experts consider what sort of wrestler would emerge from a melding of Mark's tenacity and Mike's ability. "Oh, my!" says Leeman. Even Mike concedes, "Mark has dedicated more of himself than I did."
Growing up in the Lieberman house was one continuous wrestling match that was interrupted only for meals. "I'm going to beat you," Mark would say. And Mike would sniff, "That's the day I'll quit wrestling." Mike, who is now a salesman in Bethlehem Steel's Chicago office, recalls tearing his brother apart. "But now I really don't like wrestling him. He's a little mean." Once the boys knocked down a motel-room wall while vacationing in California. "It wasn't a very strong wall," says Jean.
Again it falls to Leeman to explain why Mike turned out to be an asset in Mark's development. "The second son tags along and strives to keep up, which is important, because if he doesn't strive, he doesn't get to go. And he can grow up with the attitude, 'I'm going to show them. I'm going to do everything he did, only a little better.' " With that, Leeman runs his finger down a list of Lehigh's 15 NCAA champs, finding eight that are second sons. Mark gives full credit to his brother, and it's with reluctance that he talks of that day when, inevitably, he beat Mike. First there was Mark's 5-3 victory in the 1976 Olympic regional trials. Then the two were paired in the national trials; Mark won by a pin. "It wasn't much of an up," says Mark. "He's an idol, and you don't like to see an idol tumble. Especially you don't like to tumble your own idol."
Neither brother made the 76 Olympic team. Mark likely was just too young, but he thinks his brother may have failed "because he didn't set his goals high enough. His goal was to be an NCAA champion, and when he did that as a junior, there was nothing left." As for Mark, he'll never be guilty of shooting too low; he wants Olympic gold in 1980. The path, however, is cluttered with roadblocks, notably Peterson and Chris Campbell, who are both older and have considerably more international experience. "I'm not one for setting realistic goals," Lieberman concedes. "If you reach them, they're not high enough." But while getting to Moscow will be difficult in the traditionally strong 180.5-pound class, the Soviets—among others—know who Mark Lieberman is. As one U.S.S.R. coach told George after an international competition, "We don't know what to do with your son—but we will find out."
This may be whistling in the dark, unless Lieberman's injury jinx strikes again. As a freshman, he tore cartilage in his right knee and later stretched ligaments in his left knee. As a sophomore, he injured his right arm severely enough that surgery was required; 10 days after the cast was off his arm, he tore a ligament in his right knee. Last summer he tore cartilage in his right knee, and this winter he has been fighting a stubborn virus. Lieberman shrugs it all off, saying, "Your body pays for living. It's not built for abuse, and we abuse it every day. We live a risky life. If you're going to play, you're going to play injured. The main thing is that you can't let it dim your competitive instinct."
Nothing dims Lieberman's competitive instinct. "Competition is that thing that makes you better," he says. "I go out not to win, but to wrestle a little better than I ever have." When he races onto the mat, he immediately establishes the ground rules. It's as if he is saying to his opponent, "I'll take the center of the mat. You may have the leftovers, if there are any." Then, quite often, the opponent will score a few points and get to thinking that, by golly, he can wrestle with this star of Bethlehem. Then—bam!—a patented Lieberman duck and power trip, and—whoops!—the match is over.
Lieberman sees wrestling as being so fast there is no time to think. "You can never plan what to do," he says. "It's like hunting deer. You can't count on the deer you saw yesterday being there today. You have to be ready to shoot whatever is there. Today's single leg may be tomorrow's fireman's carry. If you have to think what you're doing, you're too slow."
There are those who see a kind of unappealing cockiness in Lieberman. Even his father admits, "Mark can be abrasive, because he drives himself tremendously, and he expects everyone else to do the same."
Lieberman walks into Helen's, goes directly to the refrigerator for a piece of cheese and then to the cooler for orange juice—just like home. He banters with Helen and chats about himself and wrestling. "The most terrible thing for me would be if wrestling were to be the highlight of my life," he says. "The glory of the moment is the worst thing to get wrapped up in. Thousands of people will cheer you, but as soon as you think you're a god, you'll fall flat on your face. But what greater gift could I have received from wrestling than to enlarge my view of the world? Plus, it has taught me you just have to have that little extra something that makes you come up over the edge."
Lieberman then muses about how his epitaph should read. He settles for brevity: MARK LIEBERMAN. HE TRIED. And could it be this quality that leads some people to think he's too perfect? "Yeah, it could."
But there's obviously nothing wrong with perfection. "Mark's a wholesome, clean-cut kid who is a bona fide student," says Turner. "Is this important? You've got to be a gentleman, have some class. He's real people. Apple-pie stuff. Some day he's going to be a real good guy to know." For that matter, he's not a bad guy to run into these days—if you don't have to wrestle him.