For several years, Fred and Elizabeth Monday's home in Tulsa had no living-room furniture, only a carpet. It wasn't that the Mondays couldn't afford to furnish their home, they just had a better use for the space. Their three young sons—Michael, James and Kenny—loved to wrestle. And the living room was perfect, as long as there were no lamps to be shattered or sofas to be battered as the boys thrashed about.
Today, after years of rug-burn takedowns, the Mondays not only have a fine set of living-room furniture, but also three very talented wrestlers, the youngest of whom, Kenny, an 18-year-old high school senior, may be the best schoolboy wrestler in the nation. In four years, competing in four different weight classes—108, 115, 136 and 141 pounds—Kenny has a 140-0-1 record. Two weeks ago, after overwhelming his final opponent at the Oklahoma state championships in Jenks, Monday ended his high school career by becoming only the third undefeated four-time wrestling champion ever.
Ernie Jones, his coach at Booker T. Washington High, says, "I've never seen a wrestler like this kid. He's grown from scrawny to awesome."
The Monday family wrestling legacy is a long and winning one, and as the youngest of the three brothers, Kenny started out on the bottom. When he came of an age to go to the rug with Mike, now 23, and Jim, now 22, he was usually the pinnee. "When we were little, they used to beat me up till I cried," Kenny says. "Pretty soon I learned their moves, along with learning when to cry to make them quit."
Eventually the boys were evicted from their home arena by the arrival of new furniture. "And our new carpet," says their mother. So Mom and Dad sent them to a local YMCA, which had the only organized wrestling program on Tulsa's predominantly black northside. "Back then there was little for black kids to do during the day while their parents worked, except for getting into trouble," says Fred Monday, now a supervisor for a pipeline manufacturer. "We just sent them there so maybe they would keep on wrestling."
They did. And soon Michael was leading the way. As a high school senior, he won the 1974 state 98-pound title. Right behind him, Jim went to the state finals for two consecutive seasons. Both went on to wrestle at Arizona State before transferring back home to Oklahoma University two years ago. While his brothers were making their names, Kenny was flattening most of Tulsa's young wrestlers as a member of the Lincoln Recreation Center team. In seven trips to the Junior Olympics, Monday won five times. By that time Jones was stalking all of Monday's meets, waiting impatiently for the proper time to introduce himself.
"I'd known Kenny since he was six or seven years old," says Jones. "I could just see his talent. I knew he could be the best wrestler in the state. Whether or not he could do it in Tulsa was another story."
Tulsa's racial atmosphere in the late '60s, when court-ordered busing and non-voluntary integration plans were making headlines, wasn't the sort of climate in which carefree interracial athletics could thrive. Booker T. Washington's all-black wrestling squad, which had recently lost its successful coach, suffered. "The football coach used it to keep his players in shape during the offseason," recalls Jones. "The wrestlers were the laughing stock of the city. Most of the time, they wouldn't even show up for a meet." The Mondays were living in the Washington school district. But the district lines were redrawn, and the Monday children began attending predominantly white McLain High.
Unfortunately, as Kenny neared high school age, McLain was troubled with racial disturbances. "Kids couldn't go to classes without worrying about having to fight their way there," Elizabeth Monday says. At the same time, Booker T. Washington opened its doors to students from outside its zone, aiming at a 50-50 racial balance. Money for more and better books soon followed, along with more courses, new equipment and Ernie Jones, who was offered the opportunity to breathe new life into the moribund wrestling team. "The only advice I got was 'Don't take it,' " says Jones. "But it was an opportunity as a head coach. And a job is a job."
In its second season under Jones, Washington came in fifth in the state meet and produced its first individual state champion. The following year Washington won the team title and had three individual state champions and three runners-up. All of this, combined with the growing racial tension at McLain, persuaded Kenny to apply to enter Washington as a freshman in 1976. Booker T. thereupon won three straight state team titles; this season it was runner-up.
Though Monday hasn't lost yet, there have been scares. The most alarming occurred in a match last December with Mike Sheets, another state champion. Sheets, a senior at Tahlequah High, hadn't beaten Monday in 10 matches dating back to junior high school, but carried his own streak of 35 straight wins to the showdown in a packed Washington gymnasium. As the meet progressed toward the two wrestlers' 148-pound class, Monday seemed undisturbed by the possibility of losing as he cheered his teammates on. His parents, as usual, were perched up in the rafters at the farthest point from the mat. "I don't want him to hear his mother screaming," says Fred Monday.
Monday took immediate control and at the start of the third period held both a 5-1 lead and the advantage position on Sheets. Sheets then escaped for a point and promptly dropped Monday for the first time in the match, using a daring single-leg takedown move on his right ankle to bring the score to 5-4. Monday escaped (6-4), but Sheets put him down a second time with the same move (6-6). Once more, as the match drew to a close, Monday escaped only to be put down by Sheets. At the end, Sheets led 8-7 on points, but Monday was awarded a point for riding time amassed earlier and salvaged an 8-8 tie—the only one in his high school career. A month and a half later, Kenny beat Sheets in a rematch at Yukon, Okla. "Sometimes Kenny gets a little careless," said Jones after the tie. "He doesn't believe anyone can take him down."
For the most part, they can't. Since his freshman season, when he won 38 matches (19 by falls), Monday has annihilated most of his opponents. "When I started to see that I could win at this and win consistently, it was fun," Kenny says. "I really began to fall in love with wrestling." The affair intensified as Monday grew in size and spirit. He pinned 20 of his 35 foes as a 115-pound sophomore and 25 of 33 as a junior. This season he took 28 of 35 matches by falls.
As evidence of his dedication to the sport, Monday even quit football last fall despite being an outstanding defensive back on a state-ranked team. "The injury risk was too high," he says. Yet he places wrestling in perspective, seeing it as complementary to his academic pursuits and "the ticket" to his dreams. "It will get me to college, and from there it's up to me." His immediate sights are on whatever sort of Olympics are held in 1984, and then, coaching. "In the long run, wrestling will pay off," he says.
A number of college coaches are hoping that Monday will bring them dividends. Their eyes have been on the littlest Monday since his YMCA days and now the parade is passing through Tulsa once again, as it did when Kenny's brothers were being recruited. Kenny still hasn't been signed, although Oklahoma or Oklahoma State would seem to have the inside track. Having had two Monday brothers under his wing, Sooner Coach Stan Abel is going to the mat but good for Kenny.