I remember the day Jackson came home and told me he wanted to wrestle. My mind rushed to images of boys being thrown to the ground, bodies contorted in painful ways, and possible concussions. I wasn’t so sure I was excited about the sport. But I was in a difficult spot, and Jackson knew it. In our house we have a rule that you have to participate in some kind of extra curricular activity. My boy is small. He’s always been small, and he probably always will be. In a lot of ways that can make sports an obstacle. “Why do you want to wrestle, Jackson?” “Mom, I hate track. I mean, I really really hate it. It’s just not for me. But I was at the high school for my sports physical, and this coach came over and invited me to practice with the wrestling team. He said my size makes me a diamond in the rough, and he wants me. Can I just try it?” I relented, and agreed. I figured he would go to a few practices, hate getting thrown around, and we would move on. Little did I know it would only take a few practices to get my boy hooked. And I certainly wasn’t prepared for the fact that I too, would love the sport.
Jackson started wrestling the summer in between his 7th and 8th grade year. He wasn’t even 100 pounds yet. He was forced to wrestle boys bigger than him over and over again. The smallest weight class is 106 pounds, and he was tipping the scale at around 95 pounds. So what does one do when you walk on to the mat to face Goliath? You dig deep, and you wrestle with heart. I sometimes would watch other athletes point at Jackson and smile. They believed going up against such a tiny guy would be an easy match. Little did they know that Jackson had a taste for victory, and he wasn’t going to rest until it was satisfied.
But before you think that he was just a natural, and the wins came quick and easy, I should probably let you in on a little secret. There was a fair share of losing. As a mother you never want to watch your child fail. I remember the coaches coming to me that first year. “Let’s get these losses out of the way this year before he starts high school. It’s good for him. He will want it even more after he loses a few times. And trust me Mama, he will be a better man if he learns that you don’t always win in life.” They were right. Before a boy can become a man, he must learn humility, and how to get back up after you fall. Wrestling was teaching him life lessons. Get up, shake your opponents hand, and walk away with your head held high.
But what happens after that loss? A wrestler has a decision to make. How bad do you want it? If you want it bad enough you go to the off season practices. You wake up early to squeeze in a run before school. And you learn a very important phrase. “Leave it all on the mat.” Freshman year Jackson was a little bigger, a lot stronger, and determined to make a name for himself. He won medals, quieted the giants who thought the little guy across the mat was no big deal. And he found his place. He was learning who he was, and what he was made of. Jackson still wasn’t 106 pounds, so he was spending another year as the underdog. His coaches came to me again. “He’s finding his way. He is wrestling with his heart; that will make up for his size. We knew he was something special.” Jackson finished that season wrestling on a separated shoulder for a week. He never complained. He never said a word. He finally came to me and said, “Mom, I think I need an xray. I’m pretty sure I did something to my shoulder last week.” “Jackson, why didn’t you tell me sooner?” He shrugged and smiled. “You would have made me stop wrestling until I was better. I wasn’t ready to stop. It’s just pain.” Wrestling was teaching him to push through in order to reach the goal at hand. Another beautiful life lesson falling in to place.
Moving into sophomore year, Jackson had a growth spurt, and bulked up. Never in a million years did I imagine my tiny boy could get so muscular. He no longer looked like the underdog, but instead stood on the side of the mat with sculpted arms looking menacing, and ready for battle. We faced new challenges this year. The military had played it’s cruel trick, and we had been reassigned. This meant a new team, new coaches, and new things to prove. Jackson hated us for moving. Every day I felt his anger in his stares. I only hoped that wrestling would help him find his place here, and he would develop a brotherhood. Ahhhh…the brotherhood of a wrestling team. Wrestling isn’t like football, basketball or soccer. The team is small. The boys really get to know each other, and a bond is forged. It’s unlike anything I have ever seen before. Slowly the anger ebbed away, and friends were made.
Midway through his sophomore year Jackson was forced to tangle with another monster. Arrogance. Jackson had come on to this team, proven his talent level, and then he settled in and got cocky. Remember how I told you that wrestling helps you dial into your inner fight, and you find the will to win even when you don’t have the strength? In this business they call that heart. Well….Jackson had lost his heart, and now walked with the strut that comes with being a 15 year old at the top of your game. You know what happens to a wrestler when he loses his heart, and gets overly confident? He loses regionals. He goes home and has to admit that his head was in the wrong place. Isn’t that what happens in life so many times? We have this “I’ve got this” attitude, and things slowly begin to slip out of our control.
Jackson came to terms with the loss, and what had caused it. (I will also throw out that some bad calls were made, and Jackson was forced to wrestle on a mat that had no circle. One should never have to wrestle without a circle clearly defining boundaries.) I began to see that look in his eye again. “Mom, this is my year. I’m all in.” Jackson and a few other guys began meeting before school to run a few miles. Then there were stadiums, requests for extra practices, and intense recruiting. These boys reached out, and encouraged others to join the brotherhood. The team grew, and so did the boys. Last year’s rookies were learning how to be mentors. Leadership was being birthed, and these boys basked in the opportunity to be something other than followers.
The season is in full swing now. Medals are being draped around their necks, some losses are being logged into the books, but the spirit is strong. The long runs are paying off as they watch their opponents tire in those last seconds. The extra practices are seeing reward as they add another pin to their records. Pride beams from their faces not only for their wins, but for the wins of their brothers.
Why let my kid wrestle? Never before have I seen a sport that demanded so much from an athlete, even long after the season is over. If you want it, you never stop grinding. Never have I seen a quiet shy boy burst from his cocoon quite like when my boy is on the mat. There are very few sports that allow you to compete both individually and as a team. If Jackson loses, it’s on him. No blaming anyone else. This is a lesson that should be learned early in life. How many sports make you get up at the crack of dawn on a Saturday in order to compete all day long? Sometimes the athletes (and yes, their parents too) do this for days on end. You have to really want something to be willing to give up your sleep, your weekend, and often times your favorite foods, just to punish your body in hopes of a victory.
I will never stop holding my breathe when he walks onto the mat. I will never stop worrying and praying this isn’t the time he gets hurt. But I will never tire of seeing the hunger in his eyes. Wrestling teaches discipline, passion, the will to get up and keep going after what you want. And at the end of the match? Stand up, look your opponent in the eye, shake his hand, and leave it all on that mat. Never are you allowed to stomp off angry, throw your headgear, and pitch a tantrum. Oh no, that’s now how the game is played, or how life works.
So to the coaches who spotted my little boy across the crowded gym all those years ago, I say thank you. Jackson has learned, and continues to learn so much more than just how to wrestle. I believe the sport has equipped him with characteristics that will make him a better man. I only pray that in all he does he always strives to go at it will all his heart, and then walk away knowing he left everything he had on the mat.