Of all the four-letter words in the English language, “fear” might be the worst. It’s certainly the most terrifying. Everyone knows fear and no one escapes it. There’s a special kind of fear that youngsters confront though. Fear of yourself. Fear of discovering who you might be and what you might be able to do. It’s the great unknown that young kids face every day. Some conquer that fear spectacularly. Some find different ways of coping with it. And some get crushed by it.
I could play baseball. My father started me early and instilled a love for the game and helped me find the joy in playing it. After seven years of Little and Senior League, I made the Toms River South (Toms River, NJ) high school freshmen team as the backup catcher. About midway through that first season, our coach put me in for the remainder of the schedule. I even got a late season call up to the junior varsity. All in all, I was happy with that first year of high school ball.
But I wanted to be in better shape for my sophomore year and the junior varsity. So I came up with the brilliant idea of trying out for the wrestling team. I figured I could get stronger, quicker and have better endurance if I wrestled. I had dabbled in wrestling in eighth grade but nothing serious. Serious however was exactly what I was about to see firsthand.
He was a squat little man. He was a fire hydrant with short legs that looked like tree trunks. He was balding on top and he had awful looking “cauliflower ears” from years of wrestling. His name was John DeMarco. It was the fall of 1973, he was the new wrestling coach at Toms River South and my life was about to change forever.
On the first day of practice, Coach D blew his whistle and gathered everyone in a circle. And the first thing he said was, “I will not cut anyone from my team. No one will be asked to leave. The only one who can make you quit is you. Now line up for calisthenics.” And with that I entered a world of pain. After about 10 minutes of various exercises, I was gassed. But somewhere in that first practice, a light bulb went on. It might have been the first revelation this 15-year-old boy ever had. Coach DeMarco said he won’t cut anyone. That means he won’t cut me. All I have to do is not quit.
I will not quit. It was the first time I actually made up my mind to do something I didn’t know I could do. Baseball was easy compared to this. Studies were easy too. Girls were impossible but that was a fear best put off for a while. Maybe a long while. This wasn’t easy. Wrestling was hard and Coach D was going to make it even harder. I now understood what he meant by his no-cut policy. It was up to me. I will not quit.
The next day wasn’t any easier. But there was no turning back. I was not going to walk out of that practice room until each day was done. I was not dabbling any more. I was in all the way no matter what. As each day went by, Coach started teaching us his favorite simple basic moves. We were not going to be a fancy wrestling team. We were going to be in better shape than anyone else and we were going to master the basics until no one could stop us. We did hundreds and hundreds of double leg takedowns, single leg takedowns, half nelsons, bar arms, arm drags, gut crunches and ankle rides. These are not exotic wrestling moves. These are fundamental power and quickness moves. And Coach was drilling them into us harder than a boot camp drill instructor.
I was not a talented wrestler and we had plenty of talent on our young team. Simply put, my role that first year was to be a crash test dummy for the starters. In fact, I didn’t wrestle in any matches that year, not one. After the season was over, I did go on to have a good year on the junior varsity baseball team. I was in great shape and started every game that spring 1974 season. But something was different. I was different. I was still a better baseball player than a wrestler but Coach D had put me through hell and back and I hadn’t quit. I had stood up to his challenge. And I couldn’t wait to do it again.
Coach gave the same speech on the first day of practice the next fall. I was a junior now and I was not about to waste that first year of hard work. I was long past the idea of quitting. And so we practiced as hard as ever. We threw a few more hundreds of those basic moves and even learned some new ones. There was nothing easy about that second year but there was a difference. I was nervous about the idea of wrestling a real match against a real opponent but nervous is not the same as afraid. I had crossed that bridge and burned it. Being worked to death and getting tossed around by the better wrestlers has a way of replacing fear with determination.
And so about midway through the season, I finally had my first match, a JV bout against a neighboring rival. I remember two things about it. First, my hearing completely shut down as soon as the match started. And my opponent must have been equally new to this because we both flopped around like fish out of water. It was not pretty wrestling but I did manage to finally pin him late in the third period. And as I walked off that first mat with my hand in the air, there was Coach D smiling at me. He whispered something in my ear. He said, “It’s worth it, isn’t it?”
You’re darn right it is.
I wrestled several more JV matches that year. I won a few and lost a few. I still wasn’t very good but that no longer mattered. Coach had turned me into a dedicated, focused young kid who had dumped a truckload of fear behind him. And then came the real reward. Coach D entered me into the year-end Ocean County JV tournament. Each weight class had eight JV wrestlers from the eight county schools. I was the #7 seed and so faced the #2 seed to start things off.
That #2 seed kid didn’t stand a chance. By now, I could hear just fine out on the mat and, as I was beating my opponent, I heard Coach call out my name. I looked over to him and he was making hand motions to throw a special move he had taught us. I nodded back and a few seconds later, I heard the ref slap the mat for the upset pin. On to the #3 seed.
I beat him too. He was bigger and stronger but that didn’t matter anymore. I even threw some fancy stuff I wasn’t supposed to throw and ended the match by judo flipping him over my hip and sticking him good. Another mat slap and another hand raise. I lost the final to the #1 seed. He was just better and quicker and, truth be known, I was a little nervous going in but there was no doubt I had crossed a major threshold. Not only could I survive, I could thrive on my terms.
And there was one more reward. Our varsity team had turned into a fearsome juggernaut that year. In addition to winning our division, we also took the first ever Jersey Shore Conference Tournament and we won our District tournament too. The Toms River South wrestling team was about to become legendary and I was a small but rock steady part of it. I was not leaving now.
I made the varsity baseball team that year, the spring of 1975. It was okay. I played in about maybe half the games. We won most of our games but we didn’t win any titles or tournaments. And that’s really all I remember about it.
The 1975-76 Toms River South wrestling team, my senior year, went 18-0 and finished tied for the best record in New Jersey. We were unstoppable. An opposing coach said we “were one bruiser after another”. We knew we would win and win big every time we went out there. We weren’t overconfident. We were just that good.
I still couldn’t crack the starting lineup. That just wasn’t going to happen. Hard work and dedication are wonderful things but talent counts too and the guys in front of me were just so much better. But I didn’t care. I got to wrestle a few varsity “B” matches and won most of them but I was just happy to be a part of that tremendous team. And then I got a phone call at home on a Friday night in February from Coach D. He told me I was going to wrestle varsity at a four-team dual meet in North Jersey the next day. Gulp. Three varsity “A” matches in one day. Wait a minute, what? Click went the phone.
My first of three matches did not go well. I was a bundle of nerves. Okay, it was fear. Varsity was serious stuff and I shrank from it and lost badly. My second match didn’t go any better. Same fear, same passive wrestling, same loss. Fortunately, my team didn’t need me to win but I was a mess.
I was actually crying alone in the locker room hiding from my teammates. And that’s when I heard the door slam open and Coach D roaring “Where is he?” When he, along with our team captains, found me crying, I stood up and looked down into the fury of hell staring up at me. Coach noticed I was still wearing my headgear and he slapped me hard on my left ear. I don’t remember exactly what he said but it sure wasn’t a love poem. He wanted to know if I was quitting. Quitting on him. Quitting on my team. Quitting on myself. He wanted to know if all that work, all that sweat, all those moves, all that time and effort was all just a waste. Coach D wanted to know if he was coaching a little boy or a young man. So did I.
I lost that third match that day but I gave the other guy a fight to the last second. As I walked off a three-time loser, I was disappointed but I knew I had once again followed that man to the very end and back. He looked me in the eye and said “That’s better.” And he was right. I had faced the fear and dealt with it.
Bad coaches fail to reach their players on any level and they don’t last long. Good coaches can get a team to play hard and they usually meet their expectations. Great coaches get you to play hard but mostly what they do is they get you to find yourself and reach levels you never thought possible. They’re not easy to play for but they leave lasting impressions. They make you a better player and a better person. The playing ends when adult responsibilities crowd it out. But you never stop being a better person.
I wrestled one more time that year. It was a varsity “B” match. Coach didn’t tell us in advance who would be wrestling at my weight. The choice was between me and an underclassman. When it came time for the match, he looked at both of us and said to me, “You’re the senior, Bob. It’s your choice.” I looked at my younger teammate. I looked at Coach. And I said to both of them, “Get out of my way. This guy is mine.”
The whistle blew. I threw an arm drag, my favorite takedown move. After throwing it about a thousand times in practice over the years, I was pretty sure it was going to work. I could even hear my teammates laughing behind me because they knew how much I loved that move. I then threw a half nelson, another member of the 1,000 move club, and pinned that guy solid. He never had a chance. And as I walked off a high school wrestling mat for the last time, I got one more little smile from Coach John DeMarco, the finest coach I’ve ever known.
As a senior, I was given the honor and privilege of dressing for the rest of the season with the varsity. I never wrestled again but we swept everything. After we repeated as Shore Conference Tournament champions, we had a team photo taken. I’m in it. Back row, far right. Many years later, that legendary 1976 Toms River South wrestling team was inducted into the Toms River Regional Schools Hall of Fame. That same team photo was used for our induction. I’m still in it. And that 76 South team is still talked about with whispered reverence and hushed awe in New Jersey wrestling circles.
I did not quit.
I love Coach John DeMarco. Other than my own late father, no one helped me grow up more than him. I wasn’t one of his stars. He may not even remember me. But I owe more to him than he’ll ever know.
I don’t remember what the baseball team did my senior year.