The Secret Belt

by Jim Gibbons, April 11, 2012

There I was up on stage with my four teammates in front of the entire student body being praised by my coach for qualifying to compete in the Wisconsin State High School Wrestling Championships held every March in Madison.

Coach Ruffian singled each of us out in turn: Senior Kenny Mitchell, undefeated for two years, going for his second straight State Championship win, this year moving up from the 103 pound division to 112; Junior Ray Schultz, at 120 pounds, who won the Milwaukee City Title, and amassed the most pins of anyone on the team; Senior Wayne Stapleford at 127; Junior Jim Gibbons (that's me!) at 133; and Junior Pat Sommerfield at 165.

Coach explained to the packed auditorium (it was a mandatory pep rally) how each of us had to place first or second in the Regionals and then take first or second in the Sectionals to qualify for State.

When Coach got to me, he told how Ray Schultz and I would have a wrestle-off each week to see who would wrestle at 120, and the loser would move up to 127, a weight division already occupied by Senior Stapleford, who then had to move up to 133, which of course would push Lance Lewis up to 138, and so on. Half the team was at a weight disadvantage, but Coach decided that was better than having one of our best wrestlers on the sidelines.

The rule was once you weighed in at a weight class, you could not lose weight and drop down to the lower weight class again that season. This rule was enacted because guys would starve themselves for days before each weigh-in, just so they could wrestle someone “smaller.” This of course became a health issue, so they gave all weight classes an extra two pounds after the New Year, and another pound for the trip to State.

In our final wrestle-off to see who would go to State at 120, Schultz and I went into double overtime and were still tied, so Coach made a “referee’s decision,” deciding Schultz should wrestle at 120. It was the right decision, as Schultz had already won the Milwaukee City title, pinning most of his opponents, and he did end up making it into the finals at State.

Since Coach had a rule that Seniors could not be challenged (“Give them a break, it's their last chance!”), that meant even though I felt I could beat Stapleford at 127, I couldn't challenge him.

What was left? My only choice was moving up to the 133 pound class to challenge Lance Lewis, who had been wrestling at 138 all season. Lewis was taller and stronger than me, as he naturally weighed close to 25 pounds more, but it was his first year, and though I beat him, he didn’t care because he’d still go to State, just at 140, the same weight class he’s been wrestling in all season.

Now that I would be wrestling two weight classes higher, I worried about another rule, that you could only move up one weight class. The last thing coach said after our last practice before going to the Regionals in West Allis was, “Go home and eat lots of bananas and potatoes.”

The next day at the weigh-ins Coach told me to wear my full uniform, though most wrestlers weigh in wearing only their jockstraps, because every ounce counts! You’d see some of these guys running around in layers of sweat-producing gear, trying to lose those last few ounces before the weigh-ins officially ended. And there I sat eating bananas and drinking water.

I had to make sure I weighed over 123 or I couldn't wrestle at what was now the 136 pound class, but I was still only 120, shoes and all. However, Coach had the answer: a “Secret Belt.” He told me to wear it under my uniform, and stuff it in the bottom of my gym bag after weigh-ins.

I jumped on the scale with my uniform and “secret belt” and weighed 125! Now I could do what all the wrestlers do after weigh-ins — eat, drink, and eat and drink some more...except I wasn’t hungry or thirsty!

The next day before the semis (yes, somehow I made it through the first two rounds!) I was on the warm- up mat talking to a wrestler from West Allis Hale about my next opponent, the undefeated League Champ from his rival West Allis Central, who was staring at me and pacing back and forth as if he couldn’t wait to dispose of me.

“I heard he told his teammates that he was going to pin you in the first period,” he told me, perhaps wondering what my reaction to that would be. I grinned and snorted, “We’ll see.”

It pissed me off that this jerk-off thought he could pin me just because I was smaller. I actually liked wrestling bigger guys because I was usually faster and they were overconfident. I remember thinking maybe my best advantage was his showy overconfidence?

As soon as the ref blew the starting whistle the West Allis jerk-off rushed to grab me and end the match with a quick pin, but at the last second I dipped under his arm, took him to the mat, the ref gave me the 2-point takedown, and I let him go for his 1-point escape. Now I'm ahead 2-1 and he's infuriated! He comes charging at me again and we lock up. He’s too strong so I drop to my knees and he does too, I reach in and tap his left knee while I tug on his left arm and spin around his right side for another takedown. Now it’s 4-2. It was almost too easy.

At the start of the second period the ref tosses the coin, Jerk Off gets top, I escape, and go on defense for the remainder of the period. In the third period I just let him go and keep circling until the 2-minute period is over, winning 5-3. The ref made us shake hands, raised my arm declaring me the winner, and Jerk Off storms off the mat, whips his headgear across the room and heads straight to the locker room, no doubt suffering the worst defeat of his life! His team mates stand in shock. The gym is almost quiet, and even the Cheerleaders let their pom-poms droop. His high school career was over. And I was probably thinking to myself, “Tough titty jerk off!”

Well, I lost in the finals, but so what, the top two moved on to Sectionls the following week.

The Sectionals were held at Shorewood High School, and all I remember is somehow I made it to the finals again, but my opponent (again from the home school) was the undefeated Suburban Champion. He was shorter but by far the strongest opponent I’d had. I don't recall many details except he was like a bull and I was a toreador without a cape. My main concern was not getting gored! I lost, but emerged from the ring unscathed! I was going to State!

Where was I? Oh yeah, back up on stage somehow Coach seemed to make all this so interesting that when he was done we got cheered and applauded. It was almost embarrassing, but the bottom line was my social life improved. And just in time to cash in. First was the Sadie Hawkins Day Dance, where the girl asks the boy, and oh so coincidentally it was scheduled just a few weeks before the Junior Prom. Most convenient for the girl who wants to go to the prom but doesn’t have a date. I don't recall any girl whose date to the Sadie Hawkins Day Dance wasn’t returned the favor with a date to the Prom. Genius idea.

Coach Ruffian’s Pep Rally speech suddenly made me so popular I not only got voted on the Prom Court, but chosen by my classmates as Mr. Loyal of the Junior Class, another popularity contest, but this one even more embarrassing because it came down to two finalists: me and Eugene Messina, our top cross-country runner and straight A student. He was also involved in many school activities, making him obviously more Loyal than me, a C+ student on the wrestling team.

I wasn't going out with anyone, as I was shy, like many of my fellow 16-year-olds, so when Carol Smith, one of the cutest girls in school, asked me to the Sadie Hawkins Dance it meant that I suddenly had a date to the prom. It turned out that she had been dating an older 1960 Custer High grad (did I mention that we were the Custer Indians? But that's another story.*), but had recently broke up with him so that she could be on the Prom Court. No, I didn’t know this at the time (not that it would have made any difference), but later when she broke up with me and went back to him, I sorta figured it out.

I was the only one of five guys on the Court who didn’t already have a girlfriend. The other four were already popular couples, lead by King and Queen Nancy and Tom Gabowski. (They later married, had kids, divorced — and this I found out at the 25th Class Reunion, when Nancy arrived with a new beau, and Tom eventually showed up alone, drunk and obnoxious.

And of course Eugene was on the Prom Court with Leslie Warner, who was so beautiful and sweet that the next year when she had broken up with him and asked me to the Sadie Hawkins Day Dance you’d think I’d be in heaven, but I had to turn her down because the dance was the same weekend as the Regional wrestling championships, and this time there were high expectations of me. So she asked Kent Zahn, who had a sort of Edd “Kookie” Burns look (Are you old enough to remember, “Kookie, Kookie, lend me your comb,” from that old TV show, “77 Sunset Strip?”).

Anyhow, lo and behold, 25 years later at the only class reunion I ever attended, she sees me, smiles sweetly and slowly walks toward me — not unlike Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer in “West Side Story” when they saw each other at that dance and everyone else got blurry…where was I?

Oh yeah, she gave me one of the best hugs ever! And she was even more beautiful after 25 years...and there I was, twice divorced, father of two, and didn’t even have a girlfriend! What would have happened back in ‘62 if I had said, “Hell with wrestling, I’m taking Leslie to the Dance?

Actually, my older sister Sherry’s wedding happened to be the same weekend as both those events. Of course I was sorry I missed her wedding, but the State wrestling meet was a better excuse than explaining to her that I had to go to the Sadie Hawkins Day Dance with Leslie Warner because she was the most beautiful girl in the school.

Okay, I know if you’re still reading this, you’re dying to find out — how did I do at State?

How did I cope with all the pressure and expectations of me after my big upsets the previous year?

How did I make up for the sacrifice of missing my sister’s only wedding?

And perhaps more important, how did I feel after my fateful decision to turn down Leslie’s invitation to the Sadie Hawkins Day dance — and why didn’t I ask her to the Prom?

Actually, I don’t want to talk about it anymore.

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