More Than One Way to be a Winner

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12838011222010022905This past weekend, 330 wrestlers from all over the country competed in the 2017 NCAA Championship Tournament. My favorite college wrestling team, Penn St., won the team title by a large margin, helped by the strength of five individual champions. The Penn St. wrestler who impressed me most this year, however, never stepped on the mat at Nationals. He was the one Nittany Lion who did not qualify for the tournament. His name is George Carpenter.

George is a sophomore from Chapel Hill, NC where he had a decent amount of success as a high school wrestler. Now, he just completed his red shirt sophomore year at Penn St. and, to put it honestly, he didn’t have as much success. For the second year in a row, he finished with a losing record.

See, wrestlers have many names for a teammate like George — sacrificial lamb, fill-in, spot holder, etc. On a team of stars and superstars, George was an also ran, but I loved to watch him every time he took the mat for one simple reason, he never quit. Most matches I saw George wrestle in, he was noticeably smaller and less muscular than his opponents. I would imagine many of them looked across the mat and figured George for an easy out. They took him for a “fish” and that is where they were greatly mistaken.

George Carpenter might not have had the flashiest moves or the biggest muscles. He might not have been competing under the highest expectations. Still, every time I watched him, he was always the first back to center mat on a restart. He would run back to the middle. He never played the edge of the mat and he never, ever backed down from an opponent. I saw him fight off his back and not get pinned. More than once he saved bonus points from going against his team because he was so tenacious he kept the score down so the other guy couldn’t get a major decision or a technical fall. Maybe he wasn’t supposed to win. Maybe he didn’t get his arm raised much, but he always did what his coaches asked of him which was to go out and wrestle hard. I admire him for that.

Years ago, I was an assistant wrestling coach at the high school where I taught. We had a wrestler like George. Actually, to be honest, compared to Nathan, George was more like an Olympic gold medalist. Nathan loved wrestling and he put his heart and soul into the sport. He ran sprints harder than anyone, he drilled during water breaks, and he always asked how he could get better. Unfortunately, God had completely overlooked Nate when He was doling out physical gifts.

Nate was short, a little slow on his feet, and possessed the saddest physique I have ever seen. His chest was literally concave. As the head coach put it, Nate didn’t have any “bumps” on his arms. He was the least gifted athlete I have ever coached or even seen. Still, he loved the sport of wrestling and due to several quirks in the weight classes, he was almost always in the starting line up.

For four years I watched Nate go out every match and lose. It was actually a surprise when he showed up the first day of practice his sophomore year after getting pinned some twenty times straight as a freshman. I was flabbergasted when he showed up for his junior season after his sophomore campaign was more of the same and I must admit I figured the boy was a bona fide masochist when he came out his senior year still having never won a match.

He was one of our three captains his senior year representing the lowest weights. He earned the spot through his tenacity and spirit. I couldn’t have done what he did. I wrestled in high school and I wasn’t good, but I still managed to put together some wins by my sophomore year and I actually finished second in the region my junior year. We don’t talk about my senior year when the weight classes changed. I know for a fact if my seasons had been as futile as Nate’s, I would have called it quits after my sophomore year.

Nate never quit. Match after match he would lose, more often than not by pin and he would always politely shake his opponent’s hand and come over to the bench. He’d put on his warm ups and go off by himself for a few minutes before coming back to cheer on the rest of the team. He was always right there on the edge of the mat willing his teammates to do what he seemingly could not. For that, the other boys respected him. He was their captain and they wanted to see him win as badly as the rest of us.

I’d love to say this story has a happy ending and Nathan broke through his senior year and won the region on the way to a state championship, but life doesn’t usually play out like a Hollywood movie. Nate’s overall record for four years of wrestling was 0 for forever. He never got his hand raised in victory. Yet, in some ways, Nathan won honors others never could. At least he was on the mat. He was IN THE GAME. Granted, he wasn’t so good at the game, but he never gave up on doing what he loved and next to his name in his senior yearbook is the notation “Wrestling 9,10,11,12 Letterman 9,10,11,12 Captain 12” which is more than many of his classmates had by their names in that same yearbook.

So raise a glass to the Nathans and the Georges of the world. They may not be champions at their chosen sports, but they are winners at life. Maybe they never got or never will get a trophy, but they made memories and they were true to themselves and in this world today if you can manage that, you’ve done a great thing.

Love y’all and keep those feet clean.

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