Fans can’t escape wrestling’s appeal

Tuesday, February 10, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 5:07 p.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

I grew up in a wrestling town.

I guess that’s why it came as such a shock when I came to Columbia. I moved here in the middle of wrestling season, but there was no sign of the sport anywhere in town. I didn’t even know Missouri had a wrestling team that first winter.

So I lived vicariously through telephone reports from my grandfather telling me how my high school team was doing. He gave me all the details, the last-second reversal to win the match, how tight the headlock was, how much time was left when the guy got warned for stalling. He didn’t miss a thing, but it wasn’t enough.

I needed to see wrestling. Too bad it didn’t exist in Columbia.

The end of February came, and my longing for wrestling grew. In Kansas, where I grew up, the state tournament fell a week later than Missouri’s, usually the last weekend in February or the first in March. It was the event of the year. We always left for Wichita after school Thursday. We were excused from class Friday, because we didn’t want to miss the opening round of matches that started Friday morning, usually around 9.

It was like that every year. I bought a $3 program and kept the brackets updated by hand, even though I knew I could buy an updated computer printout for $1 right before the finals. Not everyone in town took it that seriously, but by the time the finals rolled around Saturday night, about one-quarter of our small town had made the four-hour trek to the Kansas Coliseum.

When that weekend came, I needed to fill the hole.

I got online and found a Web site with the Kansas state tournament results. The brackets were updated periodically, so I could follow who was advancing with only a couple of hours of delay. It helped, but it didn’t satiate my appetite. Now it would be another year before wrestling came around.

When November rolled around, I started to get the itch. Wrestling season would start soon, and I didn’t know where to get my fix. I contemplated trips home on the weekends of big tournaments, but the time off from work was hard to come by. Then I learned something.

Rock Bridge had a wrestling team, and Hickman, too.

What? How could I not know? They never talk about them on the news.

I was ecstatic. I went to every Rock Bridge home match because my sister went to school there. I went to the Hickman Tournament. I drove to Mexico, Mo., to see a dual. I went to Jefferson City for the sectional tournament. I spent three days in Hearnes Center watching the state tournament, updating the brackets by hand, keeping an eye on every match.

At the end of the season, I felt relieved. I had found it. But then, I noticed something was different. Something was missing. There were no casual fans. Everyone at the matches had a son or brother who wrestled or a daughter or sister who was a cheerleader. That’s why I hadn’t heard about wrestling in Columbia; nobody knew about it.

I have often wondered what it would take to get Columbia’s zealous sports community excited about wrestling. The sport is largely ignored in the community although more obscure sports, such as disc golf and lacrosse have carved niches.

Even now, Missouri is ranked No. 4 in the nation, having beaten No. 1 Oklahoma State earlier in the season, and wrestling goes on almost anonymously in the Hearnes Center Fieldhouse and the gyms at Hickman and Rock Bridge.

Rock Bridge coach John Kopnisky has noticed the lack of enthusiasm, but he hopes things are turning around. Kopnisky is building his program on coach Brian Smith’s Missouri model, and he hopes the excitement and success come with it.

“I want my kids and this school to understand wrestling,” Kopnisky said. “I hope they’ll really incorporate wrestling, and then go up and see Missouri wrestle. Hopefully, that will compound and build and we’ll get a good following.”

It’s not that I can blame Columbia sports fans for missing out on wrestling; I suspect innocent ignorance is the primary culprit. The deck is stacked against the sport. If you don’t understand it, you will probably never learn to do so. Finding someone who can show you the ropes is a task.

Kopnisky said he hopes Columbia’s youth wrestling program jump-starts the excitement about the sport. He sees it as a cycle, such that it only takes one generation to get the ball rolling.

“Getting people to come in and watch wrestling, that’s where it starts,” Kopnisky said. “From there, it compounds. They watch us and Missouri wrestle, then their kid goes to Rock Bridge and they want him to wrestle.”

The love of wrestling isn’t lost on all of Missouri, though. Starting Feb. 19, thousands of wrestling fans will descend upon Columbia for the state tournament. By Saturday night’s finals, Hearnes Center will be packed.

Most of the local sports fans will stay at home, unknowingly missing some of the most exciting action Hearnes Center will see all year.

I’ll be there, and I’ll gladly explain the basics of wrestling, if you’re willing to listen. And if we can find a seat.

Justin Jarrett’s columns appear Tuesdays.

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