Rob SherrillFor many, it would be the Fighting Illini wrestling program at the University of Illinois. Others would think of the Midlands, the annual college tournament held at Northwestern University between Christmas and New Year's Day. For others, Illinois wrestling would be personified by the man whose image is featured on state license plates, Abraham Lincoln, arguably the most famous wrestler to become U.S. President.
Within the state that's known as the Land of Lincoln there's a rich history of great high school wrestling that's been captured in Tales from the Mat: Illinois High School Wrestling at 75 by Rob Sherrill, just published by Center Mat Press.
High school mat fans beyond Illinois will recognize Rob Sherrill's name. He is the long-time high school wrestling writer and columnist for WIN (Wrestling Insider Newsmagazine). Within Illinois, Sherrill has built a reputation for his knowledgeable coverage of the sport, first at the Chicago Sun-Times, then for the Illinois Matman website.
A classic, revisited
Tales from the Mat is new, updated, expanded version of Sherrill's earlier book, Mat Madness: 60 Years of Illinois High School Wrestling, published in 1996, which Sherrill described as "a first attempt at a comprehensive, statewide history of wrestling in Illinois."
Why a new version?
"The original book has been out of print," said Sherrill. "People would ask, 'Do you have any copies left?' and I'd have to tell them I didn't."
"As the 75th anniversary of Illinois high school wrestling approached, I thought it would be as good a time as any to update the book."
"I started working on it with a trombone-playing friend here in Nashville," said Sherrill, who has lived in Tennessee for the past fifteen years but is still very connected to wrestling back in Illinois. "That was three years ago. Most of the work was completed in the past year."
"It's not a radical makeover," according to Sherrill. "I'd say 90% of the original book is the same. We've updated the information to include what's taken place since the first book. We also added photos, and updated the ‘Reminiscences' features."
That said, the changes incorporated into the new Tales from the Mat make for a significantly heftier book.
"The addition of material for the past 15 years added 50% to the volume," Sherrill said of the newly updated book which is similar in size to a phone book for a medium-sized city, and weighs in just shy of 500 pages.
The inside story of Illinois wrestling, by the numbers
Despite Tales from the Mat's subtitle -- Illinois High School Wrestling at 75 -- wrestling at the prep level in the state goes back more than three-quarters of a century. In fact, the first dual meet in Illinois took place in 1926, between two Chicago public high schools. The "75" in the subtitle refers to the number of state wrestling championships officially sanctioned by the Illinois High School Association, the governing body for prep sports in the state, which held its first state tournament at the University of Illinois in Huff Gym (still the home for the Fighting Illini mat squad) in March, 1937.
However, before that first "official" state mat championship took place in ‘'7, there was a series of four annual "downstate" tournaments held outside Chicago from 1933 through 1936, each in a different location. In addition, there was a fifth unofficial state championship in 1944. That year, the ISHA had cancelled the tournament because of World War II travel restrictions and gas rationing; however, high school coaches decided "the show must go on" and held a state event in the Champaign Junior High School. As Rob Sherrill pointed out in the interview for this article, "There have been 75 official state championships in Illinois, but there is a string of 80 unbroken years of state tournaments in the state."
T.J. Williams, Chicago Mount Carmel, on his way to winning his fourth state title in Illinois, 1996Tales from the Mat provides a year-by-year look at the Illinois high school state tournament, including a concise write-up of the highlights for that particular year, along with weight-by-weight, individual match results for the championship finals, as well as placement bouts. In addition, scattered throughout the book are historical features, including "Reminiscences" from wrestlers, coaches and officials sharing their memories of past state tournaments and what the sport was like. Another historical feature: articles from past issues of Illinois Matman magazine that shed light on old-school wrestling in the Land of Lincoln, including stories from the 1930s and 40s that address topics such as injury concerns, nutrition, making weight, and making a case for the benefits of wrestling that still hold true today.
Rob Sherrill also pointed out some additional back-of-the-book features that make Tales from the Mat a winner for wrestling historians and fans alike, including, "a year-by-year listing of all the rules from the ISHA Scholastic magazine, that would present rule changes each year," along with an extensive appendix "that has information that's simply not available anywhere else" ranging from weight classes through history, to team and individual champs for each school, to wrestlers who pinned their way to state titles, and so much more.
History in words and pictures
In addition to telling the story of 75 years of Illinois state wrestling championships in words and statistics, Tales from the Mat also provides a visual history of prep wrestling in the Land of Lincoln with tons of photos over the years. It's fun to see images of wrestlers "back in the day" in uniforms very different from what we see today ... and to get a glimpse of Illinois high school mat stars who then went on to even greater accomplishments as college wrestlers and coaches. What's more, the images reveal the inclusive nature of the sport in Illinois even 50 or 60 years ago, a point made by Sherrill when he said, "The photos show how integrated wrestling was in the 1950s and 60s."
Tales from the Mat is a significant historical artifact for anyone who loves wrestling. "It's great for someone who grew up in Illinois, and wants to take a 'memory trip,'" said Sherrill. "It also gives readers an evolution of the top programs in the state that are now known beyond Illinois, such as Montini, Providence, Sandburg."
"It's a historical work that has lessons for the wrestling community as a whole, not just Illinois fans," Sherrill continued. "It shows the evolution of wrestling history from one state's perspective."
Tales from the Mat: Illinois High School Wrestling at 75 is available for purchase online from the CenterMatPress.com website.