Coach Brooks sat on the sidelines nodding his head in approval. I was doing as he'd told me in practice, that was right until the second I sent my leg over my opponent's head.
Coach Brooks jumped from his chair and screamed across the empty gymnasium, "Dammit, FOOOLEEY! I told you NOOO!"
He had, in fact, told me on several occasions to not do that move. Do NOT step over the head, he'd tell me, just bump. He'd told me that morning, he'd told me the week before. He'd probably told me the first day I brought it into the wrestling room. "Don't do it, Guppy. Just don't do it."
I did it, and as he predicted my foot dropped past my knee and I was penalized for a dangerous or illegal move. I was a 95-pound 14-year-old wrestler about to win my third JV wrestling match in my first-ever season on the mat. I was impetuous, bull-headed, arrogant and technically awful.
Coach Brooks sought to change what he could and preserve what was necessary. That was his job, and he was my first wrestling coach.
I had him in mind when I returned three days ago from a five-week trip to cover the African, European and Asian Championships. The trip included a 72-hour sojourn spent wrestling in a northern Vietnamese village and a few days in Hong Kong with friends. It was a tiring trip, but one in which I was pursuing my life's work, my passion.
My mother had told me last month that Coach Brooks was suffering from advanced, inoperable and likely untreatable liver cancer. I registered notes of pain when she told me and in thinking of his illness and possible death had decided to write him a note. When I landed in Chicago I reminded myself to get it done this week. Except it never happened. Instead of sending a note, I acquired distractions and selfishly moaned about jet lag.
My father called me Thursday morning to let me know that Gerald Brooks had passed away in his sleep. His brief battle with cancer was over. My note was left composed only in my head. He was 64.
Like many high school wrestling coaches, Coach Brooks wasn't remarkable on the mat and didn't come to our team with a list of previous accomplishments. He taught auto repair, had wrestled some in high school but was talented at motivating hormonal, know-it-all teenagers to behave like young men. To all he was adored and to his wrestlers he was beloved and respected.
Coach Brooks was a character. He dressed in snug pot-belly polos and carried to practice a whistle and a clipboard that weren't often used but always at the ready -- for something. He was perfectly bald from the crown of his head to his temples, where he left wrapping his head a semicircle of wispy hair. His short neck and big smile gave the appearance that his shoulders were hunched forward in a laugh.
He had kind eyes.
Coach Brooks wasn't always a buttercup. There were moments that our behavior (like doing in a match precisely what he'd just said not to do) was met with a ruddy-faced gritting of teeth and country-bred string of unique insults. Coach Brooks made memorable lines -- mostly nicknames like "Guppy" -- but he called my best friend "Hemorrhoid" in homage to his ability to be a pain in the ass.
I can't remember all the anecdotes and quips, but I do remember the way he made me feel. I came to him naive, self-important and physically timid, but after a season on the mat I left with what I thought were notable gains and a blushing of earned respect that helped me know the difference between being cocky and confident.
Coach Brooks and I hadn't spoken in several years. There was a cookout 15 years ago, a parking lot conversation eight years ago, and a handful of passed messages through the high school's long-serving head coach. He followed my college career with pride and sent congrats through my mother. Though we didn't pen pal -- he was a quiet type -- he was never gone from my memory and I trust that I remained in his. I think wrestlers are unique in that way. We can uncouple from a coach without losing separation. We can absorb distance without dividing our emotions.
Tim Foley (bottom) and Jeff Pradhan (top) pose with head wrestling coach Mike Smoot (left) and assistant coach Gerald Brooks (right) after the AAA Virginia State Wrestling tournament in February 1998Coach Brooks taught me the first lesson of wrestling: to listen. He also taught me the second: to be tough. I'd had doubts about myself -- and still do -- but Coach Brooks kept the wrestling fun and the lessons simple. He trusted in my growth and invested his time in my development, and now twenty years later the sport he introduced me to has become my life's work and passion.
I'm thankful to have so many positive influences in my life -- people who believed in my ability -- but I'm especially thankful to Coach Brooks for being the first to give me his confidence. I know enough to know that he was proud of my accomplishments. I just wish I'd have found a moment before he passed to tell him what I'm telling you. I wish I'd just written a short note.
Thank you for everything, Coach.
To your questions ...
Q: I'm surprised no one mentioned the dominating performance from Brent Metcalf at the U.S. Open. Metcalf supporters seem to be very emotionally connected and almost irrational in their support (and I am much more of a casual fan), but Metcalf seems to have distanced himself from the pack. He wasn't really threatened the entire tournament. Add to that performance the World Cup in Los Angeles where Metcalf defeated the best from the rest of the world and he may be the best wrestler his size in the world.
And ... he's baaack. Jake Varner looked as good as ever. He seemed to be more dominant physically and technically by a long shot-cruising to victory and may be as good as anyone in the world right now. These two guys have to be the favorites to represent the U.S. and maybe win gold in Rio.
This may be sacrilegious to the wrestling crowd, but what are the chances that these two will get aced out by current high school students Kyle Snyder and Aaron Pico? These two seem to be light years ahead of other high school wrestlers in the international scene. Personally, I think Pico would be very competitive with Metcalf right now. What are your thoughts?
-- Dave A.
Foley: I'm all about being present and I couldn't be happier with Brent Metcalf's progress in freestyle, or the reemergence of Jake Varner. As for the latter, it's been easy to say that he took the gold and ran away, but what is obvious is that with some motivation and training he really is one of the best wrestlers in the world. Will he win the 2014 World Championships? Yikes. I don't think he makes it past Reza Yazdani of Iran, but I think he can at least compete.
Brent Metcalf went undefeated at the World Cup in LA (Photo/John Sachs, Tech-Fall.com)Metcalf inspires the fan base because he's consistent with his emotions towards his own performance. All wrestlers care about winning and losing, but for Metcalf that caring is never hidden. His seeming self-hatred and disappointment at underperforming makes him difficult to criticize, and his masculine modesty in accepting his own brilliant performances connects with the wrestling community.
That said, in the coming years Metcalf will have to battle with Aaron Pico on a very real level. That will make them both better and help guarantee that whoever emerges from the scrum is a World champion. Pico is good enough now and getting better. But until he gets stronger -- maybe in 2016 -- it will be Metcalf's weight class to give away.
Varner has one last Olympic sprint in his blood. If he makes it past Kyle Snyder in 2015 I think he will do it again in 2016.
Q: What do you think of women's wrestling?
-- Gregg Y.
Foley: I absolutely love women's wrestling. Couldn't be a bigger fan. It's easy for fans to say that they aren't as good as the men, and then compare the NBA to WNBA, but women's wrestling is almost a different sport than men's wrestling.
The techniques are different because the bodies and range of reactions are so drastically different. They tend to wrestle closer to the mat, which means fewer throws, but they also tend to wrestle more than the men. That is to say that they don't take breaks or pause in the action. When women step on the mat they scrap.
My guess is that by 2016 the women will have grabbed even more attention away from the Y chromosomes and be featured in many of those sepia-toned pre-Olympic pieces on NBC where you're sure to cry, but you're never sure why.
Q: High school has a 220-pound weight class and international has 97 kilos (approximately 214 pounds). Do you think the NCAA should add a 220ish weight class? Would an odd number of weight classes make dual meets more interesting?
-- Nick M.
Foley: Wow. Yes, I think that another weight class would make dual meets a lot more interesting. But before we go down this rabbit hole it's important to know that this will never happen, both because the NCAA isn't adding a weight class and that at that weight there isn't (I think) enough interest.
Q: What's up with the instant replay in NCAA wrestling? Is there a time limit with regards to how long the officials can view the video? I don't know the rules around it, but my observations make me assume that the official who made the call will review the replay and decide if a reversal of his call will be made. This seems to be a problematic situation, as I have a sneaky suspicion that officials may not want to be challenged over their judgment in making a call or no-call. Part of me wonders how beneficial a coach's challenge can be with regards to changing the score.
What are your thoughts on the state of instant replay in NCAA wrestling? How beneficial would it be if NCAA wrestling were to adopt a three-judge system like FILA?
-- Jacob R.
Foley: Excellent question.
Instant replay at the NCAAs was a drag in 2013, but my biggest issue wasn't in the constant challenges, but in the presentation of the challenges. What FILA does well is shows the fans exactly what is being reviewed. There is a large screen so everyone can follow along. Not only does it feel more transparent, but I think it's kind of an additional check on coaches who get too challenge-happy. Nobody wants to get boo'ed by the fans for making a dumb challenge.
Three judges is smart, but I think only necessary with the international crowd because of each country's certainty that referees from opposing political ideologies are trying to screw them. The conference and school allegiances aren't typically strong enough, or well-known enough, to cause coaches much concern.
Q: Why are the U.S. World Team Trials in Madison? Traveling to and from there sucks. They cancel flights all the time and the media market is small. Why wouldn't they have them in a major city? This small Midwest crap needs to stop. Stillwater, Iowa City, and Madison are nice Middle America, but they do nothing to gain exposure for wrestling.
-- Tim J.
Foley: Small markets are able to control overhead and still attract and audience on par with larger markets. Most people will watch the Trials on the Internet or television. It's an important weekend, but not so huge that fans will travel thousands of miles to attend the event. In fact, despite the controls for overhead I'm certain that the Trials will struggle to make money, and will most likely lose a couple of tens of thousands of dollars.
Wrestling needs to stay greedy, but it's also important to control the temptation to complain too much about the locations of these events. The building process takes time and when USA Wrestling finds the model that works best they'll stick with it (see: Las Vegas).
Q: As an ex-wrestler and current BJJ student, I was wondering why you thought the end of match handshake in wrestling at the collegiate level is so perfunctory and forced? It almost seems as though wrestlers go out of their way to be as "ungracious" as possible with the handshake. I understand it's very competitive, but no more so than in BJJ and after matches in BJJ there is typically true acknowledgement of your opponent. I know it's a tiny thing, but it always just seems so ridiculous and unsportsmanlike.
-- Jeff H.
Kyle Dake shakes Cael Sanderson's hand after winning his fourth NCAA title at the 2013 NCAAs in Des Moines (Photo/Tony Rotundo, WrestlersAreWarriors.com)Foley: To be fair, the handshakes do vary in sincerity, but overall the attitude is one that lacks respect for opponents. One of the biggest mistakes being made in the world of American wrestling is a continued focus on being the toughest SOB on the mat. That works at times, but often it results in too much boasting and grandstanding and not enough recognition of the sport for which we're competing.
In my experience a majority of other wrestling cultures have ingrained attitudes about sportsmanship, with most favoring respect. There are outliers, but when I think of Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Turkish and Russian wrestlers I can recall excellent moments of forgiveness. Like you've seen in BJJ there are even moments of hugs, temple presses, and I kid you not, cheek kissing.
We could learn to be a little more respectful on the mats and that includes the handshake.