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InterMat Reads: Buried in the Maple Leaves

Harry Geris was a three-time Olympic wrestler, stepping onto the mat for his adopted country, Canada. He was also something of a Forrest Gump or Zelig -- an individual whose life intersected with so many other significant individuals and events in wrestling in the U.S. and beyond ... with a number of these encounters that opened doors for new opportunities in his life and career. It's all uncovered in the brand-new book "Buried in the Maple Leaves: The Untold Story of North American Wrestling Legend Harry Geris" by Shawn Geris, Harry's son, just published by Tate Publishing.

Shawn Geris
Shawn Geris, who wrestled at Fresno City College and Eastern Michigan and now coaches at York University in Toronto, made the analogy between his father and the famous fictional character who found himself meeting significant real-life individuals in historic situations. In an interview with InterMat, the younger Geris described his new book as a "historic snapshot of a that era in wrestling, and how my dad was the Forrest Gump of that era, as a witness to major events of the time, such as the Chicago riots and the Munich (Olympics) massacre. It's also the story of an underdog who perseveres, someone who didn't give up."

All about Harry Geris

Born in the Netherlands in 1947, Henricus Theodorus Geris -- who became known as Harry -- was the fourth of nine children. His family came to Canada in 1951, unable to speak English or French. Growing up in London, Ontario, Harry and his siblings were expected to take on after-school jobs to help the struggling family put food on the table. Harry himself struggled with his schoolwork and trying to master English. In ninth grade, his principal recommended the strapping youngster join the school wrestling team, where Harry quickly found his place, having grappled with his brothers at home. That was the introduction to the sport that became Harry Geris' life for the rest of his life.

Harry Geris battled against the likes of Chris Taylor, the 400-pound-plus heavyweight for Iowa State in the early 1970s
Here's just one Forrest Gump-like incident told in rich detail in "Buried in the Maple Leaves" that opened Harry Geris to wrestling opportunities beyond Canada. In Geris' last year of high school, his coach told his wrestlers he had received an invitation for the Midlands, the after-Christmas classic now held at Northwestern University. Geris took the invitation, hitchhiked from Ontario to LaGrange, Ill. in suburban Chicago (then the site of the event), and startled event organizers to the tournament which traditionally accepted only college and post-college wrestlers. His story of perseverance got him accepted into the tournament, but he was knocked out of the competition in the first round. However, the story of Geris' hitchhiking adventure got the attention of Henry Pillard, wrestling coach at Joliet Community College ... who took Harry Geris around to meet other college coaches such as Iowa State's Harold Nichols and Wisconsin's Wally Johnson. Pillard was so impressed with the giant Canadian, he welcomed Geris to Joliet, where he was his coach for the first two years of his collegiate career. Geris' success at Joliet opened even more doors for his educational and athletic career, later competing at Oklahoma State, going up against the likes of Chris Taylor, the 400-pound-plus heavyweight for Iowa State in the early 1970s.

Shawn Geris is eternally grateful for Henry Pillard taking his father under his wing at the Midlands. "If it hadn't been for Coach Pillard, my dad wouldn't have achieved what he did," said Shawn Geris. "If he hadn't gone to the U.S., his career would not have taken off." However, as Geris shared with InterMat, "Pillard had said, 'Shawn, when you're recruiting, you look out for people who have had rough times, who are willing to work and work.' He saw that in my father who had hitchhiked eight hours to compete at that tournament."

How the book came about

"After dad passed away, we wanted to know more about him, since he never talked about himself," Shawn Geris said. "At his funeral, there was a three-hour-long receiving line of wrestlers, and their parents, telling what a difference dad had made in their lives."

"Dad had two scrapbooks of his career which I hadn't seen before the funeral. It was bittersweet to get stories from others and not direct from the source ... I never saw him wrestle in person. First time I actually saw him wrestle was on video, years later, of him vs. Japan, at the 1976 Montreal Olympics, supplied by CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation). I jumped up and down, cheering, along with the Canadian crowd and U.S. wrestling team members who knew him."

"It was a four-and-a-half year journey to write the book, with all that I've got going on -- job (as a police officer), coaching, family," the younger Geris continued. "The internet really helped me track people down ... The book is written for his grandkids but we thought it was worth sharing."

As for the title "Buried in the Maple Leaves" ... "Dad didn't get to tell his own story," Shawn Geris told InterMat. "I had to uncover it myself. His story is buried even within Canada's sports history, where hockey is THE sport."

Harry Geris
The book skillfully blends three basic sources for telling Harry Geris' life: newspaper accounts of his matches ... a straightforward telling of the elder Geris' life, built from interviews with those who knew him well ... and Shawn's own recollections of his father. "Buried in the Maple Leaves" is a story of perseverance, of never giving up, of taking the extra mile to pursue dreams (even if that means hitchhiking great distances, something that Harry Geris did more than once). It's also a story that takes readers behind the scenes at three Olympics (1968 in Mexico City, 1972 in Munich, and 1976 in Montreal) and inside one of the all-time great college wrestling programs, Oklahoma State, where the elder Geris completed his collegiate mat career, going up against the best big men of college wrestling in the early 1970s, like Chris Taylor.

No less a sports giant than Randy Couture was impressed with the book. "'Buried in the Maple Leaves' is an epic tale of overcoming life's obstacles and pursuing your passion," said the former UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championships) champ and Oklahoma State wrestler. "It is a perfect example of why I love the sport of wrestling and the character it develops in all it touches. Anyone, especially the wrestling community, will relate to Harry's experiences through athletics and everyday life."

"Buried in the Maple Leaves: The Untold Story of North American Wrestling Legend Harry Geris" is available from Amazon.com or direct from the publisher.

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jasonbryant (2) about 3 and a half years ago
Little InterMat tidbit. When I was operating the site, Harry volunteered to work the NCAA championships for our live text coverage. At the time, I had no idea who he was. A year later, I see him in Las Vegas wearing the old InterMat shirt we'd given him. By that time, I knew who he was ... Definitely will be reading this.