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60 years later: Hodge remains only wrestler on SI cover

No fooling: Sixty years ago -- April 1, 1957 -- Oklahoma Sooner mat champ Dan Hodge earned a place on the cover of Sports Illustrated ... and remains the only amateur wrestler to appear on the cover of the iconic sports magazine in its nearly 65-year history.

Because it's a once-in-a-most-of-our-lifetimes event for a wrestler to make the SI cover, InterMat thought it would be appropriate to honor this incredible milestone ... by taking a look back at the cover story and a couple other times Hodge appeared within the pages of Sports Illustrated.

"Are you sure Hodge is the one and only wrestler on the SI cover?"

Before we get too far along, let's share some basic ground rules for this article.

Some of you might be able to name an MMA star, NFL player or pro wrestler who once wrestled in high school or college, and was featured on a Sports Illustrated cover. Unless the guy you're thinking of appeared as an amateur wrestler and not years later as a professional athlete or sports entertainment personality, that doesn't count for our purposes. So don't expect InterMat to do a story about any of those cover boys.

Then there are you doubting Thomases, who are immediately thinking of names of high-achieving amateur wrestlers who surely must have been the subject of SI cover stories: Doug Blubaugh. Dan Gable. John Smith. Pat Smith. Cael Sanderson. Alexander Karelin. Rulon Gardner. Helen Maroulis. The answer is no, nope, sorry. None of these mat superstars has, to our knowledge, graced the SI cover.

(If you have an actual Sports Illustrated magazine cover that features an amateur wrestler as an amateur wrestler, we'd like to see it. Note: regional special editions don't count.)

And, for the smart aleck who says, "Woah, what about the other wrestler on the SI cover with Dan?" ... well, all I can say is, "Point taken." To our knowledge, the other wrestler is Rex Edgar, teammate of Hodge's at University of Oklahoma who placed third at 167 pounds at the 1957 NCAAs.

A word about Sports Illustrated

Sports Illustrated is arguably the leading newsweekly magazine devoted to covering sports. It was launched in August 1954 ... just less than three years before Dan Hodge appeared on the cover. Published by media giant Time, Inc., Sports Illustrated today has a paid circulation of approximately 3,000,000 ... with a total readership of nearly 18,000,000. Among the ongoing annual features that have become a hallmark of SI: the Sportsman/Sportsperson of the Year ... and the annual Swimsuit Edition which is by far the magazine's biggest newsstand seller.

From its beginning in the 1950s, Sports Illustrated sought to set itself apart from other sports publications in a couple ways. For starters, unlike many sports magazines and newspapers that focus on local athletes, teams and events, SI has an international perspective, covering teams and sporting events from around the world. In addition, the magazine provides more than a report of scores and player trades and other news that are the focus of most daily newspapers, sports websites and cable sports channels such as ESPN ... instead, providing at least one long-form, in-depth feature story on a particular athlete or event. The Dan Hodge cover story in the April 1, 1957 issue of Sports Illustrated fits that description.

Dan Hodge: More than a "trophy wrestler"

Some in the wrestling community may only know the name Dan Hodge as gracing the trophy presented each year at this time by WIN magazine and Culture House to the nation's best collegiate wrestler ... without realizing that there is a real guy by that name (still very much alive at age 84) who struck terror in the hearts of high school wrestlers in his native Oklahoma, in college wrestling in the mid-1950s, and at two Olympics (at the 1952 Helsinki and 1956 Melbourne Games).

Dan Hodge
Dan Allen Hodge was born in May 1932 on a farm outside Perry, Oklahoma. He wrestled at Perry High School -- one of the all-time great prep programs in the nation -- where he won an Oklahoma state title in 1951. Immediately upon graduation, he signed up for the U.S. Navy, where he was able to continue his wrestling career, earning a spot on the 1952 U.S. Olympic men's freestyle team. Having completed his service to Uncle Sam, Hodge was heavily recruited by Northwestern University ... but the Oklahoma native was persuaded to return to his home state by University of Oklahoma head coach Port Robertson. The Sooners were one of the leading college wrestling programs of that era, and still rank fourth in total number of NCAA team titles won (seven), behind Oklahoma State, University of Iowa, and Iowa State.

Hodge was the 177-pound starter for Oklahoma for three seasons, from 1955-1957. (Back then, freshmen were not allowed to wrestle varsity.) He compiled a perfect 46-0 record. Of those wins, 36 were by fall, for a pinning percentage of 78 percent, one of the all-time highest in NCAA history. Because of his pinning power, Hodge was often referred to as "Dangerous Dan" and "Homicide Hodge" by sportswriters across the nation.

Hodge won three Big Seven conference titles (1955-57), and three NCAA titles those same years. In the 85-year history of the NCAA wrestling championships, he is only one of two three-time Nationals titlists to have won all three of his finals bouts by pin; the other wrestler who earned that distinction was Oklahoma State heavyweight Earl McCready, the first three-time NCAA champ (1928-30). (Like Hodge, McCready had a perfect college record and was a fall guy, pinning 20 of his 25 opponents, for an 80 percent pin rate.)

Hodge and the April '57 Sports Illustrated

The story on the SI cover ...

The April 1, 1957 issue of Sports Illustrated featured Dan Hodge prominently on the cover ... and inside the magazine. However, it wasn't the only story featured in that issue. Among the other sports stories: "Twilight of the Bums" (about baseball's Brooklyn Dodgers, before they moved to Los Angeles) ... "King of the Hill" (a profile of an NCAA skiing champ) ... a preview of the Masters golf tournament ... coverage of the Sebring 12-hour Grand Prix auto race ... and the NCAA basketball tournament.

Back to the cover guy. In the full-color photo, Hodge is shown "working over" his University of Oklahoma teammate Rex Edgar. Both are wearing the Sooner uniforms of that era -- trunks over tights, with no shirt -- which showcased Hodge's lean-muscled physique. (Shirts were optional back then, until the NCAA outlawed bare-chested wrestling in the mid 1960s.) Edgar is wearing headgear, which was optional at the time. No college wrestler of 60 years ago wore a singlet; believe it or not, they were actually banned by the NCAA until the late 1960s.

Alongside the two Sooner matmen is the caption: "Oklahoma's Dan Hodge: Best U.S. wrestler."

The inside story

The four-page 1957 SI cover story, written by Don Parker, is titled "The Man to Beat" accompanied by this explanatory subhead: "Wrestler Dan Hodge has never been beaten in college. His 41-match win streak -- the last 19 by falls -- makes him a top favorite and the man to watch at the NCAA championships." (The story also includes two black-and-white photos of Hodge: one, a head-and-shoulders shot of the all-time great wrestler ... the second, Hodge, dressed as he was on the front cover, conferring with Oklahoma head wrestling coach (and assistant football coach) Port Robertson.)

Parker takes SI readers on the road trip with Hodge and the Oklahoma wrestlers for their last dual meet of the season vs. hated in-state rival Oklahoma State (called Oklahoma A&M -- Agricultural and Mechanical -- as it was called back then) as part of the two schools' Bedlam Series which first started in the 1920s.

Here's the opening paragraph of the Hodge profile that paints a word picture a wrestler of any era will most likely recognize:

"The weigh-in was over now and there was nothing to occupy Dan Hodge's mind but the man he must wrestle in five hours. For two days his immediate enemy had been food and drink. But now he weighed 177 pounds officially and his weight no longer mattered. The thick steak gave his belly a pleasant, packed feeling, but the pleasure of anticipation was gone. He had talked all morning of eating. 'Ice cream. Steak. I'm going to get me some ice cream and steak.' Now he was not hungry anymore and his thoughts turned to the match at 8 o'clock. Thinking about it made him nervous."

The article goes on to share the conversation between Hodge and coach Robertson about how to kill time until the dual meet at what was then called Gallagher Hall -- Hodge went to the movies with some of his teammates -- then explains what that night's match will lead up to:

"This weekend, March 29 and 30, more than 200 wrestlers from 60 colleges and universities will gather at the University of Pittsburgh for the national college wrestling championships. Of them all, the man to watch is Hodge. Not only will he be after his third straight intercollegiate 177-pound championship -- a feat rare in itself -- but he will also be trying to gain recognition for the second straight year as the tournament's outstanding wrestler."

Hodge conducts a wrestling lesson on the SI writer ...

To provide readers with a sense of what it must have been like to wrestle Dan Hodge in his collegiate prime, the author -- who admits to having participated in "some schoolboy wrestling" -- agrees to get on the mat with the undefeated Sooner.

"Dan decided that the SPORTS ILLUSTRATED man should learn firsthand what some of his holds feel like. 'I'll just use quarter-pressure, so don't be nervous.' I agreed. We got down in the referee's position ... At the signal to start he backed into me and my head went over his shoulder. Next thing I knew, my neck was in a vise grip. My torso and legs were up there somewhere, miles above my head in free flight. I landed on my back, pinned as neatly as a basted hemline."

"'Shouldn't have stuck your head over my shoulder,' said Hodge in a gently reproving tone. "'That's a basic mistake.'"

... then schools his Oklahoma State opponent

Later that day, Dan Hodge provided a similar wrestling lesson to Oklahoma State's Jimmy Harding, who SI described as "a well-muscled youngster."

"Dan went for an arm first," Parker wrote. "He grabbed just above the elbow, but with wrestler instinct Harding pulled away from the danger. Again Hodge went for the arm and again Harding started to pull back, but he had made his mistake. He had allowed his leg to get in too far and Dan snagged it below the knee. Harding's backward momentum tripped him and he went down, Dan on top and in control. Harding scrambled frantically to get belly-down, to keep shoulders as far from the mat as possible. But Hodge was too strong. As Harding twisted, Dan moved with him, gained a clasping double grapevine with his legs, and began to apply constrictor pressure[MP1] ."

Dan Hodge
"Now Harding was powerless from the waist down, and on his back. The double bar arm was easy: both of Harding's arms were forced up over his head in agonizing parallel, squeezed and held viselike -- not the 'punishment' hold of pro wrestling but a preliminary in Dan's book to the pin. Then Dan increased the grapevine pressure. The muscles where shoulders make a V at the base of the neck bunched. His legs stiffened and he pushed down, down, down. All his strength was focused against the man beneath him, striving for the moment when a wordless surrender passes to him from his opponent -- when resistance is gone and muscles relax."

"Now the sequence of motion on the white square was very nearly complete. Harding's eyes bulged and he gasped for air like a man drowning. He resisted for only a second or so."

It was all over in 50 seconds. Hodge had put another opponent's shoulders to the mat.

After receiving a hug from his wife Delores (Hodge was a married 24-year-old father of an infant son at the time Sports Illustrated came to cover him) and being mobbed by autograph-seekers, Hodge took a shower, put on his street clothes, and treated himself to a two-scoop bowl of vanilla ice cream at a Stillwater soda fountain.

What happened in Pittsburgh at the '57 NCAAs

The SI cover story was written just before the 1957 NCAAs in Pittsburgh at 4,100-seat Fitzgerald Fieldhouse on the Pitt campus. The two-day championships the last weekend of March welcomed 213 wrestlers from 63 schools, according to Jay Hammond's "The History of Collegiate Wrestling." At the end of the competition, University of Oklahoma won the team title with 73 points, followed by host school Pittsburgh with 66 points. Iowa State was a distant third with 38, closely followed by Oklahoma State with 37. Penn State placed fifth with 33, while Michigan and Illinois tied for sixth with 30 points.

The 1957 NCAA finals were notable for at least three reasons.

First, Pittsburgh's Ed Peery won his third NCAA title (at 123 pounds), joining his older brother Hugh and his dad -- and college coach -- Rex Peery as three-time NCAA champs, making the Peerys the most-decorated NCAA championships family with a total of nine titles among them. (Hugh also wrestled for Pitt earlier in the 1950s; Rex wrestled for Oklahoma State in the 1930s.)

Simon Roberts of the University of Iowa won the 147-pound title, becoming the first African-American to be a collegiate mat champ. He defeated Ron Gray of Iowa State in the finals ... the same guy Roberts beat in the 1953 Iowa high school state championships to become the first black state titlist in the state of Iowa.

And, last but not least, Dan Hodge concluded his third NCAA championships with the title at 177 pounds. Hodge was the top seed in the 24-man bracket. In the opening round, "Dangerous Dan" pinned unseeded Dick Garretson of Rutgers at 5:50. In his second match, Hodge pinned unseeded hometown hero Alex Skirpan of Pitt in 50 seconds. Hodge continued his pin parade in the quarterfinals, putting unseeded Kansas State's Gary Haller's shoulders to the mat in just 28 seconds. However, the pin streak ended in the semifinals, as No. 4 seed John Dustin of Oregon State went the distance ... but came out on the losing end, 8-2. The finals were a battle of the top two wrestlers in the weight class, with the Sooner pinning second-seeded Ron Flemming of Franklin & Marshall at 7:31.

Hodge was also presented with his second Outstanding Wrestler award at the 1957 NCAAs, to join the OW trophy he received at the 1956 NCAAs.

Among the other NCAA champs crowned in Pittsburgh that year: Hodge's Sooner teammate Dick Delgado at 115 pounds ... Oklahoma State's Doug Blubaugh at 157 ... and Bob Norman, first heavyweight champ from the University of Illinois. Pitt had the most individual titles (three), followed by Oklahoma (two), and one each for Penn State, Lehigh, Iowa, Oklahoma State, and Illinois.

At least three more appearances in SI for Hodge

In addition to being one of the all-time great college wrestlers -- and the only one to be featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated as an amateur wrestler -- Dan Hodge was the subject of at least three other SI stories over the years, written at various stages of his life and career.

Eight months later: Hodge returns to SI ... as a boxer

A few months after making the cover of Sports Illustrated, Dan Hodge found himself the subject of yet another SI profile. The November 18, 1957 issue featured the Don Granger article "Dan Hodge: Boxer" with a subhead that lays out the story: "America's best wrestler has turned boxer -- here's the story of his amateur debut the other night before a Kansas fight crowd."

"The chances are that the last time you heard of the University of Oklahoma's Dan Hodge (SI, April 1) he had just won the national intercollegiate wrestling championship, had just confirmed his informal title of best amateur wrestler in America, and was planning to settle down as a high school teacher and wrestling coach in Oklahoma," wrote Granger in the opening of the November profile. "Well, the Oklahoma schoolboys who looked forward to learning to wrestle under Dan Hodge's tutelage will have to wait. Dan is a boxer now, and it looks as if he's going to be one for a long time.
"Dan's plans were changed by a former (1937-41) University of Oklahoma wrestler named Art Freeman, now an independent oil operator in Wichita, Kansas, who has 1) put Dan to work for a drilling outfit he owns and 2) hired a boxing coach, with the aim of getting Dan ready for the heavyweight division of the Golden Gloves this winter."

Granger goes on to paint the scene at an old arena in Hutchinson, Kan. where Hodge is slated to make his boxing debut against a tubby fighter who hasn't stepped into the ring in at least two -- perhaps three -- years.

Hodge went on to win a Golden Gloves amateur boxing title in 1958 ... but not long after, became disillusioned by the fight game (claiming to have been cheated out of money by his manager), and entered a different sort of squared circle: the professional wrestling ring.

1999: Recounting Hodge's 1976 near-death experience

Approximately 40 years after his first two appearances within the pages of Sports Illustrated, Dan Hodge was the subject of a third, much briefer profile written by Josh Elliott, titled: "Dan Hodge: Unbeatable Wrestler April 1, 1957."

The story had a grabber of an opening: "Dan Hodge knew he was whipped. Icy water flooded through the broken windows of the battered Volkswagen station wagon in which, on the night of March 15, 1976, he'd fallen asleep at the wheel, allowing the car to veer off a bridge into a Louisiana creek. The VW sank into nine feet of water, quickly encasing Hodge as if in a coffin. Searing pain crackled through his neck, and his mouth was a bloody mess of broken teeth. There he sat, having never been taken to the mat from a standing position as a collegiate wrestler, now pinned and helpless. What a lousy way to go, he thought."

"'I heard a voice say, 'Hold your neck,'" Hodge, 67, recalls. "It was a guardian angel, snapping me out of my fog.' Hodge did as he was told and also managed, with his free hand, to pull himself through a broken window. After Hodge had risen to the surface and struggled to the creek's bank, a passing trucker radioed for help and he was rushed to a nearby hospital. There doctors fused a portion of his hip to the base of his broken neck. That he survived, he was told, was nothing short of a miracle."

At the time of his near-fatal car wreck, Hodge was a popular professional wrestler. After a long rehab period, Hodge returned to his hometown of Perry, Okla. where, at the time the article was published, would drop by the high school to share his wrestling knowledge with hands-on demonstrations.

2009: Picturing Hodge in MMA

A decade after Sports Illustrated recounted the car wreck that nearly ended Hodge's life, the magazine revisited the champ in college wrestling, Golden Gloves boxing, and professional wrestling to speculate on what kind of career the wrestler known as "Dangerous Dan" in his collegiate prime would have had in MMA.

In the September 15, 2009 issue, Josh Gross penned an article titled "Hodge still a staple in Oklahoma" to coincide with the first Ultimate Fighting Championships event to be held in the Sooner State. Thanks to his unique sports background, Hodge had been named the first chairman of Oklahoma's commission governing MMA events.

"While Hodge may not have had the opportunity to fight as a professional mixed martial artist, he played an important part in the legalization of MMA in Oklahoma by personally selling state legislators on the sport," according to that SI article from nearly a decade ago.

"With the gravitas of a man experienced at overcoming challenges and challengers, 77-year-old Dan Hodge says with certainty he would have been a great mixed martial artist. Ask anyone who claims Hodge as a friend to elaborate. They'll tell you the only amateur wrestler to grace the cover of Sports Illustrated knows what he's talking about."

"He was just five decades too early."

Back in 2009, Hodge was still able to demonstrate his incredible grip strength by crushing apples into applesauce and breaking a set of pliers. That grip strength made him unbeatable on the college wrestling mats of the mid 1950s ... and widely feared by opponents. One, who later became a conference and NCAA champ, said something to the effect of "When you knew you would be wrestling Dan Hodge, you didn't get too many good nights' sleep." Another mentioned still having black-and-blue marks on his wrists and lower arms days after he had been in the grips of wrestling "Homicide Hodge."

Hodge still has a grip on the wrestling world

Sixty years after posing for that iconic Sports Illustrated cover, Dan Allen Hodge continues to make news ...

  • Hodge Trophy: Often referred to as "the Heisman of college wrestling," the Hodge Trophy has been presented each year since 1995 by Wrestling Insider Newsmagazine (WIN) and Culture House to the top college wrestler in any division, or to use the words of the folks who give the award, "to the nation's most dominant college wrestler." The voting committee consists of all previous Hodge winners, national wrestling media, retired college coaches from different regions of the country and a representative of each of the national wrestling organizations. In addition, now fans have some input as they are able to cast a vote online.

    Criteria for the award includes a wrestler's record, number of pins, dominance on the mat, past credentials, quality of competition, sportsmanship/citizenship and heart.

    A number of famous wrestlers have won the Hodge Trophy, including Cael Sanderson, Ben Askren, Jordan Burroughs, Stephen Neal, Kerry McCoy, Logan Stieber and Alex Dieringer.

  • NCAA 75th Anniversary Team honoree: To celebrate the 75th anniversary of the NCAA Wrestling Championships, in 2005 the NCAA and the National Wrestling Coaches Association came up with a list of 45 top collegiate wrestlers over the years, and asked the wrestling community to vote for the 15 all-time greatest wrestlers. The final list had only three individuals who wrestled prior to 1970 ... with Dan Hodge being one of them.

  • Perry Wrestling Monument Park: Just last year, Hodge's hometown of Perry, Oklahoma dedicated a new park -- the Perry Wrestling Monument Park -- designed to honor the rich legacy of wrestling at Perry High School -- one of the nation's top high school programs -- and the great coaches and wrestlers who made that happen. Dozens of Perry Maroon wrestlers have won state and national titles, with two earning medals at the Olympics: Jack VanBebber (gold medal, 1932 Los Angeles) and Dan Hodge (silver, 1956 Melbourne). In May 2016, a bronze statue of Hodge was unveiled in the Perry Wrestling Monument Park to coincide with his 84th birthday.

    Want to know more about Dan Hodge? Start with this 2016 InterMat feature "The Greatness of Dan Hodge" that provides perspective on his impressive collegiate wrestling career. Then, check out these two books: "Oklahoma Shooter: The Story of Dan Hodge" by Mike Chapman ... and Ed Frost's book about Hodge's college wrestling coach, titled, "Port Robertson: Behind the Scenes of Sooner Sports."
  • Comments

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    donski2323 (1) about 1 year ago
    Cael was on cover
    IdeaMark (1) about 1 year ago
    Donski2323,
    To my knowledge, when Cael Sanderson completed his college career 159-0, 4x NCAA champ, he was EXPECTED to be on the cover... but SI chose instead to feature the story of a girl killed by a flying puck at an NHL game in Columbus. Angry wrestling fans let SI hear about it, so the mag worked up a "mock-up" cover with Cael and the headline "All Hail Cael!" and put it inside a later issue of the mag.
    Furthermore, in the 2009 article about Hodge, SI admitted that Hodge was the only wrestler to be featured on the cover.
    Now... if you have a cover you can scan and email to me, please do: mark@intermatwrestle.com
    Thanks
    Mark Palmer, Senior Writer, InterMat
    donski2323 (1) about 1 year ago
    I stand correct Mark. My research did come up with a cover...the mock cover Intermat did years ago. Once again, I was foiled by fake news! :)