What, or rather, who is missing from this picture? A very intense Ohio State fan could tell you about one person who is in this picture—one of the Central Ohio District Champions pictured above, Pat Curto, went on to gridiron fame as a defensive end on some of Woody’s best teams of the mid 70s. And local wrestling enthusiasts will recognize young sensation Mike Chinn who would go on to be a collegiate wrestling All-American at Louisiana State where he would place fifth in the 1978 NCAAs.
But still the remarkable thing about this picture is who is missing—Archie Griffin. Not many of his adoring fans know that both Archie and his younger brother Ray were also sensational wrestlers at Eastmoor High in Columbus. One lucky soul recounted how he watched Woody Hayes quietly sneak into the side door of Upper Arlington’s gym during the 1973 District Championships just to peak around the side bleachers for brief glimpses of Ray competing in that year’s championships.
As for Archie, legend has it that at some point in his high school wrestling career, he commanded a 24-1 record in the 167 pound weight class—his only loss being by disqualification from a body slam perpetrated on an overmatched opponent. Indeed, the week before at the sectional qualifying tournament at Brookhaven, Archie worked his way through the championship by pinning advancing wrestlers from Walnut Ridge, Brookhaven and Gahanna in 54 second, 43 seconds and one minute six seconds. In the finals he demolished Dave Wickline of Reynoldsburg. Few apparently doubted Archie would win the district title and then advance to the state tournament where he would have been a heavy favorite to join Curto as one of two “big school” state champions from Central Ohio that year (Central Ohio, led by Bob Triano’s DeSales Stallions, always performed with distinction in the small school division at the time).
Years later, I had a surprise opportunity to be part of a small group luncheon with Archie in San Diego. Although I really don’t remember the purpose, I am sure it related to Archie’s outreach role with Ohio State—presumably for fundraising. I had heard a few things about that weekend in 1972, mainly that Archie had lost 11-1 in overtime Whetstone’s Pat Dickerson—who indeed is seated in the picture above and identified as a district runner-up, also headed to the state meet the next week. This would have been no ordinary loss—having won one match already at the district tournament, the winner would go to the district finals that evening and would fill one of the two spots in the state tournament the following week—the loser’s season would have been finished. I had also heard that Archie had wrestled Dickerson twice before, including during the Columbus City League Championships and that he had absolutely overpowered Dickerson both times, as Archie had done to all his opponents (don’t feel sorry for the young Dickerson—by all accounts, he and Wickline were both highly accomplished and successful wrestlers—the point being, Archie Griffin was a force unto himself).
Now here I am sitting with one of my favorite Buckeyes and one of the most iconic persons in all of sport—the only two-time Heisman winner to date, hero of so many great Buckeye teams and mentor, confidante and friend to all in the Buckeye community. It never occurred to me that a man who had achieved such heights, who had accumulated so many friends and admirers and who had so much to occupy his busy life would care much or even recall much about an athletic moment so obscure and so unrelated to his future achievements.
So I asked, him—how in the world was it that he could lose such an important match to a person he had twice clobbered—and how did he get to overtime just to lose in such dominating fashion?
Wow. Nothing prepared me for the reaction I received. There might have been some resentment to the way in which I asked the question, which was intended as a warm and humorous inquiry into a sidebar in the life of someone who had accomplished so much, but which might have come off as glib and cutting. But the scene could not have been more dramatic in my mind if the windows had been blown open by hurricane winds and Archie had been transformed from this jovial, warm ambassador of all things Ohio State to one of the ring wraiths who had just encountered Frodo Baggins. I’m sure I was too stunned by this sudden change in demeanor to remember what he really said, but to me it sounded like, “you silly poor excuse of a wretched measly little subterranean troll—I HAD THE FLU!!!!”
The flu—what a moron I had been to not even think of such a possibility.
Ok, so the mystery was solved, but the stark change in friendliness (which may have only been a figment of my imagination as I tried to cope with his surprisingly visceral reaction), demeanor, fire with which he recounted the details of the match and the obvious pain he revealed in describing what to many might have seemed just a mild bump on the road to greatness left a deep impression on me, not just with regard to him, but as to sport in general and wrestling in particular.
I did not hold it against Archie that he became dark over that moment. If there was any personal embarrassment, it was mine. Perhaps I asked the question inartfully, perhaps this was not the forum to ask such a question. But to see, years later, how personal this failure to achieve was, even when not his fault and after he had accomplished so much and had attained so much love and recognition, gave me a direct insight as to just how driven this man was and obviously remains as an athlete and a person.
This incident raised my already healthy respect for Archie in a way that took me years to digest. True, it was direct evidence of the drive so often associated with highly successful athletes. It is interesting to see that in person, but it is not really anything novel or rarely witnessed or remarked upon. Archie’s talents on the football field were undoubtedly attributable to a strong work ethic, but much was also attributable to gifts that essentially are God given such as raw speed and the innate ability to see a hole and have the quickness to race through it.
But wrestling is different. God given talent still counts for a lot, but individuals with lesser amounts can still excel through extraordinary fitness, strength training, attention to technique, practice and most importantly an attitude of physically and personally dominating another athlete who is trying to do the same to you.
Archie did not just excel in wrestling—he obliterated his competition in a fashion that actually exceeded his domination on the football field. And wrestling is not detached by the isolation of a helmet, the open field or the shared and thus somewhat de-individualized joint experience with teammates—it is mano y mano, you against me and if you cannot smash me I will do just that to you, up close and personal, looking into your very eyes while twisting and throwing your body around at my will. Wrestling is an intensely intellectual endeavor—one in which every move has a counter, and every counter has a counter. It is also a very tedious study in hundreds of discreet body movements that have to be practiced over and over again so that they can be called on for use without thought in moments of intense physical stress. It is competition at its most basic and most personal level.
Archie’s obvious pain years after his high school disappointment, to me at least, said that having done everything possible to reach a goal in such a personal arena, only to have it yanked away because he might have had the unfortunate luck to suck on the same contaminated orange juice bottle being passed around in practice the week before, was to cheat him out of something that he had earned through unrelenting devotion to extremely hard, intellectual and tedious work, not merely something that he could achieve because of other gifts given him or shared with others. It was like “I busted my ass for years, learned everything there was to learn, lifted other strong men high into the air against their will and threw them onto their backs. I did all that by myself, I had reached the top and for no fault of my own, when the prize for all that effort was there for me, I had at snatched and given to an opponent who had not gone through nearly the hell I had—this is so unfair!”
And from Archie’s perspective there was another reason why wrestling might have meant so much for him. Consider Pat Curto, who as noted was a state champion that year. Pat was a key member of the defensive front on those great Buckeye teams. As a big defensive end he got his fill of combat and clamping down on running backs, quarterbacks and others. To a guy like him, wrestling was probably an awful lot like play on a defensive line. But to a speedster like Archie, his job on the football field was to avoid the punishment guys like Curto dealt out. Archie could certainly deliver a hit himself, but it was generally his job to avoid and actually run away from the imposing monsters on the other side. But in wrestling, Archie was the monster, he was the aggressor, he was the man with the ability to throw another talented athlete to the ground and make him submit. That form of combat had to appeal to Archie as a form of personal vindication and retribution for what he faced on the football field and of course he would have mourned the opportunity for the world at large to take notice of how he handled himself in the field of combat.
Those are the type of things I think Archie was screaming about from the inside. I don’t really think he was angry at me, and as awkwardly as I may or may not have raised the issue, I do not think he resented my bringing it up.
Sadly, that was the last the world would see of Archie on the wrestling mat—Woody would not allow his football players to wrestle—in an era when dual sports were more doable. What a shame that was because when you just consider the benefit to an otherwise serviceable wrestling program guys like Curto, Ray and Archie could have provided, Ohio State was hiding a good part of its wrestling lamp in an era in which it could have enjoyed great success. The rich, though obscure to most, history of Ohio State wrestling that has included the iconic names of Humphrey, Randleman, Rowlands, Bergman, Jaggers and Stieber, incredibly, could have had a very bright light shined on it if had been allowed to include the name of one Archie Griffin. But there were Rose Bowls to play in, national titles to contend for and Heismans to be won and cherished. The small but real opportunity that a wrestling injury could have done is admittedly too heavy a consideration to dismiss, so at a personal level, what happened to Archie in high school took from him the last and best validation of service well performed in an endeavor he so obviously cherished.
I have not talked to Archie since and it is doubtful he knows of my existence and unlikely he remembers that conversation in San Diego. Perhaps he would disagree with my resolution of this episode in his life, but I bet at some basic level he would not. I should probably ask him, but the idealist within me prefers to think of it this way. Luck and happenstance treated me to a front seat at a window on greatness and gave me a deeply personal reason to cherish someone who had been previously just an idol from a distance but more importantly helped me better understand the unique place an ancient and unique sport enjoys, even among the most cherished and accomplished of our heroes.
What I should have asked Archie, and what I would in fact ask given the chance to do it all over, was, “to what extent did the hard work in the wrestling room benefit you on the gridiron”? In a parallel universe I am enjoying the warm glow that would have followed had I just done that.