At the end of the row, he is by himself.
In front, first seat on the right of the aisle, blue and gold mat on the floor before him, huge American flag hanging from the rafter above. The lighting above the gold circle is big and bright and centered, illuminating a setting where men will soon be doing what men have been doing for thousands of years, using arms and legs and hands and minds and brawn and strength to see who is the toughest of the tribe, the one who survives and gets his hand held high at the end.
The man at the end of the row is there to see American college wrestling, not fake pro wrestling or mixed martial arts or the international Greco-Roman style of grappling used in the Olympics. This is a distinctly American sport, emphasizing the time an opponent is controlled on the mat, rather than the lifts and throws favored more on the international stage. Dominance and control, rather than risk and explosiveness matter. Less style, more substance.
He sits and stares at his cell phone, keeping up with his business in Washington, waiting for the match between the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Wisconsin to begin. He is an alum of Wisconsin, he himself wrestled in this field house 30 years ago, one of the best wrestlers to ever put on the singlet for the Badgers — and in the United States for that matter — but hardly anyone in the crowd knows that and he likes it that way. He is here to see his son Isaac wrestle: redshirt junior, ranked No. 3 in the country at 165 pounds, the youngest of his four kids.
The crowd is very small on this Saturday afternoon, maybe 2,000 at most, inside a building opened in 1951 with all the design amenities of an airplane hangar. The Fitzgerald Field House used to be where the Pitt men’s and women’s basketball teams played (and where Jerome Lane pulled his infamous Darryl Dawkins-style backboard shattering dunk in 1988 against Providence), but about a decade ago the hoopsters moved down the street to the $120 million Petersen Events Center.
So the basketball teams get the shiny “events center,” while the grapplers (and along with the gymnastics and volleyball teams) inhabit the half-dome “field house.” Tickets for the Pitt men’s basketball in the higher levels go for $65; front row seats (and all the other ones, too) at men’s wrestling cost five bucks. No $85,000 luxury suites in the field house either.
But Jim Jordan is not concerned at this point that college men’s wrestling has been pushed to the edges of the collegiate sports world on this Saturday afternoon in mid-December. He is a United States Congressman from Urbana in western Ohio, a Republican representing the state’s 4th congressional district. The borders have been redrawn through the years to remain less urban and more rural, 90 percent white and very conservative, and configured in such a way as to avoid having Toledo, Columbus or Cleveland (or their suburbs) within its boundary, snaking from Lake Erie almost to Dayton. The district’s largest city is Lima, population 38,000.
One of the issues Jordan is looking into these days is sports related — how big money-making collegiate sports like football and basketball push lesser revenue-producing sports like men’s wrestling slowly into obscurity and how to keep college education and sports connected in a way that emphasizes academics and not TV money. But today, he is just a father and fan, screaming several times at the referee, “Let ‘em wrestle,” during the lower weight class matches.
But when Isaac Jordan takes the mat for his match, his wiry father — 5’7 and about 150 pounds, close to what he was three decades ago when he wrestled for Wisconsin — is not in his prime front row seat. He has moved to the edge of the stands on the right side, standing on the four-lane indoor track. As his son does takedowns and escapes, he paces, he moves, he almost hides behind a mesh curtain that separates the track from the stands. Hands to his face at times, his left hand twitching so bad at one point he shoves it in his pocket. It is almost as if he is inside his son’s head because he has been where his son is hundreds of times before.
It is a close match, Isaac up 3-2 going into the final period. This is one of those tactical matches, with each wrestler waiting for his opening. Jordan does that at the very end of the first period, pulling out a takedown at the edge of the mat that seemed to catch his opponent off guard to score. But he suffers a similar lapse in the second period, and now only one escape point is the difference.
It is very early in the season, and by all accounts, Jordan should be pummeling his unranked competitor, Pitt sophomore Cody Wiercioch. But this is also wrestling, where rankings matter little during the seven minutes in the circle, where one slip-up, a move not made or wrong move at the wrong time can mean the ref hand slaps the mat and you are done. Work and prep and cutting weight and dedication and all those values your coach and father taught you might not matter much at that one instant.
But Isaac Jordan holds on and wins 4-3 — his 12th straight victory — and his father suddenly seems relaxed. He does not pump his fists or whoop it up, he just waits for his son to come over the indoor track and they walk back and forth under the stands and in front of the tiny concession stand for about 10 minutes. “I don’t really talk to him much about this move or that move,” Jordan says later. “He’s a real smart kid and knows what he’s doing. It’s almost like he listens to me so I can get all my excitement out.”
“And it’s a cliché, but it’s so true,” Jordan continues, “that it is so much harder watching your child compete in sports than competing yourself.”
And as they walk through the old field house, it is not apparent to this small crowd in Pittsburgh that these two men represent perhaps the most successful wrestling family the country has ever produced. Jim Jordan won four Ohio state high school titles, Isaac won three. Jim won NCAA titles in 1985 and 1986, and defeated two-time Olympic gold medalist John Smith — now the wrestling coach at Oklahoma State University — twice in the NCAA tournament, including their legendary championship bout in 1985.
Isaac was the Big Ten champion at 165 pounds as a sophomore last year, beating his cousin, Bo Jordan of Ohio State, in the final. Bo and Isaac are currently ranked No. 2 and No. 3 nationally at that weight. The Jordan cousins were a combined 336 wins and 10 losses in high school.
Bo is the son of Jeff Jordan, younger brother of Jim and also the holder of four Ohio state high school titles. He coaches in western Ohio at Graham High School in St. Paris, Ohio, the same school he and Jim graduated from. Graham is a national powerhouse in wrestling, having won 15 state titles. Jeff Jordan runs a nationally prominent wrestling camp and is a partner in an online business that sells wrestling gear and T-shirts. All told, the Jordan family has won 22 Ohio state wrestling championships. Jim and Jeff had a combined high school record of 309-2 (one loss each)
Some have said that if the Kennedys are the first family of American politics, then the Jordans of Champaign County, Ohio, are the first family of American wrestling. The comparison may be a stretch in some respects, but in others the Jordans in represent a change in the American psyche just as the Kennedys once did in another era. The Jordans epitomize the blue-collar, white, middle-class, so-called “average Americans” who now find their political affiliation with the Republican fringe of the Tea Party. And they got to that ideological spot because of wrestling.
Jim and Jeff’s father, John, spent 30 years at a General Motors plant in Dayton, and supported Democrats while a faithful union guy, but as he grew older he moved further right and Dems didn’t represent his values any more. One of the ways John Jordan taught his sons conservative values was through wrestling, first in the basement and the garage, and then on school teams. The sport was about hard work and individual responsibility and independence and being accountable for your actions. It is not a stretch in the least to say that, of all the American high school sports, wrestling emphasizes those values a bit more than the others do.
And Jim Jordan now finds himself in the middle of a movement that believes American values have warped and need to change and need to change in a hurry. After eight years in the Ohio Legislature, Jim Jordan was elected to Congress from the very conservative Ohio 4th District, reliably Republican since 1938, in 2006. In January of this year, he helped foment a deep division within the Republican by helping to form a coalition called the “Freedom Caucus,” which he now chairs. The caucus is the most conservative of the conservatives, and Jim Jordan, 51, is one of their leaders.
Their purpose and ideals are simple: Even though the house has a Republican majority, Freedom Caucus members don’t think Congress has done enough to cut taxes, defund programs like Planned Parenthood, repeal Obamacare or any of the other litmus tests ultra-conservatives have used as defining issues. They have just enough numbers to shut things down if they want, and they provided the political muscle to get House Speaker John Boehner to step down a few months ago. It was unprecedented in many respects, because the people in power like Boehner generally do not step down between elections without health concerns or scandal being at the root of it.
Moderate Republican U.S. Representative Charlie Dent from Pennsylvania told The New Yorker the Freedom Caucus was part of the “rejectionist wing” of the party, adding, “We need to help redefine what it means to be a conservative. Stability, order, temperance, balance, incrementalism are all important conservative virtues. Disorder, instability, chaos, intemperance, and anarchy are not.”
But Jordan might call it controlled chaos, and he and the other Freedom Caucus members pulled a takedown and pin on the House Speaker because he underestimated their determination and power and tactics. Before Boehner knew what was happening and could counter, the ref had slapped the mat.
The way Jordan explains it, he had nothing against Boehner personally, it was just an ideological difference. Even though they were in Congress from the same party and the same state and their districts were next to each other. “I think it came down to Boehner had told Jordan to sit back and wait his turn, and Jordan got tired of it after a while,” says one political lobbyist in Washington who did not want his name used. Tired of the JV team, he wanted to wrestle varsity.
“It was just time for a change,” Jordan says. “People in Congress get elected by saying they are going to cut spending, and then they don’t. That way doesn’t cut it for most Americans. We literally have to do what is unpopular and we have to do it now. I learned that in wrestling: hard work and perseverance and doing what is needed.”
Of course, some see Jim Jordan a bit differently in this; that his ideology lacks practicality. Even though you can take down the king, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you have the backing to assume the throne. Former representative Steve LaTourette, an Ohio Republican who now works as a Washington lobbyist, said in an interview with USA Today that the Freedom Caucus has “the ability to throw sand in the gears and keep things from happening but they are not a big enough block to make something happen.”
Jordan contends that all Americans are “big enough” to make things happen. After all, he won his first Ohio High school state title in the 98-pound weight class, and wrestled in college at 134 pounds. He wasn’t one of the 6’9 guys who could windmill dunk or a 250-pound linebacker who hit as hard as a freight train. When he explains all these things are connected — sports and politics and his brand of family values — he doesn’t quote a politician. He always quotes his high school wrestling coach and chemistry teacher, the late Ron McCunn.
“He had one message and it has stayed with me,” Jordan says. “‘Discipline is doing what you don’t like when you don’t want to do it.’”
Before he eviscerated John Boehner from Congressional leadership, Jordan was not well known outside the wrestling community and the conservative wing of the Republican Party. But in many ways those groups are linked, circles of interest with about 75 percent overlap. That’s not to say everyone who wrestled wants to see Planned Parenthood defunded, or that every Tea Party member wants to see more taxpayer-funded scholarships for college wrestlers.
But there is a shared outlook on life that is in some ways astounding. Traditionally, wrestling has always been big in middle-class suburbs and small towns, and in recent years, it has become even more concentrated in those areas. While some cities have formed “Beat the Streets” urban programs, to get inner city and minority kids to take up wrestling and to restart programs at urban high schools, the power base of wrestling is out in sprawl land, where people can always move further out and farther away from what they don’t like.
And the average male wrestler is, well, very average, and that has been its calling card through the years. You could make it, like Jim Jordan did, as a 98-pound young man in a macho tough-guy world, if you wrestled. It was, and has been, the epitome of the “last man standing” cultural cock-of-the walk motif.
The Tea Party, likewise, tends to be more suburban and small town, more male than female, white and evangelical Christian. They think they are what they view the average American to be, hard-working, independent, responsible for their own lot on life and not everyone else’s. Industrious, hard-working, disciplined, old-school-values type of people.
And both groups feel the government has let them down. When Jim Jordan graduated high school in 1982, 147 colleges had NCAA Division I men’s wrestling programs. Last year only 77 supported men’s wrestling, and there has been a 30 percent decline of men’s D1 wrestling scholarships in that time period. Many in the wrestling community blame federal Title IX provisions, which among its many applications seek to equalize the number of men’s and women’s scholarships at the university level. In other words, some believe the decline of wrestling at the college level is almost a conspiracy of Big Government.
The Tea Party believes they represent people who have worked hard and earned their keep in this world, the people who the government is taking from to reward those who have not earned it, who do not know the meaning of discipline and sacrifice.
One more shared point. Both the Tea Party and wrestlers form into groups or teams only because they have to. They are about self-discipline and self-reliance. Most wrestlers compete to win personally. They like it if their teammates win, but don’t really care much if they don’t. Tea Partiers just want to be left alone as well, mainly because they think that being by themselves is better than being part of the collective society. Sticking to individual principle is more important than shared governance.
“What Jim Jordan is bringing to the table is a lot of wrestling ideals right now,” says Robert Alexander, a political science professor of Ohio Northern University in Ada. “What is Donald Trump selling? The woosification of America and how horrible it is. Jim Jordan is saying the same thing in his own way. Just go out and do things. Take responsibility.
“He promised that he would get rid of Boehner, something no one thought anyone could do, and he delivered,” Alexander continues. “And the funny thing about it is that Jim Jordan doesn’t think what he did is a big deal. Wrestlers never show up the opponent when they beat them, nor do they celebrate too long, because the next match is real soon against someone who wants to tear you head off.”
And Jordan did take Boehner’s head off, something not lost among longtime Washington conservatives. “You don’t aim at the king’s head and miss,” says David McIntosh, a former Republican Indiana congressman who is president of Club for Growth, a political action group based in free market economics and other right wooing political policies.
“Once Jim Jordan is locked into what is the right thing to do, he doesn’t give up and he succeeds eventually,” McIntosh says. “I think what is happening in America right now, and it goes beyond Donald Trump and the presidential race, is that a majority of Americans feel the government needs to let us compete as individuals, to let America compete, and to stop coddling us and protecting us from competition and ourselves. Jim Jordan represents that.” But the problem with that line of thinking is the assumption that all Americans share that goal and those mostly macho male values of wrestling, where it is just you and the other guy on a mat. Yet life doesn’t work that way. Not every one of us is the same. Is it any wonder then that we seem to care less and less about wrestling as a sport that holds our attention?
With more sports choices, wrestling just doesn’t get the interest it used to get. Many have found other sports they like better, soccer and lacrosse and even rugby. And many seem to have decided that backing a sport where young men regularly starve themselves every week to compete and sometimes dehydrate to unsafe levels isn’t something they want to support.
The numbers say it loud and clear. Wrestling has never been a big spectator sport. Last year, only two college programs — University of Iowa and Penn State — averaged over 5,000 fans per meet. The Olympics has considered dropping wrestling, in part, because hardly anyone watches it anymore and there is no professional league to cash in on it and return the investment. Other sports simply seem more interesting to the average sports fan. Interest brings revenue, and the Olympics are all about revenue these days.
That drop in popularity is mirrored by the Tea Party. A Gallup Poll in October was headlined “Support for Tea Party Drops to New Low.” Not only did the number of Tea Party supporters drop from 32 percent in 2010 to 17 percent this year, the percentage of people who had no opinion one way or another went from 30 percent in 2010 to 54 percent today. In other words, a whole lot of people don’t give a shit about the Tea Party any more.
Wrestling has that problem as well. It used to be that we didn’t watch wrestling all the time, but every four years we’d pay attention, either to Dan Gable, the 1972 Olympian who later coached Iowa to 15 national titles, or Rulon Gardner, who famously defeated Aleksandr Karelin in the 2000 games, or other grapplers. We all knew guys who wrestled, with their V-shaped torsos and thick necks and cauliflower ears. We understood how novelist John Irving’s characters were wrestlers and how that was so much of who they were. We felt for the guy like the Emilio Estevez character in the 1985 film The Breakfast Club, the wrestler who duct taped the butt cheeks of the non-athlete in the locker room to please his domineering father.
We know fewer of those people now. We have other things to do, and sports pique our interest — fantasy sports, cycling for the man-bun crowd, yoga meditation after work. And that is the problem no one in wrestling is talking about.
We just don’t hear about wrestling much these days, the real kind anyway, the kind without the octagon. America may be moving on, and for a variety of reasons, both the Tea Party and wrestling could be left behind.
Matt Huffman, a former Republican member of the Ohio House of Representatives (term-limited out), and now running for state senate in Jordan’s district, remembers going to Jordan’s daughter’s wedding a few years ago and being surprised at who he ended up sitting with for dinner.
“They had the politicians table at the reception, and when I sat down at my place, I saw I was sitting next to Dennis Kucinich. I thought, “Am I at the right wedding?’”
Yes, that would be the Dennis Kucinich who might be the most liberal member of Congress ever. The former Cleveland mayor served in the U.S House as a Democrat from 1997 to 2013, and is now a political consultant and Fox News analyst. He is known for bringing articles of impeachment in 2007 against President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney for what he claimed was misinformation put forward on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction prior to the war. Kucinich even proposed a new cabinet position: The Department of Peace.
Kucinich was Sen. Bernie Sanders before it was social media cool to be a socialist and ran for president in 2004 and 2008. He is the antithesis of Jordan ideologically in terms of the role of government. Kucinich thinks more is usually better, Jordan think less always is.
“We are very good friends,” Kucinich says. “Sometimes the person you may find yourself in disagreement with on a political basis, you can build a relationship by learning why they think the way they do. I did that with him, and he did that with me.”
“Jim and I could have had some big fights,” Kucinich continues. “But we kind of became like brothers who play on the opposite teams. You play to win on the field, but afterwards you shake hands and are still brothers and you work together.”
But Kucinich also did his homework on Jordan. “When he came into Congress, and we served on the same subcommittee, I found out he was a great wrestler in high school and college,” he says. “So I figured the best way to deal with a great wrestler is to not wrestle with them. I took the non-aggressive Zen approach and it worked well for us.”
And since Jordan became the leader of the group that’s says “no” to every government plan put forward, many have expected him to be a meanie of sorts as he moves into more of the political celebrity status. But he isn’t that way at all. After graduating from Wisconsin in 1986 with a bachelor’s degree in economics, he coached wrestling at Ohio State University for the next decade. Along the way, he picked up a master’s degree in education and a law degree. For the most part, Jordan is smart and engaging, a “nice guy.”
He is in a safe conservative district, where he doesn’t have to campaign too much. But after his district was redrawn prior to the last election, he found that Oberlin, Ohio, a one-time abolitionist stronghold, had been added to his district. That effectively disenfranchised many voters in the liberal college town Ohio conservatives refer to as “People’s Republic of Oberlin.” Last December, students at Oberlin College demanded (but did not get) postponement of their finals because many claimed they were suffering from “racism trauma” after protesting excessive police force against black males in Cleveland. “The Oberlin League of Women’s’ Voters held a candidates forum and were surprised when I showed up,” Jordan laughs.
On Veterans Day this year, Jordan sponsored free haircuts for veterans. He didn’t go to Oberlin for that, but to at a little barbershop in Bluffton, a northwestern Ohio town of about 4,000 that is far more reliably white and Republican, a place where a trip to Columbus or Toledo is worth a mention the next day and the fact that John Dillinger once robbed a bank there is a source of pride. That is not usual; politicians love veterans and all the publicity they get for doing things for them. But what was unusual about this event is that Jordan not only went to the barbershop, but stayed for a scheduled two hours. If there is one thing politicians try to avoid, it’s being stuck in a place for a long time with constituents without an escape hatch. But there he was, talking with older veterans about how much he appreciated their service and how hard he was working on keeping the federal government form reaching into their pockets and taking their money. And paying for their haircut.
But despite his friendliness and ability to befriend both socialists and veterans, it did not come as much of a surprise when Jordan was railed at by the media during his recent questioning of Hillary Clinton at the latest Benghazi hearings. Or for his argumentative and repetitive questioning of Cecile Richards of Planned Parenthood about its practice of fetal tissue donation, which deteriorated into a shouting match when Jordan kept asking her over and over again why she had apologized for the behavior some of her staff when she also was testifying that what they were doing was legal.
“He mistreated Cecile Richards very badly, and it is further proof that Jordan does not work and play well with others at times,” says Sandy Theis, a former Ohio journalist who covered Jordan when he served in Columbus and now the executive director for Progress Ohio, a liberal advocacy organization.
He also berated Clinton, with the same questions over and over about the Libyan Embassy attacks, an 11-hour interrogation that resulted in no new information. CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin called Jordan’s questioning “clearly the worst, the most unprofessional, the most misleading, [and] the most … demeaning to Congress” adding it was a “repulsive spectacle.” Political analyst David Gergen, who served in the Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Clinton administrations, said Jordan’s approached a “brutal quality about it that — [a] badgering quality to take everything she said in the worst possible light to try [and] to accuse her of not caring,enough, the fact she went home, somehow, the night of the Benghazi attack.” Like a wrestler, the committee gave him a dominant position and he held on for all it was worth.
Yet Jordan sloughs off the notion that he was more mean and nasty to Clinton and Richards than others. “We have hearings with Republicans and Democrats testifying, with all sorts of government agencies, and our job is to ask questions and get answers,” he says. “If I am not doing that I am not doing my job.”
He put it more succinctly in an interview with Press Pros Magazine (an Ohio sports publication) a few years ago, when asked if politics had gotten meaner over the years: “Politics has never been a place for ‘sissies,’ if that’s what you mean. John Kennedy said, ‘It’s is the only game for grownups,’ and he was right. “
Theis says Jordan has always “been genial, and friendly with the media, but we always found it strange how he would ask for eight spending provisions in a budget bill, get five of them, and then vote against it.” After the hearing with Cecile Richards, Theis decided to send Jordan a book of etiquette, “just to poke him a bit over how mean he seemed.”
The name of the book? How Not to Be a Dick: An Everyday Etiquette Guide by Meghan Doherty. Jordan says he never got the book, but said, “I’m glad to see people can at least have some sense of humor over this,” then added,” and I try not to be one.”
In 2001, when Marquette University decided to close down its men’s wrestling program, Russ Hellickson was asked to give a speech at the dinner where they said goodbye to wrestling. Hellickson, a silver medalist at the 1976 summer Olympics, coached Jordan at Wisconsin, and then took him on as his assistant when he moved to Ohio State in 1986.
But Hellickson didn’t just give a rubber chicken banquet talk about how sad they’d all be, then move on. He wrote an impassioned poem about wrestling called “Do Not Weep For Me” and read it to the crowd:
I am Wrestling! Do not weep for me!!
No political agenda or political interpretation can ever destroy me. My merit and my worth is no threat to any cause, but rather through my values, I am a model for others.
I am Wrestling! Do not weep for me!!
Celebrate what I am, celebrate what I have been, celebrate what I represent, and celebrate the many ways I have impacted your life. I will survive this test as I have survived others, I am forever etched into the very fiber of all mankind.
In a phone conversation, Hellickson delivered the usual platitudes to his former wrestler and assistant coach (“He is the most driven and determined person I’ve ever been around.”), but the conversation soon turned to the state of wrestling and America these days. He thinks the on-again, off-again, on-again status with the Olympics, along with the shutting down of college wrestling programs, speaks to a larger issue. “Wrestling is a hard sport to do, and we don’t want to do it anymore because we are a softer society now and we don’t want to do hard things,” he says.
But true achievement is hard, and not everyone can do it. “That’s why what Jim Jordan says is a difficult message for many,” says Hellickson, who voted for Obama once, and against him once. “Jordan makes it tough on people because he believes that people should not be given everything by the government. Not that it is bad for the rest of us, but bad for the people getting everything given to them. We are capable of doing unbelievable things, but we have to go out and get it done ourselves, and not have things given to us.”
That subject comes up repeatedly at a happy hour/meeting Jordan attended in Cleveland last month for the Wrestlers in Business Network. The group was formed in Cleveland a few years ago, but now has about a dozen chapters nationwide. The group is built around the notion that people who have wrestled are interested in doing business with people who have wrestled, because they speak a common language, most notably, “that everything is easier than wrestling was.”
But they are also networking to keep the Cleveland State University men’s wrestling team in play, after it was saved from the brink of extinction earlier this year, when the school was threatening to cut the program. By adding a student fee (about $15 per semester for the average student), and with some other grants and gifts, the wrestling program was saved, at least temporarily.
For Jason Orsky, who wrestled in high and college, and owns his own brokerage firm now, the thought of colleges getting rid of wrestling is mystifying. “The decisions that are being made right now are whether a sport makes money for the university, or whether it in some ways gets the numbers wrong with Title IX,” he says. “But it is still the sixth most popular high school sport in terms of participants, [trailing football, basketball, baseball, soccer and track], but we are going to get rid of it because it doesn’t fit in easy right now?”
Matt Ghaffari, who wrestled for Cleveland State and won the silver medal at the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games, says that men’s wrestling is a unique sport, “The oldest sport known to man, and one where a man who weighs 110 pounds and one that weighs 300 pounds can compete. We need to realize that there is value in teaching men the accountability this sport embraces more than any other.”
But the decisions on what sports to keep and which ones to cast off are complicated. First, football is number one, and anything that gets in the way of the cash cow is ripe for the taking. Men’s wrestling might cost too much for what it brings in, creates unbalance to the men’s and women’s’ scholarship equilibrium, and therefore, must be sacrificed on the altar of Title IX.
It is not hard to see how that works. Division I NCAA football programs can have 85 scholarships. To add a new sport that is gaining popularity, like rugby or lacrosse, schools must either drop a men’s sport or add a women’s. Or both. That’s why there were 3,659 men’s wrestling D1 scholarships when Jordan graduated high school in 1982, and 2,544 last year. It is also why there were 862 women’s’ rowing D1 scholarships in 1982, and 5,856 last year.
“We have to quit playing the victim,” says Jason Effner, a former Cleveland State wrestler and owner of a construction company.
“Jim Jordan has learned that playing the victim in Washington — whether it be on the entitlement side or the conservative cutting spending side — is no way to get your point across. You have to explain to people why you are relevant. We are different from other sports, and we have to emphasize that it is a good thing to be different from the other sports.”
Jordan emphasizes those ideals in his speech to the group in a German-style restaurant in downtown Cleveland. He told them that his daughter got a golf scholarship to Wisconsin, and therefore he is not against the principles of Title IX as a way to get more women on athletic scholarships who deserve one (and not opposed to financial assistance for his family, either). Then he zeroes in on the next big controversy, schools paying athletes a stipend of $3,000 to $4,000 per year to cover the “cost of attendance,” a program the NCAA has approved and schools are figuring out how to administer.
“That money is going to be coming from somewhere in the budget, and we have to be careful that it doesn’t come out of the budgets that allow non-revenue producing sports to operate,” he says.
Still, he doesn’t not want government intervention and says the best course of actions is to hold hearings in Washington to emphasize that getting rid of these sports with Olympic ties will have a negative effect on the American psyche, something only Olympic success can bring. In effect, he is saying doing nothing is the best approach, which is consistent with Tea Party doctrine. But the inaction is not going to save up wrestling.
After the beer steins have been drained, and sauerkraut and sausages have been eaten, the former wrestlers in business go to the CSU gym to watch the Vikings take on the Buckeyes of Ohio State. One of the first matches involves Jim Jordan’s nephew, Bo. He is a freak of sorts, 165 pounds of lean muscle and with a neck that seems to grow from the middle of his shoulders. He has vacant stare as he readies for the match that oozes confidence. He seems very serious and quiet.
Bo Jordan pins his opponent in 28 seconds.
Marysville, Ohio, is about 30 miles from Columbus (Plain City is roughly in between). To the east is Columbus, growing so fast due to the growth of public spending in big state government and THE big university that Marysville is now almost a suburb. To the west is the beginning of about 1,000 miles of rows of corn mostly, which feed our cattle and provides ethanol for our cars.
It is a foggy Saturday morning in Marysville, with a frost on the matted corn stubble that causes the land and sky to join together in color. It is early December, and the first really cold day in Ohio, some leaves still hanging on some trees until the wind gusts get their way.
Inside Marysville High School, home of the Monarchs, eight boys wrestling teams from seven schools — Graham has two teams — are warming up with leg grabs and headlocks on the four wrestling mats covering the basketball floor. There are pictures of nine current Marysville High School boy wrestlers on the wall, and three girls’ basketball stars. Those are the big sports in these parts.
As Jim Jordan likes to say, this is part of the country where “we grow things and make things.” In Marysville, that would include the growing of corn and soybeans, the Honda factory that builds Accords, and the corporate headquarters of The Scotts Miracle-Gro Company. Three miles down the road from the high school is another Marysville big employer, the Ohio Reformatory for Women prison, opened in 1916 and home to about 2,000 women, including Donna Roberts, the only women on Ohio’s death row for having her husband murdered in 2001.
There are parents and grandparents sitting in the bleachers and little kids running around wide-eyed as the meet gets underway at about 9 a.m. This eight-team tournament will go on for about six hours, and it is a wonder that this many families got up at 6 a.m. to get their kids and the relatives off to a wrestling match on a Saturday morning.
Up in the stands is Andy Stickley, who grows corn and soybeans on about 1,100 acres near Urbana. He has two sons who wrestle for Graham: Justin, a senior, finished second in state last year at 120 pounds, and J.D., a sophomore, is an up and comer at 132 pounds. Andy Stickley wrestled with Jim Jordan in high school and is his brother-in-law.
He talks about the commitment that wrestling in high school for a program like Graham takes, and the impact of not having a full ride scholarship waiting at the end of the trail if successful.
“Think of it this way,” he says. “These kids start when they are 5 or 6 years old and it is pretty much every day from then on until they are out of high school. A few breaks for a week or two during the off season, but it is lifting and practicing, the same drills over and over again.”
“And in the end, it is not a sport geared toward the glory or the fans, it is sport that is about commitment and that you yourself are responsible,” he continues. “And there are no teammates to hide behind like in the team sport. When you win, it is you, but when you lose, it is you, too. There is a personal responsibility that these kids learn at a young age.”
Just then, Justin comes up and joins his father and mother and grandparents after he pinned someone and is waiting for the next match. He finished second in the state championships last year, and hopes this is the year to be first. He is looking at smaller colleges mostly, including any Ivy League program that will find a way to move some grant money his way for an academic scholarship if he wrestles.
“You have to do it for yourself,” the 18-year-old says of his wrestling, “and a part of that is being held accountable for what you do.”
Andy Stickley then joins in: “Jim Jordan is who he is because of what Justin just said. Did wrestling turn him into a person consumed with success in this sport? Sure. But his level of self-discipline is unmatched. He was completely self-motivated in high school, and still is. There were none like him.”
And Russ Hellickson, the poet, pops into my head once again:
I am Wrestling! Do not weep for me!!
Look to those seated around you and think of the qualities that make them what they are:
Accountability, responsibility, persistence, fortitude, strength, compassion, work ethic, ingenuity, determination, integrity, honesty, focus, diligence, and resolve.
And if you live with me long enough these will become you.
Is wrestling dying a slow death? No, not in the sense that it will ever be gone completely. But one sport specialization is now preferred in high school, and the star athlete that plays football in the fall and wrestles in the winter is rare. Kids who have to have to starve themselves to make weight, or worse, put a finger down their throat before weigh-ins, may have been acceptable 50 years ago, but not as much now.
And while the wrestling coaches all like to say that participation is increasing on the high school level, it all depends on how you play the numbers out. The number of high school wrestlers has increased by 5 percent since Jim Jordan graduated in 1982, but the number of high school students is up 18 percent in that same time period.
Maybe all this is just part of a societal change that is part of the pendulum swing. It not like everybody has always bought in completely to the ideals promoted by wrestling. Dedication to hard work is fine — and starving yourself to make weight might be admirable in some ways — but is suffering really necessary to have success? Sometimes sharing the bounty is a good way to lift up the masses, rather than competition for every morsel.
And today the Tea Party is similar position. They say no to everything, and claim that doing that and the elimination of government programs is the only way for our country to succeed. Individuality over connectivity, austerity over sharing the national wealth. And although those principles are often based on values, too often it comes down to my values, and not yours.
Jim Jordan finds himself at the center of this complicated debate. But it gets down to one simple fact: More than half of the country doesn’t care one way or another about the Tea Party or what it says or does. And most of the country has never seen amateur wrestling on TV or in person either.
Maybe one of the reasons most people don’t care much about either one is that neither wrestling nor the Tea Party have much in common with either of them anymore, that the values don’t connect.
Is that a problem in this country? Jim Jordan would say it is, and he is always ready to step into the circle in Washington to fight for his ideas. Even if others don’t like what you are advocating, you still have to do it.
That’s what his high school wrestling coach told him about 35 years ago. And the world hasn’t changed much since.
Or so Jim Jordan still believes.