`CHICKEN!'' The word landed on my ear like a blow. But I did not want to fight. Fletcher stood looking up at me, cursing me out and throwing punches that landed anywhere on my body he cared to bruise. His gang was disappointed; they wanted action. And they jeered at me, calling me ``chicken'' and other things I wouldn't mention here. But the other names didn't really matter. ``Chicken'' was the one that did the most damage. Like every other boy in my neighborhood, I had spent my whole life convincing everyone that I was not chicken. It was of even higher priority than athletic ability.
Nevertheless, I would not fight, and to demonstrate that fact conclusively, I sat down on the bleachers. The gang circled around, calling for blood. And Fletcher stood over me alternately cursing and throwing punches. One incongruous thing remains in my mind to this day. Fletcher's knees were shaking. But it did not encourage me any, and afterward it did not mitigate the shame I felt for my own inscrutable behavior.
A friend of mine who had seen the whole thing didn't help at all in restoring my sense of self-worth. Later when we went to see the movie ``Demetrius and the Gladiators,'' we watched - and my best buddy laughed - as Demetrius took on four lions with his bare hands before a crowd of clamoring Romans. Right there in the theater, almost in hysterics, he turned to me and said, ``And you wouldn't even take on Fletcher.''
It was years before I was able to see this incident in its proper perspective. One thing that helped was the competition I experienced wrestling unlimited at 185 pounds. on my high school's second squad. I learned that I could gain physical control over someone else not through superior strength or by being ``tough'' but through well-executed key moves. These moves use the strength and weight of the opponent. But I learned more than this on one particular day when I faced my greatest challenge on the mat. I had always known I was going to find out exactly what unlimited meant.
The rumors began filtering back to the locker room just before the match. Finally, our coach came in. He walked toward where I was sitting on the bench and stood in front of me. I looked up at him and smiled.
``You've got your work cut out for you this afternoon, Gary,'' he said.
``Right,'' I said.
Coach smiled, shook his head, and said, ``He's really big.''
``Right,'' I said.
When the match began, I did not make the mistake of looking at my 6-foot, 5-inch, 225-pound opponent. I did not look at the muscles rippling in his arms, which were the size of my thighs.
I crossed the mat and shook hands, looking straight ahead, and continued to cross the mat. When I turned to face my opponent, not looking at anything but the trunk of his body, I literally jumped for joy at the opportunity.
Suddenly, I took three quick steps to join with my adversary. He could not understand my enthusiasm and began backing up. The entire student body was at the match and a deafening roar went up. My opponent and I circled each other with care and worked for position.
Finally, I went for my takedown, and missed, bringing this Goliath down on top of me. I drove my body back up into him, established my base and quickly threw a switch, coming up and around behind him; he went crashing to the mat. I grabbed ahold of his near wrist, drove my shoulder into his side, then vaulted over to apply the half nelson. Just as I began to sink the hold tightly, the buzzer went off, and the period was over.
I had the top position for the beginning of the second period, which we went into without delay. Immediately, I went for the same pinning combination, breaking him down by tying up his near arm and pulling him toward me.
As I began to sink the half nelson into a deep set, the entire wrestling squad got off the bench and started pounding on the edge of the mat. A thunderous roar began as I started to turn Goliath over. I would not have believed the noise could get any louder, but it did. When I had the tight set I wanted, taking my time, knowing I had the entire two-minute period to play with, getting my position just right, I drove off my legs and forced his shoulder blades to the mat. The roar was indescribable. I could not hear my own thoughts. But I felt the referee's hand pound the mat right next to my face. I jumped up and stood looking down on the vanquished Goliath. But the triumph lasted only a moment. Then it was replaced with other feelings, ineffable feelings.
I reached down and gave my opponent a hand up. As he came to his feet, I said, ``Good match,'' at the same time he said something of the same to me.
My teammates greeted me with euphoria. They hugged me, hoisted me to their shoulders, and otherwise received me as the triumphant hero. But I knew they overdid it.
I had executed the pin well but my takedown was sloppy. My switch was OK, but let's face it: He wasn't much of a wrestler. These are the kinds of thoughts that were going through my head at the time. I even apologized to my coach for missing the takedown. But all that ambivalence was just a smoke screen for what was really bothering me. Victory in this joust seemed a strange reason to suddenly be perceived as exceedingly worthwhile.
As the crowd began to disperse and I walked away from the wrestling mat, I looked over at the dejected young man I had just beaten as he thrust his arms through the sleeves of his warm-up jacket, trying to ignore his teammates' words and gestures of consolation. I was overwhelmed with the sudden realization that I did not know his worth, and that I never would.