The clock under the cage says it’s 2:21 p.m. and the neon orange second hand just keeps winding. Any minute now.
On the schedule practice starts at 2:30, but Coach is always a few minutes early. The damn drill sergeant tries to squeeze every last minute out of the day, even though their practices are already three hours or more. Jesse isn’t feeling it today. As they straighten and bend back down into their stretch, he’s in a sour mood, brought on by soreness, self-imposed starvation, a massive pile of homework, an impossible to satisfy teenage obsession with the opposite sex, the fucking pimple on his forehead, lost matches, overall moodiness and frustration, and the impending onslaught of yet another of Coach Gillette’s infamous practices. Yup, not in the mood at all today.
The door swings open and bangs shut, the spring in the arm at the top worn and stretched, doing little to slow momentum every time the door closes. Outside the boilers rumble and rattle as they pump heat into the school up above. They had a perfectly good room upstairs across from the gym last year, but that was also when Gillette showed up and started his relentless pursuit of a dual meet championship. Jesse had heard that the first thing the Coach said to the Athletic Director after he was hired was, “This room is too damn cold.” He immediately made the team clean out an old storage area in the basement and carry the mats down. Every practice and scrimmage since had been in this dungeon.
Coach stands well over six feet, his spandex shorts covered by a pair of grey cut off sweatpants, his shirt shorn of its sleeves, the two a matching set of the K-Mart variety that met an ill fate at the hand of teacher desk scissors. Whistle around his neck, hair thinning fast, clipboard in hand, he gives the room a once over. “We stretched out Captain?”
Jacobs, arms cut from granite, straightens up. He was already ranked by the papers as one of the top contenders from Section VIII to make a run at states. “Yes Sir.
Gillette flips his clipboard onto the dual meet mats that are rolled up and pushed against the wall adjacent to the door. Another one of his little tortures. The team had to carry them up and down the stairs before and after every match. Nothing like a massive undertaking and expenditure of energy right before you wrestled. Nothing drove home the fact that you just got your ass handed to you like waiting around to roll the fuckers up and carry them down a flight of steps after all was said and done. Perfect combination. Time to reflect on how you screwed up your match and a double dosage of exhaustion. Fantastic premise, really. “Alright then, let’s get after it.”
The man strides over to the middle of the wall and reaches above the vertical mats lining it. Their boombox is mounted there, a favor Coach asked of and received from the custodians. He presses play and turns towards the team, bringing his whistle to his mouth. “Around the room! Move!” and with a blast of his whistle, they’re off. It’s 2:27 p.m.
The team starts running, everyone filing into a procession as they begin their circles around the tiny space. Coach walks over and cranks the thermostat. Already Jacobs is lapping guys. They circle and circle. Jesse drags, watching the same pale red mats streak by in an endless loop along the walls. Their shoes squeak on the brighter red mats on the floor. An inherent stank of soaked in sweat mixed with the freshly applied pine sol-esque disinfectant wafts up to meet them as they make their rounds.
An so it begins. The team turns to the interior of the room and begins moving around the circle in side straddle. Lap after lap and then they are commanded to turn out, performing the same movements but facing the walls now. Mouths start to drop open, panting starts coming from the heavyweights. Coach calls after them. Pick it up, move, keep moving. They run backwards now. Always fun, bumping into the guy behind them. Gillette yells, “Situational awareness!” whenever it happens, some bullshit remnant from his Marine Corps days. No one knows what it means.
“Reverse!” They beckon back with the obligatory “That way!” as the entire team stops on a dime and begins running in the opposite direction. Perspiration breaks out. Breathing gets heavier. Gillette yells louder. “Carioca in!”
They face interior again, legs churning in the front to back twisting rhythm of the movement. Pick it up. You’re lagging. Breathe, just breathe they tell themselves. The first droplets fall. Face out now. Change direction. Go. Move. “Sprint it out!” Coach yells and they are racing, running, pushing themselves, pumping their legs. Chests heave, lungs burn. Jacobs flies. Jesse looks at him with scorn, moving just a little faster despite his mood.
Whistle blast. “Line it up!”
The team proceeds to the far wall, segregating into three lines, matching up with the rows of circles on the floor. The room is small, three rows of four. Hands go to hips or the back of their heads, guys exchange looks. Here we go. Gonna be a long one. Fuck me. We’re fucked. Fuck this. Yet they all line up. “Run!” There is only one whistle blast to start this iteration. The first three guys take off. When they reach the third circle in the row the next three follow, and so on and so forth until the lines are formed on the opposite side of the room. Then they do it all over again, back from where they came. Up to the front of the line. Next variation. Go.
High knees. They move, arms outstretched in front of them, knees supposed to hit their palms. Ass kickers. Down the mats, heels coming up to hit them in their own buttocks. Their sweat is streaking. Clothes begin absorbing the perspiration. Breathing is universally getting ragged. Some guys are cutting weight, their heavy sweatsuits covering the trash bags they’re not supposed to be wearing underneath. Jesse is one of them. Today he scraped the tuna from his sandwich roll and ate it with a fork, throwing the rest of his lunch away. Tomorrow he’ll probably have an orange. Maybe. If he’s lucky. Friday is almost here.
“Change levels!” They are getting into it. The application of skills that directly relate to wrestling. Up and down the mats they move in their stances, crouched and poised bodies of seventeen years give or take, hardened and stupid, willing and able to put themselves through such, determined to do just that. A few steps and then lower your whole body, bend at the knees, move against the imaginary opponent in front of you. Take a few steps more. Move when they don’t expect it. Set yourself up for your shot.
“Single legs!” And now the shots. Back and forth on the mats. Practice the forms. Take your shot. Wrap your arms around the imaginary’s leg. Hard step to the right or left as you come up, depending on which leg you hit, to throw him off balance. Double legs. Drive into him. Wrap around both legs. Ignore the sweat dripping into your mouth. The salt tastes good. You love the sweat. Drink it up. Pull him to the left. Push him to the right. Jack him up. Blast your forehead into his gut and chop behind his knees. Take him down. Two points. That’s right mother fucker, sit down! The tracks on the tape play on.
“You ladies are pissing me off! You want to slack today! We got Seaford on Friday! You want to slack before Seaford? You go full tilt in my room, you hear me? Full tilt, or you get out! Buddy carries! Now!”
“Fucking hell,” Larotta mutters. Guy never could watch his mouth.
“I heard that Anthony! Wall! Do it!”
Larotta breaks out of his line and trots to the wall. He does a handstand against it and immediately begins knocking out upside down push ups. Cursing in practice was a fifty rep penalty. Do it in front of anyone other than the Coach, it was a hundred. Jacobs cruises past Jesse on his way to the head of his line. “We taking it easy today Forbes?” The glare is just as cutting as the words. The meaning is clear. The next few exercises are his fault, and he better correct it.
Bad enough he is subjected to the torture of Gillette, but then he had to be partnered with a potential state champion. Jesse would never get there, he’d be lucky if he even qualified for counties. But fuck Jacobs. What Jesse lacked in talent, he made up for in heart and effort. No one outworked him, ever. If the Captain wanted to lay this solely at his feet, he’d shove it right back up his ass.
“Piggy backs!” The guy in line behind the lead jumps on his back, and the guy in the lead takes off once his partner is there. Jesse pushes to the front of his line, throwing a glance at Jacobs in the center row. Jacobs ignores him, but Jesse knows the Captain knows he’s there. They take off across the mats at the same time, crossing the other end at the same time. The lines shift from one end of the room to the other. Wheelbarrows. First guy drops, second guy grabs his ankles, first guy moves across the mats on his hands as fast as he can. They get to one side and change over. Cries come from the lines now between gasps, teammates cheering each other on, encouraging one another to press through the suck.
“Fireman’s carry!” Jacobs grabs the guy behind him and slings him over his shoulders. Jesse reaches four guys back and pulls a heavyweight forward, raising the 220 pounder with a grunt. Jacobs sees this and immediately matches by grabbing their one and only 260 pounder. Fucker. The two take off, glancing at one another, spittle flying from their mouths, hate flying from their eyes, admiration growing in their hearts. They drop their guys at the other end and double over in gasps, riding the brontosauruses back the way they came. The lines even out. Coach sees what’s going on between them and tells them to do it again. Another fucker. Jesse decides to throw it back at him too. No one is gonna wear him out today.
Sweat cascades. Stink of adolescent boys fills the air. The atmosphere gets thick as the heat pumps into their space. Theirs. No one else’s. No one in this school could endure what they endure. No one could impose the self discipline they do each and every day. No one could understand the reason. Not unless you tasted it. Not unless you went out there and fought as hard as you could. One on one. Mano y mano. Fuck that other guy. Go through him. Tear him open. Slam him to the mat and keep his shoulders there. Pin his ass. Get your “W.” Hell, tech him if you can. Then they would know. Then they might understand. This ain’t sinking a basket, it ain’t spiking a ball, it sure as hell ain’t Super Nintendo. This is digging deep. This is dominating. Knowing you have it in you. Proving that when it comes down to you or him, you come out on top.
The fireman’s finish. Another damn whistle. “Pair off!” The former D.I. screams. They didn’t really know if he was a former drill instructor. They know he is a Marine, so they just assumed so. I mean, who else willingly signs up for torturing teenagers? When the ‘pair off’ command is given they find their partners, the ones they are permanently assigned to wrestle against each and every day based off of weight and skill level. Jacobs and Jesse had been going at each other for close to two years now. Every once in awhile Jesse gets close to pinning Jacobs. Close but not there. Yet. Their battles in practice are the stuff of legends, even beyond the locker room.
“Buddy squats!” Oh shit. Back to the fireman’s position. Heaving in air, they start going, hitting as many reps as they can. Coach screams at them if they slow down. He yells, he encourages, he berates, he brings out the best in them. Jacobs is relentless, his body a machine. He pushes Jesse up and down like he is nothing, a featherweight, an afterthought. Switch. Another song comes on as Jesse lifts Jacobs across his shoulders, immediately regretting his decision to run with the heavyweights earlier. He squats the Captain up and down, his leg trembling, his breath ragged, but he persists. Sweat pours down, soaking his face, stinging his eyes. The last rep he struggles on. Jacobs yells in his ear, slapping him on the back, pushing him to another rep, then another. Fuck this shit. I quit. No you don’t. You don’t ever quit. Not you. Not ever. Keep going you crazy bastard.
They are crazy. He hadn’t had more than a few mouthfuls in days. What kid does this? They do. They chase after glory with the reckless abandon of youth that knows no better. The Coach put a poster on the wall of twin brothers who wrestled for Iowa. Yeah, that Iowa. Dan fucking Gable’s Iowa. The twins are racing up the stairs of the arena on campus in the picture. The caption reads, “Train like a madman!” That’s right. That’s what they are. Madmen. The criminally insane. Committing murder to their own bodies and assault upon their opponents in chase of the ever elusive “W”, and what they do here, what they do now, makes all the difference. The difference between gassing or lasting. Between pinning or being pinned. Between living and dying. Because here in this room, in these winter months, this and only this is living. Wrestling is life.
Still, that said, his mind wanders when it gets exhausted. Gillette switches them to partner burpees, one up while the other hits down. Get into rhythm with each other, feel the pulse of your training partner, learn to read the pulse of your opponent. Jesse hates burpees. Nothing more saps him of his energy, nothing more kills his adrenaline rush. Yet he pushes on. He puts his mind elsewhere as his chest repeatedly hits the mat. He remembers fourth period biology. Biology is right. God, Becky killed it today. A skin tight black tank top, covered by another, smaller, white tank top. The combination accentuated her young, round, perky tits. Who wears a tank top in December? Becky fucking Samuelson does, that’s who. What he would give for a night with…
“Ski jumpers!” God damn it. Jacobs planks on the mats. Jesse starts leaping over his body, back and forth, back and forth. “Faster Forbes, this ain’t the bunny slopes!”
Fuck you Coach. But Jesse still does it. He digs deep. He went ten and six last year, a dramatic improvement over his four and twelve freshman year. Yes, wrestling as a freshman on Varsity is hard, but it was clear to him that Gillette was the difference. He brought out the best in him, hell he brought out the best in all of them. Their increased skills and stamina, their fortitude, it’s all from his tutelage. Switch. He planks and gasps for air. Sweat pours off his nose and forms a puddle beneath him. This is torture, this is a nightmare, but when they step on the mats, they are the embodiment of those nightmares, and more often than not their opponents either didn’t want to or couldn’t face that kind of intensity. It all boils down to one thing. Gillette equals victory, and with the squad they have, county dual meet champs is not far off.
“Spins!” Jesse pushes up from the mat to all fours. Jacobs drops his chest onto his back and starts rotating around on his toes, keeping his chest there, moving as fast as he can. Whistle blast. Jacobs reverses direction. Jesse tries to breathe. Another whistle, reverse again. A few moments more, another couple of rotations, double whistle. He clambers up and starts spinning on Jacobs’ back. Jesse thinks of his last match, of the stupid mistake he made leaving his leg out unattended, giving his opponent the reversal, upsetting the point balance in the third. No one beat him in the third, no one. Not ever. If the guy was stronger, better, maybe in the first. Usually, if he got beat, it was in the second, when he pulled back just a bit, trying to keep something in reserve for the third. But that was the whole reason why he never lost if a match went the distance. He kept something in reserve, and he outworked everyone. He had the stamina to go all the way, to beat out his competition through longevity and intensity if he couldn’t do so through skill. All of which made his most recent loss unbearable. Jesse had it won, and his mental mistake cost him the “W.”
Breckenridge gets up from the mats and sprints to the door. He dares not leave. No one ever leaves the room without Coach’s permission. Instead, he doubles over the Rubbermaid bin and pukes out the contents of his public school system lunch. It only takes moments for the stink of it to hit the air, to permeate like a sickly sweet cloud of wretchedness. The stench makes their eyes water, as if the salt from their sweat doing the same wasn’t enough already. Like clockwork, his younger brother, sophomore to the senior, goes running off a few seconds later to repeat the hurling. The younger Breck could never stand the smell of his brother’s vomit. The blaring boombox gets overshadowed by their retching.
“Sit out turn in! Sit out turn out!” Jacobs goes right into the drills, being positioned on the bottom. Repetition upon repetition. Even Jacobs is breathing hard at this point. The switch gets called out. Jacobs goes to bottom and starts his movements. He wonders if his Dad will be able to get home early from work on Friday. He had only seen a tournament this season so far. It would be good to see him in the stands. Jesse always wrestled harder when his Dad was watching. Effort was always put forth, no matter what, but performing in front of your Dad, seeing his face light up after you mercilessly pinned the guy from across the mats, that was everything.
“Stand ups to escape! Partners, don’t let them out!” Jacobs blasts up from the floor, Jesse clinging to him in a bear hug while the potential state champ works at his grip, relentlessly trying to break it. Intensity spikes. Now they are working against each other. Now it is muscle against muscle, skill against skill, determination deciding all. Jesse’s turn. The stand up is his specialty. Another eighteen escapes and he breaks the single season record. Even Jacobs has a hard time holding him down. Young men dance around the room, forcing themselves free, clinging on to deny that freedom, working to improve, gasping for air.
“Hand fighting! Go!” They square off against one another in their stances. Tying up, they essentially begin kicking the shit out of each other. Hand fighting is all about intensity, about setting the tone, not letting the guy across from you push you around. They push and pull, shove and twist, jam and slap against each other’s arms, neck, and head. They pull off the collar ties, smack forehead against forehead, grunt in effort, exacerbation, exhaustion. Whistle blow. Find another partner. Fuck him up.
Another whistle, another partner. More slapping on of collar ties, more pulling them off. Shove around the lightweight. Try not to get shoved around by the heavyweight. Push, pull, fight. Forget your breathing, forget your burning. Tywolson catches an elbow to the nose that starts it gushing blood. Sucks for him. Coach plugs it up and pushes him back in. Keep it going. Pick it up. Show no mercy. Sweat pours, clothes cling, muscles ripple and pulse. Keep going. Don’t let the man across from you see you falter. We don’t falter in here, so we can’t falter out there. We don’t quit. Full tilt. There is no quitting. Full tilt. The only true opponent is yourself. Push past him, go through him, destroy the opposition. Full tilt. Train like a fucking madman.
The whistles blows in succession twice. They stop and drop to knees, to their backs, brace against the wall mats. The entire team heaves for breath. Jesse fights off the lightheaded stars in front of his eyes. Gillette says to them calmly. “Two minutes to get upstairs for a water break. We start practice when you get back. Go!”
No matter the condition, everyone quickly trots out the door in file, not wanting to skip the opportunity for cool air and delicious, life sustaining agua. Jesse peeks at the clock in it’s cage above the door as he goes through it.
It’s 2:49 p.m.