The Wall of Champions
October 12, 2000
Wellington C. Mepham High School is widely acknowledged as the "cradle of New York State and Eastern US high school wrestling." This majestic pre-war brick building was built in 1936 on Camp Avenue in North Bellmore, Long Island. At that time, high school students from six communities attended Mepham. Legendary coaches, Frank "Sprig" Gardner and Ken Hunte, were able to mold this large pool of talented athletes into the state's first "grappling" powerhouse.
Over the years, four new high schools were built, which slowly drained some of that talent. Coupled with the unselfish sharing and teaching of its wrestling knowledge, Mepham no longer dominates its opponents. Still, through a span of more than 60 years, the name Mepham has remained synonymous with the sport.
I have visited my high school alma mater twice since I graduated with the class of 1965. Thursday, July 13, 2000, was the most recent trek. Though school was not in session, the janitor was very accommodating when I asked to see the gymnasium and the wrestling room. Over the years he must have encountered many former "mat backs" roaming the halls, looking for their lockers and mumbling about the "glory days."
In the summer of 1964, I was fortunate enough to spend a week with Coach Gardner at Gettysburg College during a summer wrestling camp. Because my older brother Herb, had wrestled for him, I was in awe of Sprig's reputation. Even though it was late in his coaching career, the knowledge I gained and the connection to Mepham's winning wrestling tradition had a special impact on me, and jump-started me into my senior year. I never won an individual title, but I was a part of some of the teams that did win championships.
I'm very proud to say that Ken Hunte was my coach. With his still-chiseled muscular body, thick neck, cauliflower ears and shaven scalp, he was a tough taskmaster whose lessons built competitiveness and character in the students he taught. And he always tempered his teachings with his unique and wry sense of humor. I recalled one particular harrowing incident. At an away match with Freeport, I had committed the ultimate wrestling sin:
Not making weight. In order to lose the extra 3/4; pound, I had to wear my rubber sweat suit, run for an hour, and then wrestle Coach Hunte. Did I say wrestle? I mean survive. In addition to the intimate relationship my body quickly developed with the mat, the stubble of his 5 o'clock shadow rubbed my sensitive teenage facial skin and resulted in an extraordinary "mat burn" that was as bad as any mat could produce. Fortunately, even though I was exhausted by the time the match began, and I lost a point for stalling, I was able to use my legs to tie up my adversary and win 2-1. I could barely walk off the mat on my own. Coach Hunte greeted me with a smile and a scowl as he muttered under his breath, "Good match son. Don't let them see that you're tired." I learned two lessons that night that I carried with me for the rest of the season: 1) never let your opponent see that you are tired, and 2) always make weight.
This past summer, when I entered the gymnasium (now named after Coach Gardner), I felt as if I had entered some hallowed, almost spiritual place. I got that same growling feeling in my belly, dryness in my mouth and weakness in my legs that I experienced before every match. I was immediately reminded of how intimidating it must have been to our competition to walk into an over-packed amphitheater of screaming, partisan "Pirate" fans to face twelve boy gladiators in garnet and gray robes positioned beneath a wall of championship tournament plaques. Most teams were beaten before the match began.
I followed the janitor down the stairs into the wrestling room still located next to the boiler room on the bottom floor of the building. He sensed my silent request and respectfully left me alone with my past. The room looked almost the same as it did when I left 35 years ago. A thick vinyl mat covered most of the floor space. Mats also protected most of the walls, foundation poles, and heating pipes. I could almost smell the sweat and "red hot" muscle salve and almost hear the thump of bodies slamming on the mat while Coach Hunte chomped on gum and cajoled "turn in, turn out, switch, dump." I was reeling in a flood of memories.
I then faced the "Wall of Champions." On this wall, there were about a hundred simply framed black and white (color since the late 60's) photographs of high school boys in various wrestling poses. Many of those faces were familiar to me. I had either watched or wrestled many of them, including Lou Zemsky, Marc DeMicco, Bob Stock, Cliff Dameron, Kenny Baer, Bobby Waters, Tim Balunis, and Jim Nanos. I was there in 1964 when three Mepham wrestlers, Billy Desario, Tom Gleason, and Jack Paz won New York State titles. That feat has never been equaled. In 1965, I went with a group of my friends to Ithaca to watch our buddy and classmate, Mike Fitzgerald, win his state title. I also remember being astonished at the skills of a freshman who wrestled first string varsity on the '65 team. To me, Alan Stock was the best and most natural high school wrestler I ever wrestled or ever saw. That season, future Mepham coach John Walters, then representing arch-rival Calhoun High School, was able to use his phenomenal leg skills to hand Alan the only three losses of his first varsity season. Not surprisingly, I noted that Alan had gone on to fortify his legacy by winning two state titles during his Mepham career.
As I read the rest of the names and reached the name of the present wrestling coach, Mike Muscara, I was overcome with emotion. Spontaneously, I dropped down to my knees and did a few turn ins, turn outs, then switched, dumped and pinned an imaginary opponent. I jumped up and pumped my fist into the air, as if the referee signaled that I had won. For that one moment, I was a seventeen-year old high school senior again, competing to be the best I could be. I felt a deep connection with every wrestler who has worn that uniform, and given his heart, soul and sweat for Mepham High School.
And finally, as I walked back up those stairs and out the building into the hot July sun, I felt great pride in knowing that six decades of wrestling success and tradition continues today.