Russellmania

April 23, 1991

Country music thumps from the public address system as a work crew finishes the 4-foot-high platform. Two men swab the maroon-and-gray wrestling mat on the stage. In a few hours, the seats will fill and the house lights will dim in the cavernous Bison Sports Arena. Spotlights will flash on the gold-bunted stage. Dan Russell will stand in the light for the last time at the NCAA Division II wrestling championships.

Up in the lobby of the North Dakota State field house, the weight class brackets have been hung. At 167 pounds, the 1991 Division II championship is down to two men. They are both champions. Russell, who has won three titles at 150 and 158 pounds, will face Howard Moore of Central State of Oklahoma. Moore won the 167-pound weight class last year.

Across the empty hall, the shaggy head of a buffalo hangs over a trophy case. The bison is not the only vanishing species in Fargo this bitter March night. In a few hours, Dan Russell will fight to become the second wrestler in history to win four Division II titles. He will go on to the Division I championships and capture the imagination of 14,000 as he strains to become the last Division II athlete to win wrestling's biggest prize.

Russell's senior season has been just a prelude to five final five days of competition. In the brown February of Colorado, in the frozen winds of North Dakota, in the snow in Iowa, the second season will be a time of wrestling with himself.

The second season began Feb. 23 at the Division II Western Regional in Golden, Colo. At 3:08 p.m., Russell cemented a decision he debated all year. He stepped backward on the ancient blue scales in the locker room at Colorado School of Mines. He weighed 166 pounds, one pound under. There would be no rematch with Pat Smith, Oklahoma State's 158-pound champ who beat Russell at the Division I nationals last year. Russell had cast his lot among the horses at 167 pounds.

One stood next to him. Bill Pedersen of San Francisco State packed a weightlifter's build on his 6-foot-1-inch frame. He had dropped from 205 pounds to compete at 167.

Russell has a way of reeling back the Arnold Schwarzenegger look-alikes. Conditioning, technique and intensity are the equalizers. Russell tossed Pedersen like a straw man in the regional finals. He pinned him in the second period.

The Portland State team performed well in Colorado. The Vikings qualified seven wrestlers for the Division II nationals. A third team title seemed within reach.

The dream froze to death in North Dakota. The Vikings finished fifth. But the team competed well. Eric Winters placed seventh. Tony Champion was as reliable as the Dakota wind. In the finals, he defeated Joe Wypiszenski of Nebraska-Omaha for the second straight year and won his third title.

And then there was Russell.

At 7:49 p.m. on the night of March 2, he climbed the platform in the Bison Sports Arena. His father, Rick, pulled him aside.

"Dan, do you realize how fortunate you are to be able to come up here tonight onto this stage and stand at the gate you are standing at?" his father asked.

"Do you know how many people live their whole lives and never get to experience that? Win or lose, it's just an honor to be able to stand at this gate. So enjoy it."

He did.

Russell exploded into Moore. Fifteen seconds into the bout, it was clear Moore could not cope with Russell's horsepower. One hundred seconds into the bout, it was over.

They were on the edge when it ended. Russell had Moore's head under his arm in a front headlock when he saw the opening. Moore was vulnerable for a move Russell learned long ago. It was called a knee tap. His body remembered.

The crowd roared as Russell finished the fall. He dragged Moore in bounds like a piece of heavy luggage. Then he bore down. The thump of the ref's hand signaled the fall.

Russell leaped high as applause erupted. Flashbulbs dotted the darkened arena like summer fireflies. Russell came to rest and stood in the white light. The referee raised his arm. The mask of tension floated clear. He grinned. He had done it. He was the second man to win four. For a moment, there was no pressure. No self-doubt. No creeping dread. Just this moment in the dark.

Later, at a Fargo restaurant, Dan joked with his teammates and his brother. Joe and Tiffany Russell drove five hours from Minneapolis through a snowstorm to witness Dan's moment. After the last bout, they cheered as Dan took a bow. He had been named Outstanding Wrestler at the tournament for the third year. No one had won three before.

"I'm glad this is over," Dan said. "Now the pressure is off."

It would return soon enough.

The wind blew hard out of the northwest as the plane carrying Portland State's team of one approached Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

The Boeing 737 bucked and slipped below the gray ceiling. Crosswinds waggled the jet before it dropped like a stone onto the tarmac.

On the ground, rain flew sideways as Coach Marlin Grahn scrambled to find his rental car. The temperature arched down like a wrestler doing a back flip. Thirty minutes away, sleet clogged rush hour in Iowa City. Wind hardened the sleet into snow. Lightning flashed.

The 61st edition of the NCAA Division I championships would be as special as the weather. Iowa City is one of the few venues where wrestling draws as well as basketball. In February, nearly 13,000 watched Iowa strangle defending national champion Oklahoma State in a dual meet. From 1978-86, Iowa won nine straight NCAA championships under Coach Dan Gable, the biggest star American amateur wrestling has produced. In '91, the Hawkeyes were back.

More than 340 wrestlers from 94 colleges have come to the yearly reunion of the wrestling nation. In the next three days, eight mats in Carver Hawkeye Arena will hum through 559 matches as the new champions are crowned. Among the competitors are seven wrestlers from Division II. They were in school before the NCAA barred small-college wrestlers from the big tournament. One of them, Portland State's Dan Russell, will become a folk hero before this St. Patrick's Day weekend ends. The fans' reaction would be quite a contrast to what was going on back home.

Four days before he left Portland, Russell was at the University of Portland's Chiles Center to speak to a Fellowship of Christian Athletes meeting. The state high school wrestling tournament was on. As wrestlers and coaches drifted in, table talk turned to the latest scandal to scar Portland State wrestling.

Clay Woodward, the 190-pound former high school champ from Prineville, had been arrested a day after the team returned from Fargo. Woodward was charged with an unprovoked assault on two men and a woman in a Portland gay bar. The police report said Woodward had punched all three as he walked from the bar at about 1 a.m.

The season began under the cloud left by Broderick Lee's sentencing on sexual abuse charges. It ended with another stain.

Several coaches asked Russell about the incident. What was going on with the Portland State program?

"It affects me," Russell said. "It affects everybody else on the team. The problem is that a lot of those guys don't realize that what they do affects anybody besides themselves."

Russell began his speech with a quotation from Proverbs:

"Like snow in the summer, like rain in the harvest time, so is honor given to a fool."

"Being an athlete, we live in glass houses," he said. "Each one of you lives in a glass house whether you like it or not. You are measured by a different yardstick, . . . so it is important you find yourself worthy of honor."

In Iowa, Russell hoped he was worthy of the honor he coveted. He felt well-prepared. He had recovered from the injuries. Motion had returned to his elbow. His shoulder no longer ached. His back was loose.

Competing at 167 pounds had eased the strain on his body. This year, his only worry was the competition. That was enough. The 167-pound class was among the tournament's toughest. Coaches rated the weight class a dead heat among the top six athletes.

In the preliminary meeting, Russell was seeded No. 1. Behind him were three dangerous Big 10 wrestlers: Kevin Randleman of Ohio State, No. 2; Charlie Jones, the Purdue wrestler who beat Russell in the Las Vegas tournament, No. 3; and Mark Reiland of Iowa, No. 4.

Ray Brinzer, the Oklahoma State freshman, was seeded eighth. Barring upsets, Russell would face Brinzer in the quarterfinals and Reiland in the semis. Reiland was coping with his own troubles. He had been arrested March 5 in Iowa City on a drunken driving charge. Controversy or not, the home crowd would be a big advantage for the Iowan, Russell thought.

When the brackets were released, Russell's No. 1 seed was secure. But his luck spoiled. Thirty-three wrestlers had entered the 167-pound class; the bracket had room for 32. Officials drew two names to wrestle an extra bout, called a pigtail, to decide who would fill the 32nd slot. Russell was one. His opponent was Dave Miller of Clemson, the highest ranked unseeded wrestler.

"I can't believe I got a pigtail," Russell said in his room at The Heartland Inn. "Miller is a tough kid. I will have to be ready."

Russell had roomed at the Heartland before. It was in 1986 when Iowa recruited him. Iowa, like other wrestling powers, warned Russell he would make a mistake if he didn't come. He would never become a great wrestler without the competition a program like Iowa's could provide.

Five years later, those words hung in his mind. He badly wanted to make them take it back.

Russell charged into the tournament Thursday morning. Miller of Clemson was strong. But he made a major tactical mistake: he wrestled Russell up top. Russell bombed the Clemson wrestler 19-3.

In his next match, Russell decked Brian Woods of Michigan State in 28 seconds. He took Woods down and caught him in a front quarter. Then he spun his "Russell whipover." Woods flipped.

Russell was ecstatic after the lightning pin. He had never used the whipover at the nationals. Before day's end, though, he will want to forget the Russell whipover. It will get him into a jam.

Russell was in command of Chris Kwortnik of North Carolina State when trouble struck. In the first minute, he had taken down Kwortnik twice for a 4-1 lead. He put the quarter on Kwortnik. Then he hit the whipover. The hold came apart in midair. Kwortnik reversed him to tie the bout.

For Russell, the momentum of the tournament turned.

Kwortnik tangled Russell with his legs and rode hard. Russell panicked. Kwortnik's confidence grew. The match became a struggle. With seven seconds left, Russell took Kwortnik down to save the victory 10-9.

Afterward, Russell sprawled in the Hawkeye wrestling room. He replayed the bout in his mind. He had made a nasty mental mistake. "I was thinking `Don't get turned, don't get pinned' instead of escape, escape, escape!" he said.

He could not afford such a mistake Friday against Brinzer. The matches would only get tougher.

At 1:20 Friday afternoon, Ray Brinzer finds himself on familiar ground. The bout is tied 1-1. There is 43 seconds left. Brinzer has ridden Russell for 47 seconds. If he can hold Russell another 13 seconds, he will gain a point in riding time and win.

Brinzer has been here before. The match he lost to Russell in Las Vegas turned late in the third period when Russell reversed him. At the time, Brinzer had 47 seconds of riding time.

Now the two are kneeling before 11,178 bellowing fans in Iowa City. The fans scream for Russell. The Portland State senior had won them; it wasn't hard. They hate Oklahoma State in Carver Hawkeye Arena.

Russell is in the down position; Brinzer up. The riding time clock again blinked: 47 seconds. Fate has rolled snake eyes for Ray Brinzer.

At the whistle, Russell stands. The wrestlers blur as Russell cartwheels onto his right shoulder. He hooks Brinzer's right leg and emerges on top. The referee signals a reversal. Russell leads 3-1. Thunder bursts from the east stands.

Brinzer escapes to trim the margin to 3-2, but Russell fights him off.

As time expires, Russell bounces across the black-and-gold mat. He turns toward the cheers from the Iowa stands. He waves and faces northwest. His glistening blue eyes hunt the Minnesota section. When he finds his brother and mother, his face splits into a grin. He pumps his arm. Then he turns to hug Brinzer.

"You go win this tournament now," Brinzer says. It was the same thing he had told Russell after their Las Vegas match.

"You know Russell, you're my second favorite athlete," Brinzer yells above the roar.

"Thanks Ray. Who's your favorite?"

"You just beat him.'

It is the curse of the tournament that an athlete gets to savor victory only for a moment. Then it disappears -- like 6 inches of Iowa snow under a strong March sun -- and the next challenge stands at center.

So it was for Russell Friday night. He was back in the arena where the Iowa crowd had cheered his victory hours before. match would be different. The crowd would scream for his head.

At 8:15 p.m., Russell shakes hands with Reiland of Iowa. They begin.

Nineteen seconds into the bout, Russell and Reiland stand shoulder to shoulder and lock arms in a move called a whizzer. Russell gains a fleeting advantage but Reiland drops and grabs Russell's left leg. Russell, ever on the offensive, reaches for the Iowan's left ankle. Reiland bear-hugs Russell's waist and hops behind. Russell bails out and topples. Reiland leads 2-0.

As cheers explode, Russell shoots a sinking look at his father. He knew Reiland liked to step over. He knew but Reiland still scored.

The bout has started as Iowa coach Dan Gable hoped. He thought Reiland could score early and often. He was worried about a tight bout that hinged on late points. Conditioning would steer that sort of bout. And conditioning favored Russell.

Dan faces off against Mark Reilan

Russell escapes to cut the lead to 2-1.

With 58 seconds left in the first period, the wrestlers again lock in a whizzer. Reiland is powerful. They bull each other. They scramble. This time, Russell gets the takedown and the lead, 3-2.

Marlin Grahn is pleased. He thinks the bout is over. Russell will win if the pair just trade escapes the last two periods.

They do just that. With 1:28 left, both wrestlers are on their feet. Russell leads 4-3. The crowd chants Reiland's name. Russell trips and stumbles backward out of bounds. He looks tentative.

With a minute left, Russell reaches to lock up. He has not fired his shot for the entire match, the entire tournament. Reiland ducks and hits Russell low. Down he goes. A wave of noise erases the referee's whistle. Reiland leads 5-4.

That's how it ends. The last 54 seconds become a nightmare for Russell. Reiland rides him out. To make this memory more painful, fate tosses in a shaky call.

With 30 seconds left, Russell breaks free on the edge. When he turns to face Reiland, the Iowan is still in bounds. But the referee calls them out. He doesn't award the point that would have tied the bout.

At 8:30 p.m., Russell congratulates Reiland. Russell's dream is in pieces on the yellow mat. He will compete Saturday but it will be for third place. He will wrestle Charlie Jones of Purdue in the heartbreak bracket.

Saturday became an emotional roller coaster for Russell.

He lost 2-0 to Charlie Jones and finished fourth, like last year. Jones rode him out. Russell didn't get to wrestle Saturday night on the stage with the sky blue mat and the CBS cameras. And yet, as he had won like a champion, so he lost like one. He stepped out with a grace that swept over 14,000 fans like the first breeze of spring.

Winning is everything to the Iowa program. You notice it when Iowa is awarded the team championship trophy; the Hawkeyes who lost hang their heads. You see it in the attitude in the stands, in the behavior of defending champion Terry Brands, who, after he lost in the 126-pound finals, refused to shake hands with the victor and ran crying from the arena.

The crowd saw something different in Russell. The Iowa fans' affection for him began innocently enough. They cheered him against rival Oklahoma State. Russell understood later when they booed and yelled for Reiland. He wrestled the eventual champion hard-nosed but cleanly. He paused to slap hands after timeouts. He was himself. When he lost he was quick to congratulate Reiland. After that, the Iowa fans adopted him.

They screamed for him Saturday against Jones. He lost again. By now they knew him. They saw how he and Jones joked and slapped each other on the back before the bout. They watched the two bulls battle for seven brutal minutes. And when it was over, they watched as the two athletes came up to their knees and embraced.

"I'll see you at the Greco nationals," Russell said to Jones.

The crowd roared. Jones laughed. The combatants went off arm in arm. They went off smiling.

As they faced the east stands, the crowd erupted again. Russell waved and the cheers tumbled down the 66 steps like a sweet waterfall.

"I'm sure Danny Russell would like to thank all you adoptive parents from Iowa," announcer Ed Aliverti said over the PA system.

After the match, Russell sat with his dad in the north stands. Rick Russell ached for his son. He knew that beneath the facade, Dan was a mess. Grahn slumped a few rows away. His grin was gone.

"The hardest part is that it is the end of an era in a lot of ways," Grahn said. "Dan is the end of Division IIs. And that's hard to accept."

Later that evening, Marty Morgan, Minnesota's 177-pounder whom Russell has known for years, wrestled in the finals. Russell watched as the seventh son of a seventh Irish son won his first title a few hours short of his birthday, St. Patrick's Day. Morgan reached his goal. Russell did not. His stomach twisted as he watched Reiland pin Kevin Randleman of Ohio State in the finals.

After the 177-pound bout, Russell walks onto the stage for the awards ceremony. He is wearing the green-and-white Portland State warm-up suit for the last time. And loafers. He climbs the victory platform and settles on the fourth step, three paces from where he longs to be.

The crowd applauds politely as the first three awards are presented.

"In fourth place, from Portland State University, All-American, . . ." Aliverti announces Russell's name but it is swallowed by the noise.

The Iowa fans know his name. A roar crashes into the pit of the arena like the crazy storm that welcomed Russell to Iowa City. The Iowa fans are on their feet. Russell raises his arm over his head. The noise builds. He is waving goodbye. He glances over his shoulder. The three Big Ten wrestlers are pumping their hands, joining in this rare tribute. He shakes their hands. Russell's head pivots around. He takes one last look at a college arena.

From the platform, he can look back over the years of sacrifice and hard work. Over the victories and defeats, on the mat and off. His parents' divorce, his brother's injury. The arrest of his friend, Broderick Lee. Over blown knees and scarred ears and weeks of fasting on his juice diet. Over Aaron Childs and an unblemished high school career. Over four Division II championships. Over his riding time curse. Over the shots he never took at the 1991 nationals.

Three steps to his left stands Mark Reiland. The Iowa junior is on the top step. The Iowa fans clap in rhythm and cheer their new champion. After 16,000 hours on the mat, 500 days of black eyes and swelled ears, of dripping vinyl suits and pungent saunas, it is the perch Russell did not reach.

After the brief ceremony, Russell walks off the mat and out of college wrestling. The Portland State senior is the last of his kind. The only college wrestler ever to win NCAA titles at three different weights. The last small college champion to win All-America honors at college wrestling's Big Show.

Russell's eyes are focused forward. Ahead, he can see Barcelona in the Olympic summer of '92. Farther yet, the humid summer of '96 in Atlanta. In his mind he sees the same relentless picture: Dan Russell, the skinny little kid who wanted to wrestle, is standing at center. He is soaked with sweat and breathing hard. A referee stands next to him. He is raising Dan's weary arm in victory.

The scene never finally happened in Iowa. He lost. Yet he won the crowd with his skill, his enthusiasm, his sense of fair play, his character.

A Sports Illustrated photographer later asks, "What was that big deal about the Russell kid? I didn't understand?"

His family and friends did. So did 14,000 wrestling fans in Carver Hawkeye Arena. They saw and it touched them.

After the finals, Russell was invited to the Hawkeye victory party. Cars were parked a half-mile from the Westview Inn. Inside, about 1,000 people were delirious in black-and-gold victory. Beer and champagne flowed. Wrestlers danced. Music throbbed.

"Amazing. Amazing," Russell said as he looked over the wild scene.

The Iowa fans mobbed him. They pounded his back. They dragged him on stage and cheered him again. They said he was a hero.

On the way to the airport the next morning, the tiny Portland State contingent stopped at a gas station. A group of farmers was inside. When Russell walked in, they stopped talking and started to clap.

And finally, before the jetliner lifted from the runway at the Cedar Rapids airport, a stewardess' voice echoed over the speaker system.

"Iowa would like to say goodbye to Dan Russell." she said.


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