ALMOST TOO GOOD TO BE TRUE

April 21, 1991

Dan Russell, the last of his kind, is out of place here. The rubber sweatsuits and musty aroma of amateur wrestling clash with the smell of money in the desert.

On this first day of December 1990, fewer than 500 people have come for the semifinals of one of college wrestling's biggest tournaments. The fans are scattered in makeshift bleachers. Six mats are spread on the floor of a Las Vegas health club.

Russell, clad in the black-and-blue singlet of Portland State, stares across the tattered mat. He is entering the autumn of a remarkable college career. His athletic journey began 18 years ago in a little Idaho town. From Las Vegas, he can see the finish of one leg of his adventure. But he has miles to go. Miles to go.

The teetotaling Russell is no gambler, but bad luck has dogged his tracks in Las Vegas. He is one of the most exciting brawlers in college wrestling. But he has not made the finals in five trips here. He wants to leave town undefeated.

Standing in his way is Ray Brinzer, an Oklahoma State freshman. Russell pushes a chilling comparison from his mind. Last year, his nemesis had been another Oklahoma State freshman.

Now is not the time to worry about Pat Smith, Russell thinks. He has business at hand. The Las Vegas Invitational is the first test of the season. He is competing up a weight class at 167 pounds and is eager to gauge himself against bigger opponents. He knows 1991 will be his last chance to reach a goal that has eluded him: an NCAA Division I championship.

Last spring, Russell won his third Division II championship and led the Vikings to a second straight Division II team championship. He was named Outstanding Wrestler for the second time. But his triumphs soured at the Division I nationals. Smith avenged two earlier losses and beat Russell in the semifinals. Russell finished fourth.

This year will be different. Russell has been wrestling 3-4 hours a day, six days a week, 52 weeks a year since the fifth grade. He has had more practice time each year than a varsity wrestler gets in an entire high school career. He has logged more than 16,000 hours, almost two solid years, on the mat. No one has worked harder.

Athletics has been a personal journey for Dan Russell, the handsome, blue-eyed senior with the hawkish nose and the crinkled cauliflower ear. He has been a dream-chaser since he was old enough to wrestle on the rug with his brother, Joe. A Division I title has been one dream. The Olympics a bigger one.

He became an Oregon prep legend at Gresham High where he went 95-0. He molted from a nerd in plaid shirts and striped trousers to student body president and honors student. He fueled the legend at Portland State, where he is dismayed when people see him only as an athlete.

He is more than that. In ways, he seems too good to be true. He is a four-time NCAA Academic All-American. He neither drinks nor smokes. He doesn't do drugs. He doesn't even swear. He respects women and dotes on children. He is quick to flash his goofy smile. He is religious. He values family above all.

His teammates tease him about being "Roger Right," but he has their respect.

"I would have to say that Dan is sort of the moral leader of the team," junior Eric Winters said. "I'm not saying he is the bible-toting preacher on the team but people look to Dan a lot for help, for inspiration. . . . Sure Dan gets a little ribbing, but it doesn't take a supreme amount of effort to like Dan. You find yourself doing it whether you want to or not."

Behind the twinkle in his eyes, though, there is a melancholy side. He hates to be alone; he broods too much. He is the team's captain, yet a lonely one. He has known sorrow: A horrible injury to his brother. His parents' divorce. A scandal involving his best friend on the team. He saddles himself with terrible pressure. After a draw later this season, he will punish himself by tearing his toenails until they bleed.

In his senior year, Russell hopes to become the second wrestler in NCAA history to win four Division II championships. More than that, though, he wants to become the second Portland State wrestler after Rick Sanders to win Division I.

There is something else: He is the last one. He was in school when the NCAA barred Division II wrestlers from the Division I nationals. He is the last Division II wrestler with a chance to win college wrestling's top prize.

Before that, he must focus on Ray Brinzer, who stands, unfazed by Russell's credentials, across the 32-foot mat in Las Vegas. A coach says Brinzer is a throwback to the '60s. He loves the Beatles, the Doors and Jimi Hendrix. He was a three-time Pennsylvania schoolboy champion and one of the nation's top recruits.

Brinzer carries a rubber Gumby doll as his mascot. Sometimes in high school, he would prop Gumby in his corner so the rubber man could watch. He has kept Gumby on a short leash here. The little green guy is in his equipment bag.

At first glance, Brinzer doesn't look like a wrestler. In red socks, goggle glasses and a bush of brown hair, he looks like a gym rat hired to roll up the mats. But once the hunter orange Oklahoma State singlet goes on, Brinzer becomes Gumby with muscles.

The athletes walk to center. They shake hands. Russell tells Brinzer, "Let's put on a good show."

The whistle signals the commencement of hostilities.

- -

Dan Russell was born May 27, 1967, to Rick and Marilyn Russell in Caldwell, Idaho. His father had been a two-time Idaho high school wrestling champion.

Rick Russell grew up on a farm. Wrestling was his ticket to college. He competed at Idaho State, Long Beach State and the College of Idaho in Caldwell.

Rick and Marilyn were high school sweethearts. They married young. When Dan was born, Rick was coaching at the College of Idaho. He also was pursuing the ministry. A year later, Marilyn gave birth to a second son. They named him Joe.

The brothers were raised like twins. When it came time for school, Dan didn't want to go without Joe so his parents held him back.

The boys grew up as best friends.

The young family moved around the Boise Valley as Rick Russell worked for a variety of Christian churches. The family's life revolved around the church and their sons. Rick Russell head coached. The boys tagged along. They idolized their father.

The couple's attention to their sons did not happen by chance.

"We never tried to fit the kids into our schedule," Marilyn said. "Our schedule was fit around our kids."

But the zeal of parenting held a price.

"We chose to put our energy into our kids and in a way it took a toll on our relationship," Marilyn recalls. "We should have put more energy in our relationship, too, to keep that strong."

In 1976, the boys watched Olympic wrestling on television. A dream was born. The boys wanted Olympic gold. The family held a meeting. Rick told the pair, then 8 and 9, what lay ahead. Years of hard work and sacrifice with no guarantees. The boys insisted. Rick and Marilyn offered support. They told the boys something else: They believed Dan and Joe Russell would get to the Olympics.

In 1978, Rick a job as pastor of Rockwood Church of God. After small-town Idaho, suburban Portland was an alien environment. Rick looked to wrestling to teach lessons he learned on a farm.

"To me, wrestling was not so much a sport as it was a place where I had an opportunity to teach my kids how to work and how to play," he said.

"How to learn commitment and hard work and discipline and a whole lot of other things that it's hard to teach in a vacuum. . . . In the seventh grade, I remember telling them that as far as I'm concerned wrestling has given you what I wanted it to. You guys have learned from it what my intention was in involving you with it. And what you do with it from this point on is yours. You do it because you want to do it or you don't do it. And whatever you decide I honor that."

The boys, then ages 10 and 11, chose to wrestle at the USA Oregon Athletic Club in Portland. The club had one of the best kid wrestling programs in the country.

The first years at the club were painful. Dan would cry as more accomplished wrestlers such as Aaron Childs hammered him.

But the brothers stuck it out. Joe emerged as a natural wrestling machine. Dan was not as gifted. He relied on his conditioning, his will. Wrestling became the family activity. On weekends, the family would drive their van to a tournament. Meets often would last until late Saturday. The Russells would sleep in the van and drive home before dawn so Rick could preach a Sunday sermon. They didn't have much money. The brothers' most prized childhood Christmas gift is a set of doctors' scales. They still argue over it.

In 1983, freshman Dan Russell surprised his coaches at Gresham High School by ripping through the state tournament. In the finals, he faced an old teammate, Aaron Childs of Benson Tech. Childs was the returning state champion at 123 pounds and the heavy favorite to do what he had done so many times at USA Oregon -- drub Russell.

Dan was worried. Rick Russell had put on a suit to mark the occasion.

"Well, are you going to win it?" he asked.

"Dad," Dan said, "I'm going against Aaron Childs! I'm just happy I'm in the finals."

"OK," Rick said. He went upstairs to his room.

When he came down a few minutes later, Rick Russell had changed into a sweatsuit. He turned the TV on and sat down.

"Dad, what are you doing? It's time to go."

"Well, if you're not planning on winning, I don't need to go there tonight," Rick said. "There's no sense in going to see you lose. You took second and I'm proud of you."

"OK Dad," Dan said, rolling his eyes, "I'll try to win."

Rick went upstairs and put on his light blue suit. They drove to David Douglas High School where a tireless freshman came from behind in the third period and beat the defending champion 10-5.

The next year, Russell moved up a weight class and won his second state title. His brother, Joe, won his first. The Russells were on track with their dreams. On Mother's Day night, Dan Russell's world fractured. Marilyn Russell woke the boys to tell them the unthinkable: Rick Russell was moving out; his parents were splitting up.

Dan and Joe were stunned. Divorce collided with the values their parents had taught. But it was true. Rick moved out. The family lost the home on Cleveland Street in Gresham. Dan and Joe moved with their mother into a townhouse on Northeast 18th Street.

At first, Dan felt a weird sense of relief. He had worried he was to blame for the tension in the household.

But his father revealed finally what spurred the breakup -- he had an affair

The boys dealt with the crisis differently. Joe buried himself in wrestling.

Dan's relief turned to anger. His anger focused on wrestling. He grew to hate it. He lived for a time with an aunt in Philomath. He decided to move to Idaho and live with relatives. He returned to Gresham a week before school to pick up his things. His mother was upset. She asked him to pray for guidance. The 17-year-old junior flipped a coin to decide where he would live. It came up Gresham.

Dan's junior year terrified his mother. He wrestled but the joy was gone.

He attended high school functions just to get out of the house. And the All-American boy found relief in a strange place: in downtown Portland with the teenage runaways. He did not share a taste for alcohol and drugs. But he found common ground on the streets. Pain was the bond.

"Every one of the kids gave a name that wasn't their name," Russell said. "You never asked them where they were from, why they were there, what was going on with them. You just were together and you formed kind of a family. I don't know one of their names, wouldn't know them if I saw them again, but for that time in my life we were everything to each other in some sense. It was an escape from all the problems."

After he mourned his splintered family, Dan Russell slowly came back to the world. The divorce was a seminal moment. He learned from it. He learned his father was not the godlike creature he saw through a child's eyes but a human being. He began to reinvent himself.

"My world before that was so black and white," he said. "As soon as that happened, everything went gray. I think it was a time of figuring out what Dan Russell believed. Who Dan Russell was.

"A good example I think is my mom used to cut off the ends of a ham when she would put it in the oven. My dad asked her one day why she did it and she said, `well, my mom always did it.' So she asked her mom why and her mom said the oven she used to cook in was too small. She couldn't fit the whole ham in so she used to cut the ends off. I think in a sense that fits. You believe as a little child what your parents tell you or what you see. There comes a time when you have to figure out why it's done that way and accept that for yourself."

The summer after his junior year, fate dealt the Russells another blow.

Joe was back from a dream summer wrestling campaign. He won both the Greco-Roman and freestyle high school national championships in devastating style. Only one match had gone the distance -- in the semifinals of the Greco tournament, when he beat Dan 9-2

Dan Gable, the former Olympic champion, was at the tournament.

"When he won it, I thought his skill, his movement was as good as any wrestler I've ever seen," Gable said.

Joe next won a national Greco meet and placed third in the Olympic Festival.

On Aug. 12, 1985, Dan and Joe went for a 6-mile run. Later, they decided to work out at the high school. The Olympic dream burned hot. The afternoon was warm. They chose to drive the two blocks to school. Dan rode in a car with one of his coaches. Joe jumped on the back of a friend's motorcycle. It was the second time he had been on a motorcycle.

A car turned in front of the bike near the high school. Joe's teammate toppled the bike on its side. Joe and the bike tumbled. Joe was draped over the smashed cycle when it came to rest. Blood spurted from a hole in his head.

At the hospital, the prognosis was dark. There was little hope Joe would live.

The Russells prepared for the worst. They made funeral arrangements. They signed papers to donate Joe's organs.

Three days later, a nurse walked into Joe's room. He was shaking under the sheet. She asked out loud, "What's the matter, Joe?"

"I'm cold," came the reply. The stunned nurse ran for the family.

Dan and his mother rushed into the room. They covered Joe in a blanket. They asked if he wanted anything.

"Yeah," he said, "I'm really hungry."

"But you can't swallow," said the nurse. He was paralyzed on his left side.

Joe looked up at the nurse. His head was shaved after four hours of surgery. "Ma'am," he said, "I'm a wrestler. I'll never forget how to swallow."

They bought him a Big Mac, a shake and some fries.

The rest of Dan Russell's high school career unfurled like a made-for-TV movie. He was student body president and an honors student. He was in the band and the choir.

He won two more state championships, making it four in a row. His junior campaign was the toughest. In November, he tore ligaments and cartilage in his left knee at a tournament in Canada. The cast came off shortly before the state tournament. He won anyway.

The injury changed his style. He was fearful of launching leg attacks. He became an upper-body wrestler. He crushed the high school kids with his Greco attack, but the change would haunt him in college.

Russell was recruited by the wrestling powers. He visited Iowa and the Oklahoma schools. He decided to stay in Portland.

He wanted to be near his brother as Joe recuperated. The low-key atmosphere at Portland State appealed to him, too. He had recoiled at the hard-sell tactics of the Midwestern schools. Under Marlin Grahn, the affable Portland State coach, wrestling became fun again.

At Portland State, he reinjured his left knee and underwent surgery. The doctors pegged his ligament together with a piece of tendon, a screw and a staple. He redshirted. In the next three years, he won consecutive Division II titles.

His loss to Pat Smith in the 1990 Division I semifinals was a bitter postscript to season.

There were similarities between the two. Like Russell, Pat Smith never lost in high school. The Smith name was one of the most vaunted in wrestling. Pat's oldest brother, Leroy, is the U.S. Olympic freestyle coach. His brother, John, last summer won his fourth consecutive world championship.

In December 1989, Pat Smith wrestled his first college match in a dual meet in Portland. Russell pinned him. The next night, Russell beat Smith again in the finals of the Oregon Classic. The Smith brothers studied tape of Russell. They hunted for weaknesses and found one. They thought Pat could win by staying clear of the physical Russell, and attacking his ankles.

At the nationals, Smith struck like a mongoose. He darted in low, taking Russell down again and again. Smith won the bout handily, 16-7. The next night he won the national championship.

After the defeat, Russell realized he needed a low-level offense to win Division I. His goal in the 1991 season would be to develop a `shot' as wrestlers call it.

Russell looked forward to his senior season. Time had healed the wounds left by his parents' divorce. They had both remarried. His father had stayed involved in his wrestling as a volunteer assistant coach at Portland State. The 1991 season looked promising. The Vikings were returning four national champions, including his closest friend on the team, 118-pounder Broderick Lee.

Anticipation turned to dread in the summer of '90. Lee was arrested and charged with sexually abusing six boys at USA Oregon wrestling camp.

Russell had coached at the camp. When the story broke, one of the young victims had sobbed as he told Russell his story.

Russell was floored.

"It was just something I couldn't understand. And to see the pain, the frustration within that kid who idolized Broderick just blew me away," he said. "Inside, if that day there had been a lynch mob, I would have been right there leading it. I was really, really angry."

The summer turned ugly. Russell loathed being around his campus apartment. There was no end to the questions, the whispers about Russell and Lee.

In September, he and Renee Wright, his longtime college girlfriend, broke up. And so the captain of the defending national champion Vikings began his last season without his best friend on the team and without his confidante.

Russell focused, instead, on a new training strategy. He would start slower and peak for the March tournaments. In the past, he had worn his body out by training too hard, too early to make 158 pounds. This year, he would start at 167 pounds and decide later whether to cut.

He began the season as he had his college career: with a pin. He decked Darren Gustafson, a freshman from the University of Oregon, with his patented move, the front quarter nelson.

The team did not fare as well. The Ducks thrashed the Vikings. Tony Champion, the Vikings' 177-pound two-time national champion, was pinned by freshman Jeff McCoy. James Sisson, a two-time Division II champ, was beaten by Scott Glenn. To make matters worse, Sisson injured his neck. He would not return.

For Russell, the early part of the 1991 season had been only a tuneup for where he found himself now: in a Las Vegas thriller with another Oklahoma State freshman.

The crowd yells for Russell to escape at the start of the third period. Action has stopped on the other mats. The wrestlers crowd in to watch the wild finish on mat 4.

Brinzer snares Russell in his legs and controls the senior for the first minute of the third period. Time is his ally; he is ahead 1-0. He wants to ride Russell out for the victory.

With 54 seconds left, Russell gathers himself and motors hard in a circle. Russell's hips are coming around and out.

"Come on through. Come on through. Come on through!!!" shouts his dad.

He does. He spins behind Brinzer for a 2-point reversal. Before the reversal, Brinzer had accumulated 47 seconds of riding time. Thirteen more seconds and he would have gained a point in riding time to seal the win. Forty-seven seconds, a number that would re-occur for Brinzer, like a bad dream, at the Division I nationals in Iowa.

Russell tries to hold Brinzer but the supple freshman tumbles free. The escape ties the bout 2-2. The bout ends that way. The two wrestlers begin a 3-minute sudden-death overtime. They are both on their feet. Whoever scores first will win. Russell presses Brinzer and waits for a freshman mistake. It never comes. The overtime ends with the match tied.

The second overtime will settle it. Thirty seconds. One man on all fours; the other in the top position. If the bottom man escapes, he wins. The top man wins if he can ride for 30 seconds. A coin toss decides who gets to choose. The winner almost always picks down. It's easier to escape than to ride a desperate wrestler.

Brinzer wins the toss. He chooses down. A groan bellows from the crowd. Russell's stomach flips. He looks at his dad. Riding Brinzer was like trying to surf on a knuckleball.

Noise builds as Russell tries to ride Mr. Gumby.

Russell clamps the legs on as Brinzer tries to stand. Brinzer tumbles out of bounds. Russell hangs on.

Nine seconds left. The pair return to center.

The crowd roars for Russell.

The PA announcer holds his tongue.

The clock starts its final ticks.

The wrestlers explode in movement.

Russell, the reflex pinner, is not content to ride Brinzer out. With 5 seconds left and the arena in chaos, Russell seizes an opening and snatches Brinzer close. He lifts and airmails Gumby back over his shoulder. Brinzer lands on his back. Russell holds him for a near fall. The referee signals the points. Russell wins 4-2.

They embrace at center.

Brinzer looks at the jungle of waving arms and shouts in Russell's ear: "We gave them a good show, didn't we."

On the way off the mat where he and Brinzer have just hung the tournament's most exciting match, other wrestlers pound Russell's back. He would wrestle in his first Las Vegas final later against Charlie Jones of Purdue.

Blood leaks over his lower lip. He bit his tongue during the bout. His hair is drenched, his chest heaving after 10 minutes and 30 seconds of ferocious work. He looks for Brinzer. He wants to talk.

He finds Brinzer by the exit door. He throws an arm around him.

"One thing I was impressed with you, being a freshman coming in,"Russell says, "is that you didn't make mistakes. You stayed constant throughout the match and that's something in a freshman that's real rare. So you're going to have a super career."

"Thanks," says Brinzer.

"Good luck to you the rest of the day and season," Russell adds.

"Thanks, you, too. Yeah, win in the finals, dude. I'd like the guy that beat me to win it all."

As the Boeing 737 climbs through the turbulent desert air, the neon twinkle of Las Vegas fades to black in the southeast. The red-eye flight tracks northwest toward Portland and a 4 a.m. arrival.

Dan Russell sits alone in a darkened row. His head spins with replays of his match with Charlie Jones. They all have the same sad ending.

Jones was a rock. He was dropping 30 pounds from 197 to compete at 167 pounds. The 27-year-old Air Force veteran looked huge in the old gold and black singlet of Purdue. Russell had trouble moving him. He pounded away and wore himself out.

Grahn and his father yelled for Dan to shoot but he froze. When he did shoot late in the bout, he telegraphed it. Head down, arms extended, his desperation shot looked like a belly flop. Jones saw it coming and countered. He took Russell down and won, 5-2.

Russell is not leaving Las Vegas as he intended. But his final college season is just beginning. How will he spend his time between now and March? Will he learn from his loss to Jones? Will he become the second wrestler after Tim Wright of Southern Illinois-Edwardsville to win four Division II titles? Will he meet Brinzer and Jones again at the Division I nationals in March? Will he stay at 167 or drop to 158 for a chance to derail Pat Smith? Will he ever start shooting?

The bouncy December desert air is filled with questions for Dan Russell, the last of his kind. A full moon illuminates the buttes and basins of the snow-sprinkled winter range. It is a beautiful night. Russell sits quietly and slumps for some sleep. He has a study group meeting at noon in the Portland State library. Next week is finals week.


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