WRESTLING WITH REALITY

April 22, 1991

The gray linoleum halls of Kramer Hall are hushed.

It is mid morning, Dec. 6, 1990. Finals week at Portland State. Dan Russell, the Vikings' three-time NCAA Division II wrestling champion, is with his academic adviser in the front of Room 101. He has just finished his last final in the fall semester of his senior year.

He crammed hard for Multicultural Speech. The team had returned before dawn four days ago from the Las Vegas tournament. Russell had little time to brood about finishing second. He sneaked a few hours sleep before his study group met at noon. The speech/communications major was worried about his 3.23 grade point average.

A few weeks earlier, an unshaven Russell had sat in the back of Room 101. His right shoulder sagged. He had injured it in practice. The doctors guessed he had torn his rotator cuff. Russell kept training. His body would repair the shoulder as it had so many other "minor" injuries

Russell took notes as Devorah Lieberman, his academic adviser, lectured on the values cultures weave from the human condition.

"Happiness is a very Western concept," Lieberman said.

"This is the concept that if we set goals for ourselves and attain them, then we will be happy."

As he shuffled out, Russell thought about the lecture. He wanted to win Division I. He wanted an Olympic medal. But he knew they didn't hand out bliss with the trophies. He learned that lesson in Mexico City.

He was 14 when he won his first world juniors title. He returned to a big party at his Gresham home. He told his father winning the gold medal was the greatest day of his life. His father disagreed. The teen-ager was puzzled. Later, he asked his father what he had meant. Rick Russell said the meaning of Mexico City would fade quickly if Dan did not set new goals.

"The real joy in life is not achieving our goals but it's striving after them," Rick told his son.

Dan never forgot the lesson. It would serve him well when his college career ended in Iowa.

Today, he carries a quotation in his head that captures his view.

"My favorite writer-philosopher, Albert Camus, said `To lose one's life is a little thing and I shall have the courage to do so when it's necessary; but to see the meaning of life dissipate, to see the meaning of life disappear, that is the unbearable thing, for man cannot live without meaning.' "

Russell got a `B' in Multicultural Speech. After the finals, he talked briefly to Lieberman. He wanted to work as an intern for his father during the winter semester. Rick Russell sets up drug and alcohol counseling programs for Oregon schools.

Dan submitted an internship proposal. Lieberman approved it instantly. The quick turnaround puzzled Russell. But not Lieberman. She saw something in the 23-year-old student-athlete.

"Ninety-nine percent of the time, I will call the people that hired (an intern) and say, `Is it really going to be 40 hours a week?' And I just said, `Go ahead Dan,' because I really trust him. He has that sort of aura that says `trust me.' "

Lieberman is not the first to see something rare in Russell. Greg Strobel, teams director for USA Wrestling, believes Russell is a model student-athlete.

"Although Dan on the mat is intense and rough and tough, off the mat he is personable and friendly," Strobel said. "He treats people by the golden rule. He definitely epitomizes what athletes are about."

Strobel, a former Oregon State national champ, has a thought on how Russell became the person he is. "Maybe for Dan Russell," he said, "success is not where you arrive but the journey to get there."

College wrestlers are among the last of the amateurs. The sport has been spared the overexposure and broadcast fortunes that have twisted other college sports. Wrestling demands a lot and, on the surface, offers little in return. Wrestlers get few perks, especially at a low-budget program like Portland State where 500 fans is a big crowd.

Amateur wrestling is as different from its professional namesake as an over-40 touch football game is from the NFL. There is no financial future in it. Coach Marlin Grahn has two scholarships to divide among his Portland State team. Many of his athletes work to pay their way.

Albert Alcantar, a 134-pounder from Stevenson, Wash., manages a 24-hour gas station and car wash. He works the graveyard shift; it allows time for schoolwork.

Eric Winters, a junior from Dayton, was elected chairman of the university's Incidental Fees Committee. Winters runs a $3.1 million budget that funds student activities and all sports except football. The red-headed Academic All-American misses matches when university politics calls.

Wrestling is the most grueling sport on the college calendar. No other sport blends the cruel mix of intense training, weight cutting and physical violence.

Why do they do it?

They all speak of the hypnotic pull of the mat. Two spots at center saved for you and him. There is no way to deflect the crowd's stare. There is no ball to pass; no one to blame but yourself.

The sport rewards hard work and self-discipline. It encourages accountability. Herein lies the wrestlers' reward. Some athletes take it; others don't.

They vary greatly in intelligence, personality and character, but they are bonded by what Arizona State coach Bobby Douglas calls the wrestler's spirit.

"There's a sort of spirit about this sport. When you become a wrestler, you're a wrestler forever, no matter what, because you've joined the oldest athletic society there is," Douglas says. "Everyone will tell you that there is a certain thing you can't describe about this wrestling. You've got to have the wrestler's spirit."

Early in the season, Grahn fretted about his team's spirit. The 1991 team held promise -- and questions. Grahn had three champions back: Russell, Tony Champion and James Sisson. But the team was young. How fast the young guys developed would be a key to the season.

Another early key was how the team would handle the Broderick Lee scandal. Grahn was particularly worried about Russell, Lee's closest friend on the team.

On Nov. 13, Lee was sentenced to 16 months in jail after he pleaded guilty to 22 counts of sexual abuse involving teenage boys at a summer wrestling camp. Grahn was in court for the sentencing. He later talked to the team. The wrestlers put the controversy behind them. Russell seemed to adjust.

Then Sisson, a two-time Division II champ, was injured in the shellacking the Vikings took from Oregon. Sisson redshirted. He told Grahn he was not coming back. He wanted to transfer to a Division I school. Grahn released Sisson to talk with other schools.

Sisson's move was what Grahn has feared since the rules changed five years ago. Before then, wrestlers from smaller programs could compete at the Division I tournament if they won or placed second at Division II.

But NCAA members banned inter-division championship competition. It was part of a new approach to college athletics. Athletes would compete against opponents from similarly funded programs.

Dan Russell would be the last one. His eligibility was protected; he was in college when the rules changed. The Division I tournament ban galls Grahn, who found his program at a crossroads in 1991. The Vikings wrestle a Division I schedule; there are no Division II wrestling programs in the Northwest.

"It's going to hurt us down the line because we wouldn't have gotten a Dan Russell if he hadn't had the opportunity to go Division I," Grahn said.

Grahn would donate one of his cauliflower ears to science if Portland State could move up. That is unlikely. The NCAA allows Division II schools to have one men's sport compete at Division I. At Portland State, baseball fills that spot.

Grahn has coached at Portland State since he graduated in 1973. He was an assistant coach for years before taking the head job in 1985. They called him "Marlin the Magician" when he wrestled at 158 pounds. The Madison High graduate was limber, unorthodox. At age 43, he doesn't wrestle much anymore. The Magician doesn't bend like he used to.

Grahn is a relentless optimist. By wrestling standards, he is laid back. "I think my success in the long run will be how many kids get their degrees," he said.

He treats his athletes like peers. He is not a holler guy. He believes in putting responsibility on the athletes. Sometimes, his approach boomerangs. It happens when the line blurs between coach and peer.

In the last dual meet before Christmas, Division I tugged hard on Tony Champion. Champion had placed fourth at Las Vegas. Like Sisson, he felt the pull. He wanted to transfer. But Grahn refused to release Champion two months into the season. The confrontation came to a head at a Dec. 13 dual meet at Oregon State.

The meet had gone horribly for Portland State. Russell trounced his opponent 25-10, but the meet became a nightmare in orange-and-black.

Champion did not make weight at 177 pounds. Grahn wanted him to wrestle heavyweight Matt Willhite, the defending Pac-10 champion. Grahn thought Champion could beat Willhite.

Champion worried about injury. He refused to wrestle. Grahn sent freshman heavyweight Chris Claus against Willhite. Claus was quickly pinned and the Vikings lost 33-8. It was a low point for the team.

For Russell, though, the Oregon State dual signaled a happy time. Amateur Wrestling News had rated Russell second in the nation at 167 pounds. It was the highest he had ever been rated. Better yet, the orange seats at Gill Coliseum were filled with Russells. Among them was his brother, Joe. He had come home to be married. It would be a memorable Christmas.

Two days after Christmas, sleet pelted Gresham as another arctic storm churned into Oregon. It had been the coldest December in years, but inside the Parkside Chapel hearts burned warm.

The wedding reception was rocking in the big basement room. About 100 guests danced and crowded a simple buffet. A disc jockey played records. Bette Midler sang: "Did you ever know you are my hero?" Dan Russell has no doubts who his hero is. It's the guy who got married, his brother, Joe.

The ceremony had been upstairs in the plum-carpeted chapel. The lights dimmed as Tiffany Correa walked down the aisle. During the ceremony, Tiffany and Joe joked with the minister. The best man looked tense. Dan Russell stood like a post in a black tuxedo.

The reading was from Ecclesiastes: "Two are better than one. If one falls down, his friend can help him up." The words struck a chord. For Dan and Joe Russell, two always were better than one. Now Joe and Tiffany were starting a new equation.

When the newlyweds left the chapel, Joe dragged his left foot. It was the only sign of the calamity that mashed him years earlier.

Joe does not remember the motorcycle accident. When he awoke, his left side was paralyzed. The doctors were amazed. They worried about brain damage. They gave Joe the aptitude test he had taken in his junior year. He scored higher.

After the hospital, he plunged into physical therapy. Movement slowly returned to his left side. He stayed an extra year in high school. He even wrestled again. But the athlete whom legendary Iowa coach Dan Gable said would have been "one of the all-timers" was only a shadow of the wrestler he had been.

All the college coaches wanted him before; now there was one. J Robinson of the University of Minnesota offered him a scholarship. Robinson thought Joe, whose left ankle is partially paralyzed, needed a chance. "And I thought the sport owed it to him," Robinson said.

Joe moved to Minneapolis. He didn't enroll the first year. He needed another year of rehabilitation to prepare. He worked summer camps for Robinson. He trained with the club team at the university.

A university investigation later reprimanded Robinson for the way he handled Joe. The NCAA said Joe was a prospective recruit and Robinson had exceeded his scholarship limit. The university placed Robinson on probation. Joe was ordered to repay the money he earned at the summer camps. Minnesota also had to sever ties with the club team.

"I've taken two or three unpopular stands in my life and it's always cost me," Robinson said. "You have to ask yourself, `was it worth it?' I would say that even though it's cost me in some outward things, what I did was right."

The payback for Robinson has come in what Joe has meant to the program. In 1990, the team voted him most courageous wrestler.

Joe Russell, captain of U of M wrestling team.
Joe Russell was captain of the University of Minnesota wrestling team

"He's motivational to everybody around him. The team, the coaches, me," Robinson said. "I go down to watch him and he is there every day. Every day... He's a really rare individual. I've never been around a guy like him."

The Russells marvel at Joe. Six years ago, the doctors said he would never regain consciousness. Today, he is a history major with a 3.4 GPA. He plans to go to law school.

On his wedding day, Joe is the only Russell who still believes in his Olympic dream. His parents worry he pushes himself too hard. Even Dan hopes marriage will tilt his brother toward coaching. Joe Russell, though, is not ready to give up.

"When I get old and I don't have any eligibility left and my wrestling's done, I don't want to have to sit in a rocking chair and say well `what if I just would have tried this?' Or, `what if I would have worked harder?' When that time in my life comes, I don't want to have any regrets."

On the third day of the Persian Gulf War, Dan Russell was in Eugene to wrestle an old friend.

The war with Iraq had stunned the nation. The Portland State wrestlers were not immune. The Vikings wrestled at Southern Oregon State College the night war broke out. Wrestling seemed trivial. They lost the meet.

Three nights later, the team was at McArthur Court for a rematch with Oregon. The season so far had been mixed. The Vikings were 5-7 in dual meets, but on the upswing. Tony Champion and Grahn had patched their differences. Champion wanted a third Division II title for himself and the team.

The Oregon Classic in late December had been a turning point. The competition in Corvallis is the biggest college tournament in the Northwest and the team had competed well. Joey Herrera, the Vikings' 150-pounder, was coming on. He won the Classic and was improving with each match.

But the Classic drained Grahn. He wore down as he struggled to organize the tournament and meet the needs of his athletes and family. This year was especially hard. He had undergone a hernia operation. And his mother was dying. She died Jan. 8.

Russell, too, had a hard time at the Classic. He was 12 pounds over the night before at his brother's wedding. He sweated through his tuxedo and cut 9 pounds on the dance floor at the reception. The next morning he sliced the last 3.

In the finals, he narrowly escaped Oregon's Matt Sprague, who was the son of Russell's coach at USA Oregon. Dan and Matt had been workout partners since grammar school.They had never wrestled a match. In Corvallis, Sprague rattled Russell before losing 4-3.

A month later in Eugene, Russell faced Sprague again.

At intermission, Russell walked to the center of the yellow-and-green mat and knelt down. He stared up into the rounded shoulders of Mac Court. He wore a melancholy mask. I've got to calm down, he thought.

He glanced at Sprague. The freshman jogged a loose circle around the mat. He looks so relaxed, Russell thought. So confident. If Russell could ask someone to wrestle for him, he would. If there were a way out, he would take it.

Wrestling is a mind game. The athlete who is mentally sharp wins. After the intermission, Russell stumbled around Mac Court in a trance. Everyone expected him to win; everyone but Sprague. He took his ragged nerves out on Sprague at the start of the match. The crowd groaned at his violence. He dominated, taking Sprague down twice with shots to lead 5-1.

Then in the second period, Russell's mind led him to a trap door. He did match-math as he rode Sprague. He will win if he just stops Sprague's shot, he thought. The trap door opened; Russell falls out of control.

He is on his heels as the third round begins.

Sprague is the physical one now. With 1:49 left, he shoots and scores. The crowd erupts. The fans sense an upset. The score is 5-4.

Russell rolls free for a 6-4 lead. But Sprague is coming hard. Russell looks fatigued.

The crowd drowns the PA announcer's call of the final seconds.

Sprague springs in on Russell's legs. With 35 second left, the freshman sends the senior spinning to the mat to tie the bout 6-6.

As the clock ticks down, Sprague lets Russell up. The escape gives Russell a 7-6 lead. Sprague believes he can take Russell down and win.

He presses in as the crowd screams for stalling. Finally, the official stops the action. He cautions Russell. It is the first time all year Russell has been warned for passivity. It comes too late for Sprague.

The bout ends. The referee hoists Russell's arm for the last time at Mac Court. The crowd boos.

The Portland State wrestling room has the look of an empty swimming pool with a green mat at bottom.

The gray, concrete walls are the backdrop for relentless motion. Sweat-stained T-shirts whirl. Legs are clutched high in takedown drills. Wrestlers become storks hopping for balance.

The room's sound track runs to grunts, occasional screams of pain and the dull thud of bodies coming to ground. The moves themselves form an odd lexicon: whizzer, arm bar, turkey bar, guillotine, suplay, head and arm, and, of course, the shot. Wrestlers talk as much as basketball players about their shots. Wrestling shots, though, rebound and grab your throat.

Some wrestlers know more of the brutal choreography than others. Russell has an enriched vocabulary. Sometimes he hits a move he hasn't practiced in years. It just comes flying out of his memory bank. His body will remember one in the Division II finals in March.

Through the season, Russell worked hardest on one move: a shot. Every coach in the country knew Russell attacked the upper body. He would not shoot. Against most wrestlers, he didn't have to. But he would need a shot to win Division I.

In practice, he worked on launching his shot from a squat. He copied this "crab attack" from an old picture of Rick Sanders. Sanders won two Division I titles at Portland State in the 1960s. He was the first American to win a world title and was a silver medalist in the '72 Olympics. Russell never met Sanders, who was killed in a car accident in Europe after the Munich Games. But he had chased Sanders' records. Russell hoped the crab attack would help him reach another Sanders milestone: a Division I title.

In the past, Russell competed at the Division I tournament without a shot. It was like a golfer playing the U.S. Open without a driver. This year, Russell would bring the driver to Iowa. One question lingered: Would he take the club out of the bag?

Dan Russell's last home match fell on Valentine's Day. Bright sun drenched the Park Blocks. Temperatures rose into the 60s. Russell reviewed his years at Portland State as he wandered the campus.

The end of the season had been filled with surprises. After beating Sprague, Russell decided to cut to 158 pounds for the tournaments. But Amateur Wrestling News bumped him to the top rating at 167 pounds. It would be hard to walk away from the No. 1 seed. It looked like he would stay at 167.

The first week of February, Russell hyperextended his elbow. The injury scared him. His shoulder had healed; his back was no longer sore. He didn't need a new injury to carry into the tournaments.

On Feb. 3, the elbow was heavily bandaged when he wrestled Brian Malavar of Cal State-Bakersfield. He could not flex it. What was worse, he felt terrible. He moved as though he were under water. Malavar took him down twice in the first round. Russell could not overcome the early lead and the bout ended in a draw, 6-6. Russell was horrified.

He was in a black mood that night. He sat in his motel room and nervously picked at his toenails. The tie could jeopardize his No. 1 ranking, he thought.

Maybe if I pull these toenails off, he thought, then I will feel my feet. Maybe then I will move my feet. He tore eight of his toenails down to the skin. The next morning when he woke, the sheets at the foot of the bed were stained with blood.

All that was behind him. This Valentine's Night, he had a final date with the crowd he loved.

The bleachers are sparsely filled for the match against Boise State. About 200 people have come to say goodbye to one of Portland State's greatest athletes.

Russell is flooded with emotions: he is happy to move on to Olympic challenges; anxious about the March tournaments; sad that this night is the last time.

He wants to savor his athletic commencement. During intermission, he walks to the center of the mat. As the band plays, Russell paces slowly. His hands are on his hips; his are lips pursed in a grave look. He scans the wooden bleachers. So many of the faces are familiar. Family and friends whose support he has cherished. He loves a crowd. Oh, how he loves a crowd. He knows the voices. He has wrestled like a demon so many times to please them.

He thinks about growing older, slowing down. One day his body would fail. He would be in the stands. Then, only his butchered ear would mark his years on the mat. But tonight he is young and strong and quick. He is indomitable in the black-and-blue singlet. He wants to remember how it felt. The things he can do with this body. He wants to remember it all: the faces in the crowd, the feel of the spartan, concrete gym, the voice of the crowd, the two green NCAA championship banners he helped put on the wall. As he walks slowly around the circle, his light blue eyes memorize the scene. He marks the moment.

Russell is a wrecking ball when his match begins against Paul Jackson, a sophomore from Tigard. Russell opens in his "crab attack." Tonight he is a total wrestler. He shoots Jackson down with high crotches and double legs. It would be the last time he shoots this year.

At the end, he sucks the sophomore up in his front quarternelson. It is fitting. He pinned his first college opponent with the quarter, a move coaches told him wouldn't work past junior high. Grahn had sent the 150-pound freshman out against a bruising 177-pounder from San Francisco State. His last words to Russell were that the front quarter would never work against such a big, strong kid. Russell took the 177-pounder down off the whistle and pinned him with a front quarter. Grahn never said another word about the quarter.

After he pins Paul Jackson, Russell rises to his knees. He heaves a deep breath. He removes the green headgear from his drenched head and raises his arms. The cheers wash away the mask of tension. He smiles. The last home match has ended as he imagined: with a fall.

He stands and hugs Jackson. The referee lifts his arm. As Dan Russell leaves the green mat for the last time, he pirouettes. He waves goodbye. A chapter in his life is over.


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