This, my friends, is the joyous innocence of collegiate wrestling, a sport whose denizens talk about their teams as family and mean it.
Julian Chlebove, age 4, is the son of WVU graduate assistant Whitey Chlebove, and his opponent Alex is the 3 year old nephew of WVU wrestler Matt Lebe. "After every home match they have their own contest," reports Julian's dad. "The winner tends to be the one who took a longer nap that day. My son has been coming to the matches since he was just a few months old, since I came back to Morgantown to get my master's degree."
College wrestling's family atmosphere permeated the West Virginia University Shell building Sunday for the 24th annual WVU Open. A stroll around the perimeter of the 10-mat competitive floor was a study in family dynamics. A grandfather snoozed in a folding chair, newspaper around his ankles, while waiting for his descendant's next match. Dads took careful aim with camcorders while Moms carried jackets and girlfriends toted water bottles. An aunt sat in a corner reading the Cleveland Plain Dealer while a competitor's sister rocked her pink-bundled newborn back to sleep.
"Mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, aunts, and uncles are wrestling, too," asserted NCAA wrestling official Fred Richardson. "Wrestling is a family affair as well as a team affair. At the end, they all leave together, happy." Richardson pointed out that wrestling is almost certainly the world's oldest sport, found in virtually every human culture. "Wrestling teaches an important life lesson, and one that families try to teach their children. Some will win, some will lose, but they walk off that mat as friends, not enemies. It's the same in life. If you quit when you are challenged, you will certainly lose. Sometimes, even if you don't quit, you lose. But if you give your best effort, you will walk away a winner, in wrestling and in life."
Greg Jones, WVU's first-ever two-time national champion, followed his brother Vertus, into wrestling and into WVU. Vertus, who gained 2nd and 3rd place at the NCAA championships during his West Virginia career, supports his little brother every step of the way. "We're competitive but not too competitive," Greg said. "He always wants to see me do well." Vertus is now the wrestling coach at North Hills High School in Pittsburgh and makes as many of Greg's matches as he can. Those family ties are expected to continue at WVU, as the youngest brother in the Jones family, also an outstanding wrestler, has verbally committed to West Virginia.
Brent "Moose" Miller's parents, Leslie and Gale Miller, made the 4 ½ hour drive from Wapakoneta, Ohio to support their son. "All three of our sons wrestle," reported Leslie, "and our daughter is on the dance team at Kent State University, so we see some basketball, too." Moose, the oldest of the 4 children, started in a kids' wrestling program when he was 8 years old. "He brought a paper home from school," Gale remembered. "We went to the first meeting, and that was it. We've been going to wrestling every weekend from November to May ever since."
Judy and Frank Morgan, parents of Michael Morgan, a freshman wrestler at Mercyhurst College in Erie, Pa., one of the visiting teams at the WVU Open, have similar stories of following their son. "This is what we like about wrestling," Judy shared. "It's the family atmosphere. We've been in every smelly gym in southwestern Pennsylvania, Ohio, Maryland, and West Virginia. Michael always has a chance to win."
Cheryl Chinn, the mother of WVU wrestler T. R. Chinn, drove all the way from Canandaigua, New York, and got a rare opportunity to see both of her sons in the same building. "My younger son, Trevor, is a freshman wrestler at Lehigh, and of course, T. R. is here. It's been a good experience; we like the whole atmosphere of wrestling. T.R. has been wrestling since third grade, and was the first seventh grader to wrestle varsity in our school district. He pioneered the sport for younger kids in our area."
The family-ness of WVU wrestling program is about to take on a new dimension. Mountaineer head coach Craig Turnbull's son Kyle, a reigning West Virginia state high school wrestling champion, will don the blue and gold this year. "I have been watching so many years. I can't wait to wrestle for WVU. I wish I could compete today," Kyle announced. The younger Turnbull, a 2004 graduate of University High School in Morgantown, W. Va., is recovering from unexpected surgery to remove his appendix last week.
"I'm still a little sore but it gets better every day. I'm waiting to see if I have to redshirt, but I really want to wrestle this year."
The freshman pre-business major said it has been fun so far, training under his father's tutelage.
"It's always nice and comfortable to be in such a familiar place. And when I don't want to listen to my dad anymore, there's [WVU assistant wrestling] Coach [Zeke] Jones, to take some of the pressure off our relationship."
This newest member of the Mountaineer wrestling family has ambitions. "Achieving the state championship in high school was great. It's always good to achieve your goals." So what goals has he now? "I want to start for West Virginia and I want to win a national championship for West Virginia."
So you walk the arena one more time and you look at all the wrestling families. The two toddlers sleep on the edge of a mat, dreaming big dreams. Greg Jones, defending national champion, snaps on his headgear and embarks on his final year of college wrestling, his older brother's cheers ringing in his ears. Craig Turnbull puts his arm around his son, looks him in the eye, and wonders how far his boy can go. The cycle begins anew, in the quiet gaze of a loving parent and the fresh-faced grin of his wrestler son.