In late January I was invited to attend the first home meet of the new wrestling team at Doane College, Nebraska, my alma mater. It was 50 years ago that I was captain of Doane's first wrestling team, and it was a privilege to be there for the school's wrestling revival.
Way back in high school I spent four years on my school's wrestling squad in Oak Lawn, but never made first string. We had pretty strong teams, and there was always a conference champ or other better wrestler in my weight class. But I learned some good basics and liked the sport. When enrolling at Doane, I was told that they were considering a wrestling team, but that was just wishful thinking. There were only a few on campus with any high school wrestling experience.
However in the second semester of my freshman year in early 1962, Dr. Bob Conner, the political science instructor (and a former wrestling star at Iowa's Cornell College) found out about a college wrestling tournament at another Nebraska school. Were we interested? So about four of us, as I recall, found some old canvas mats in the gym and had a whole two weeks to practice and get in at least minimal shape. Again, I had never even made varsity in high school, so this was my first official competition. Luckily, I drew a bye in the first round, and when the announcer called our names for my first match, it was "Paul Oppenheim from Chicago," versus my opponent from some small town. When he heard "Chicago" I saw him go pale, and realized he was more terrified than I was. My first-ever match, and I managed a pin, putting me into the finals, where I lost by only a single riding-time point.
We brought home 3 medals that day -- a first and two seconds. And I still have my little 2nd place medal. So based on this success, the Doane Athletic Director said he would buy us uniforms and a mat for the following year.
That first real team was in 1962-63, and we steadily improved. But knowing I had never made first string in high school made me a little apprehensive about coming home for Christmas vacation to work out with the high school team. Would I get my butt kicked? Fortunately, the answer was no – I had gained strength and confidence, and the high school kids were no problem. In college I wrestled at either 137 or 147 pounds (there was no 141 pound division back then). Nebraska didn't have much high school wrestling in those years, so most of our team was guys from out of state, or those with no prior experience who got interested and started wrestling at Doane. By the time I graduated in 1965 we won 4 meets, lost 4 and tied one – a "500" season.
After graduation I volunteered for the Peace Corps, and then served in the army in Thailand during the Vietnam War. I was then stationed at Ft. Eustis in Virginia and wrestled for a local wrestling club where I was fairly successful, but never had time to get in top shape. An old shoulder injury was still a problem, but I had a chance to wrestle some east coast opponents from schools like Old Dominion, William & Mary and Westchester (PA) State. So even with its humble and almost accidental beginnings, I had a great experience with my college wrestling days, and found I could hold my own with wrestlers from other parts of the county.
Sadly, Doane dropped wrestling in the mid-1970s, but I was happy to see the sport revived this season. At the first home meet in Doane's newly remodeled field house, I sat on the bench with the coach, and cheered for the team. Sorry to say, we lost. But most of the team is freshmen, so they will improve. Go Doane!
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