Thursday, May 10, 2018

Bobby Douglas: the American Wrestling Legend You've Never Heard Of

Bobby Douglas is a great man--no reasonable person can disagree. He and his wife have made numerous sacrifices for the sport of wrestling, perhaps more than any other family not named Schultz. 
After reading Craig Sesker's biography, you'll wonder why Mr. Douglas hasn't been awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Douglas was born poor and black in America when either trait should have confined him to a lifetime of neglect. Instead, despite his small stature, Douglas entered a wrestling mat, and the rest is history: "Wrestling is my best friend... it saved my life. I truly believe that. It saved my life." (pp. 172) 

Younger wrestling fans will have difficulty remembering a time when Jordan Burroughs wasn't the face of American wrestling, or when Kevin Jackson and Kenny Monday weren't household names. Sesker's gift as a writer is ensuring you realize once upon a time, it was different: "Bobby Eddie Douglas was born near the beginning of WWII in Bellaire, Ohio. He was raised in nearby Blaine, a tiny eastern Ohio community of around 150 people." (pp. 14) "When his uncle returned home... from the Korean War with a white German wife, members of the KKK burned a cross... 'Everybody carried some sort of weapon to defend themselves...'" (pp. 21) "We were so hungry... I knew we were poor because I was always hungry." (pp. 42)

And it continues, cards so stacked against Douglas, you have to wonder if the Biblical Job had it easy by comparison: "His grandparents were illiterate. When they received letters in the mail, they handed them to a young Bobby to read to them." (pp. 21) Douglas even has a south side of Chicago connection: his aunt lived there, "in the ghetto," and used Douglas as a numbers "runner" in the summers: "Douglas would run gambling slips and collect money for the lottery.. At times, Douglas [a kid weighing about 50 pounds] would be carrying several hundred dollars in his pocket." (pp. 22-23)

At this point, I imagined a cross between LeBron James (born and raised in a small town in Ohio) and JAY-Z (also raised in the projects and who carried today's equivalent of hundreds of dollars, 2,000 USD, as a drug dealer), only to realize America's curse for poor young black men in any era: unless you develop a talent at the highest levels, you'll be stuck wherever you are because decades of segregation cut you off from opportunities others take for granted. 

Despite his small town background, Douglas's warm, authentic personality helped him transition to different neighborhoods seamlessly, even in Tokyo. In every story, he is universally likable as a wrestler, recruiter, or coach. For example, Sesker tells us a story about Douglas up against the dirtiest coaches (and wrestlers) in America, the Brands brothers. After an opposing wrestler uses a dangerous and illegal move, Coach Douglas "felt [the] move was unintentional." (pp. 128) Everyone but Douglas seems to know the move was pre-meditated, even Sesker, who uses the word "illegal" four times on the page. Afterwards, an Ohio State wrestling coach informs Douglas, "That [injury default] was the wrong thing to do." (Id.) Douglas, of course, disagrees. In the end, the greatest American tactician not named John Smith refused to win on a technicality even when his own wrestler was injured in an illegal move. And on and on it goes, Douglas always being the better man, the reader feeling smaller and smaller with each passing page. 
We find out Douglas is father to a child, now a man, suffering from paranoid schizophrenia; he coached the first West Coast college team to a national wrestling championship, only to be harassed by an incoming Arizona State athletic director for going 20,000 USD over budget; he feels responsible for the unexpected suicide of a wrestler he'd recruited ("I told [the parents] I'd take care of their son like he was my son"); and he remains married to his first girlfriend, Jackie. 

The most unexpected story in the book involves one of Douglas's best students, Cael Sanderson. Sanderson was undefeated in college and today coaches America's top-ranked college wrestling program at Penn State. Douglas coached him to college and Olympic victories, but that wasn't enough for Sanderson to avoid placing his own interests above his coach's. After two years as an assistant coach under Douglas at Iowa State, Sanderson appears to have issued an ultimatum to Iowa State's athletic director, Jamie Pollard, demanding to be made head coach at Iowa State or he'd leave to Ohio State. Coach "Douglas still had three years left on his contract," but that didn't matter to Iowa State: "I'm willing to give you one more year," said Pollard. (pp. 148) And just like that, Douglas was out, and Sanderson in. Perhaps karma took notice, because Sanderson only coached at Iowa State three years, from 2006 to 2009, and then transferred to Penn State. At Iowa State, Sanderson failed to win a national championship. 

Sesker has done an incredible job writing Douglas's story. His writing style is straightforward, making his book easily translatable into any language. I can think of only one other book that is similar, Jack August's Adversity is my Angel, about Raul H. Castro (who, interestingly, also has an Arizona connection). If I had my way, Sesker's and August's books would be required reading for every 9th grade American boy. For now, I hope you'll discover these gems on your own and gift them to your sons.

(Sesker's book is difficult to find online. You can reach him directly at sesker493 at to order a copy.) 

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