Stephen Neal has three Super Bowl rings from his 10 seasons protecting Tom Brady. He has the shiny hardware telling him he was the world’s heavyweight freestyle wrestling champion and the world’s outstanding wrestler in 1999.
Ask him if he could have chosen two more anonymous roles. I did in 2005 in Jacksonville, several days before the New England Patriots beat the Philadelphia Eagles in the Super Bowl. Neal smiled. Offensive guards rarely hear acclaim outside locker rooms. World wrestling champions get even less recognition.
The International Olympic Committee announced this week that wrestling will not be part of the 2020 games. The 15 members of the IOC’s Executive Committee voted to toss wrestling off Mt. Olympus without a second thought.
Wrestling didn’t have anyone to champion its cause when the vote was taken. Humility is a virtue in this sport where men and women are exposed to their souls every second on the mat. That strength became wrestling’s weakness when 15 self-serving committee members took their vote.
“You have to prove that your sport deserves to be in the Olympics and I don’t think wrestling has done a good enough job,” said Rulon Gardner on Thursday in a television interview. The huge Wyoming farm boy beat the undefeated Russian in the 2000 Sydney Olympics to win gold in Greco-Roman. Afterward, he took off his wrestling shoes and left them in the center of the mat, the sign of his retirement. His tears may have brought your tears.
That’s the classic purity of a sport that really hasn’t changed for generations. One wrestler beating another, using strength, wits and mental toughness. Nothing is more basic. It is a bedrock sport.
But how would you know? Have you made plans to attend one of the three Maine high school state championship tournaments on Saturday? Didn’t think so.
Wrestling has tried to promote itself and mostly has failed. Amateur wrestling is wary or even ashamed of its professional counterpart. Promotion? That’s what Vince McMahon did so shamelessly with his multiple Wrestlemania shows, SummerSlams and on and on.
Exposure? Rumford-born Steve Evanoff did his best, some 20 years ago. Once the head wrestling coach at Seton Hall and the University of Toledo, Evanoff moved into officiating and worked matches at several Olympics. He was a member of the United States Olympic Committee from 1969 to 1984.
He brought the legendary Dan Gable to Colby College for a clinic. He brought the U.S. and the USSR together in a wrestling meet at the Portland Expo in 1990. Olympic champions Dave Schultz, Chris Campbell and Bruce Baumgartner were on the team. So was Nate Carr, a bronze medalist.
Jeff Blatnick, who beat cancer and won gold in the 1984 Olympics visited Maine, showing students at the Spurwink School in Saco his medal. He died recently, a relatively young man.
Rulon Gardner came to the Portland Expo soon after the 2000 Olympics. He talked about fellow passengers on his flight to Maine recognizing him and shaking his hand. “They wanted to thank me for making them proud to be Americans,” said Gardner, still awed by their reaction to his presence.
Amateur wrestling has its heroes. It’s still searching for its identity among casual sports fans and that’s bewildering. It must share with the rest of the world why the ancients elevated it to Olympian heights in the first place.
How can men and women who are so tough on the mat be so weak away from it?
In Jacksonville, Neal talked about getting out of his SUV to pump gas into its tank. He was just another guy when that happened. A very large guy, but no different than anyone else. Tom Brady would be mobbed at the gas pumps and Neal wouldn’t trade places. What mattered most was the respect he got on the football field and on the wrestling mat.
Neal lost in the Olympic trials for the 2000 games. When his football career was over, he said then, he hoped his body would permit him to try again to win Olympic gold. He retired after the 2010 season. I haven’t heard that he’s resuming his wrestling career.
Ask him if one means more than the others and he’ll smile again. Football is the ultimate game of teamwork, he said. Wrestling is the ultimate test of one individual making another submit. He felt so fortunate to experience both.
Amateur wrestling will survive. It doesn’t need the validation of the Olympics. Contrary to the thinking when the vote was taken, the Olympics needs wrestling.
Staff Writer Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at: