How do you tell a story too hard for words? When it’s your story, you spit it out. If it’s not your story, you find a way.
It’s like wrestling a good opponent, wear them down.
Richard Jensen is a wrestler. His story is hard to tell, even for him. You can hear it in his voice, see it on his face.
He came from the same high school as my wrestlers. He wrestled in the same practice room, probably on the same mats. Fifteen years separate them.
After graduation he headed north to Alaska to work on fishing boats. If you’ve seen Deadliest Catch, you’ve seen what it looks like. What you don’t see is the behind-the-scenes lifestyle that aimed Richard toward jail.
My guys went to college about the time Richard enrolled at Clackamas Community College. It was the same year the University of Oregon decided to drop their wrestling program, but before Portland State dropped theirs.
College athletes have different stories, like twenty-eight year old quarterbacks at Oklahoma State playing college football after their MLB contract expires, or middle-aged strength coaches playing football in Texas. Most sports have an unwritten age limit.
College wrestlers are not freshman at thirty-six. No one gets that do-over. Richard did. He was a non-traditional student who took a non-traditional path in sports. He got back on the wrestling bus, the one he left after high school.
The buzz about Richard got louder once he started winning. He was in the paper telling his story. Wrestling changed his life. Sports gave him a new focus. From a life of crime to life as an undergrad, Richard moved in new circles.
But it wasn’t new.
Everyone who’s wrestled journeys back in time to a place before mats, before cameras, before winning and losing. It’s not hard to imagine a wrestling match as life or death the way it once played out.
For Richard, it was life or death.
How many people travel the dark road of drug abuse and come out alive? How many survive any prolonged abuse and survive? They might breath and walk, but instead of seeing themselves when they look in the mirror, they see a dead face.
The face of meth has that look. It doesn’t stop at the surface. It’s in the eyes, on the skin. Without the right steps, without an unexpected breath of life, the dead man in the mirror grow weaker until the end. And they can see it coming fast.
Wrestling was Richard’s breath of life. After prison terms, he found match time. Instead of a permanent lock-up as a repeat offender, or three-time loser, he escaped to the mats.
Watching Richard wrestle for the Cougars reminded me of a neighbor I once had, the best neighbor ever.
Call him Tom.
When Tom moved in he looked like an off-duty policeman. He had the muscle, the high and tight hair, and a face that encouraged confession.
Over the first months as neighbors I discovered Tom knew quite a lot about my hometown of North Bend. I asked if he lived there. He said sort of.
He said he lived in a boot camp version of prison on a decommissioned Air Force base, a radar station out of town. If you volunteered for that and made it through, you got years cut from your sentence. Tom wanted out early to see his family grow up. He was through with his own life of crime.
What were Tom’s crimes?
One was the crime of show and tell. His daughter’s teacher asked the class to bring something from their daddy’s work the next day for show and tell. At the time, Tom was a grower. His daughter brought teacher a large bag of weed. Tom went to jail that day.
His other crimes were vague, or I didn’t listen hard enough.
He said prison means at least one fight. How that ends determines your next fight. Tom’s first fight came when another guy cut off a call to his mother.
Tom: “I knew how to fight, but a prison fight is different. When someone disrespects you, you death-stare them while you take one hand and curl the fingers of your other hand tight into your palm. Then you pull your thumb of the fist over to the ring finger knuckle. If a guard sees that, it’s called menacing.
“Once your hand looks like a war club, you go to war. You fight until the other guys knocks you out. If you knock him out, you keep pummeling him until someone knocks you out. That’s respect.”
Tom’s hands clenched and unclenched while he talked. He won his fight.
Richard Jensen is winning, too. He changed his game, changed his playground. He flipped the switch on a light so others might win, too. I saw him address a packed room at Portland State before a committee deciding the fate of PSU wrestling.
He was riveting.
The professors and deans in their colorful scarves and nice shoes had no idea about either wrestling, or Richard. They showed up with their rubber stamp to drop wrestling so they could move on to more important things. Like most non-sport people, they saw wrestling as non-essential, or less essential than a cup of tea and a scone on a couch while discussing 19th Century Romanticism’s effect on colonial land grabs.
Richard Jensen spoke to a deaf panel that night. Now he talks to motivated listeners who need to hear him.
He talks to you and me.