They say, if you want to rob a bank in Osage, do it during the state tournament.
—TALLIA GOODALE, 11-year-old sister of three-time state wrestling champ Trent Goodale
In late February, Iowa high school wrestling fans flock, like migratory fowl, to their traditional spots in Veterans Memorial Auditorium in Des Moines. Osage fans, wearing green sweatshirts, go to section 19 and 21 on the arena's south side; Don Bosco boosters, dressed in blue and gold, rush to sections 23 and 25 on the same side. Even the officials at the Iowa State Wrestling Tournament work their regular tables year after year. "I wouldn't think of missing this event," says Dallas Kray, a retired high school athletic director who has operated the clock at table 6 for the last 12 years. "It's the biggest show on earth...well, in Iowa, anyway. Certainly it's the biggest wrestling tournament in the nation."
Even as wrestling is dying out in colleges around the country, the sport thrives in Iowa's high schools. In the years since the first tournament, in 1926—the year Marshalltown won the team championship under the supervision of Adolph Rupp, who would later coach Kentucky's basketball team to four NCAA titles—the event has expanded from one class to three and from two days to four. In the early 1960s about 100 Iowa high schools had wrestling programs. Today 347 of the 402 schools in the Iowa High School Athletic Association (IHSAA) are represented on 300 wrestling teams. Last year the 672 state qualifiers hailed from 237 of those teams and drew some 89,000 fans. As 50 radio stations and 183 newspapers covered the action, spectators consumed the equivalent of four semitruckloads of soda, hot dogs, hamburgers, nachos, popcorn, pretzels and ice cream.
Why does wrestling have such a grip on Iowans? "Because we're good at it!" says Andy Grove, a sports writer and former high school wrestler. "Most eighth-place winners in this tournament would probably win in, say, Michigan, but they'd prefer to get eighth here."
If you think making the finals is tough for athletes, try being a spectator. For the last 14 years championship-night tickets have been sold out on the day they've gone on sale in December.
The goal of any young wrestler in Iowa is to reach the state tournament. Randy McDonald, the coach at Winterset High, which sent eight wrestlers to state last year, didn't make it when he was in high school. "I think that's why I have so much intensity as a coach," he says. "I missed coming here. Every corner of Iowa shows up here. Kids can just feel the intensity when they come upstairs [from the basement warmup area]. The goose bumps pop up, and the adrenaline starts flowing."
As their loyal fans fill the stands, the wrestlers prowl the warmup room and the arena perimeter looking nervous and hungry. They wear hooded sweatshirts or letterman jackets adorned with diaper pins (one for each time the wrestler has pinned an opponent) or T-shirts with slogans like NO ONE WILL OUTWORK ME TODAY! Many wrestlers sport mop-top hairdos like that of Iowa native Ashton Kutcher on That '70s Show but not out of any particular fondness for Kutcher, the show or, God forbid, fashion. "The reason wrestlers don't cut their hair is superstition," says Amy Lehn, whose shaggy-haired son, Nick Schropp, earned a fifth-place medal in the 2A 140-pound division for Williamsburg last year. "Once they start winning—however they've won—they won't change it."
As they await their turn on a mat, wrestlers bounce on their toes, nervously slapping their legs and heads while their coaches shout reminders into their ears. When the P.A. announcer—whose rapid-fire delivery suggests a career auctioning hogs at the state fair—calls out their match, they jog to their assigned mat, followed by a couple of coaches, a string of cheerleaders and, along the mat's perimeter, an army of fans. Everyone who shouts instructions (and everyone does, it seems) is well-versed in the nuances of grappling. Mothers, dads, siblings and friends urge their man on: "Move him!" "Work him!" "Break him down!" "We have what I would call a sophisticated blue-collar crowd," says IHSAA media liaison Bud Legg.
Wrestling schools such as Rockwell City-Lytton, which sent three wrestlers to state last year, don't bother holding school during the tournament because so many students go to Des Moines. The same is not true for Gilbert, a tiny burg that might imaginatively be called an Ames suburb. When the town's lone state wrestler, Danny Schmidt, upset fourth-ranked Andrew Westendorf of Wapsie Valley (Fairbank) High in the first round of the 1A 145-pound class on Thursday night last year, a clutch of schoolmates gathered around him to pound his back and bask in his reflected glory. Then, one by one, they peeled off to punch numbers into cellphones. With a finger in one ear and the mobile in the other, they shouted the highlights of the match to classmates stuck at home. "This sport takes so much dedication, so much discipline," said Schmidt. "Getting a win like this makes it all seem worth it."
The flip side of the winner's euphoria is the loser's misery, which is especially acute at this event. Soon after Schmidt's admirers had dispersed, a distraught wrestler from another high school stormed past on the way to the warmup room, his face and singlet merged in a blur of red. As soon as he was out of sight of the public and his gathering consolers, he let loose a wretched cry of despair. "When you lose in football, you have the whole team to share it," says Gilbert coach Scott Auderer. "In wrestling it's just you getting your heart ripped out."