- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
"I was in a tournament in Cuba in mid-February," he says. "We didn't do well. Only two of us made the finals, my roommate and me. He lost. I was in the last match of the day. I told him that I was going out there to raise the flag, that it had to be raised at least once. I won. That was the best feeling, standing there. Having everyone else stand, too. In Cuba."
He says the mat is where life has the fewest complications these days. He is olive-skinned and has a Middle Eastern name and is a Shiite Muslim. People sometimes forget that he's an American too. Ghaffari finds that his bags are checked and rechecked at the airport as if he, more than any of the other passengers, might be a terrorist. He says his mosque in Tempe has been visited by the FBI. He says he has heard friends and teammates say things about "those people" as if he weren't in the room. When he has been noticed, the friends have added, "but, of course, present company excluded." Of course.
"It was bad when I was in college," he says. "The Iran hostage situation was going on, and people tried to pick fights with me. Our coach added an o to the end of my name when we wrestled at other schools. 'Ghaffario.' He made me Italian. I would say to people, 'Do you know the words to the Pledge of Allegiance? Do you know all the words to the national anthem? I do.' All you can do in that situation is channel your hostility into your sport. That's what I've done. I know that when I'm on that victory stand, I'm as American as apple pie."
I ask where he was on Jan. 16 when the Gulf war began. He says he was training with the national team in Colorado Springs. His boom box for once was turned to news instead of music. The wrestlers sat, stunned at what they were hearing. Their workouts suddenly seemed useless. Work toward the Olympics? Why? Will there even be an Olympics? Ghaffari describes the feeling as "cold." Everyone felt cold.
"I hope the whole thing ends soon," he says. "I hope everything's finished, and I hope they hold the Olympics."
I say I hope the same thing. I say it would be ironic if he wound up on a mat in Barcelona opposite a big man from Baghdad. He says Iraq does not have the greatest wrestlers in the world, so he would not mind. He would take his chances.
"What would you try to do?" I ask.
"I'd try to hurt him, and he would try to hurt me," Ghaffari says. "That's the game. If I get a chance to fall on him, I'm going to fall on him real hard. If I can pick him up, a 280-pound man over my head, I'm going to throw him down. He's going to do the same to me."
That's the game. It was the best discussion of international diplomacy I'd heard in a long while.