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Wrestling is a sport rooted in desire. It helps to be strong and quick, but stamina and endurance matter just as much, if not more. The novelist John Irving fell in love with wrestling during high school, in part because his first coach, Ted Seabrooke, told him, "Talent is overrated. That you're not very talented needn't be the end of it."
To be a wrestler is to spend untold hours in nearly unbearable pain, to consider it a badge of honor to be slammed onto a four-inch mat so often that the blood vessels in your ear explode and the cartilage rumples until it looks like a giant piece of flesh-colored gum. Wrestlers can acquire staph infections or herpes. Some suffer knee and shoulder injuries that leave them hobbled, unable to play tennis or basketball in their 30s. They're encouraged to imagine terrible scenarios—Your mother's head is under a guillotine, and you must save her—to engage their primal survival instincts and break free of holds. There is a reason Dan Gable, who won a gold medal at the 1972 Olympics and is considered the greatest U.S. wrestler ever, said, "Once you've wrestled, everything else in life is easy."
Some might wonder why a man would subject himself to such a sport. There is little money in it and only a slight chance of a decent-paying career beyond a few plum college coaching jobs or a switch to mixed martial arts. Yet wrestling's allure is strong. It instills discipline, tests a man's limits. As Gable put it, "More enduringly than any other sport, wrestling teaches self-control and pride. Some have wrestled without great skill—none have wrestled without pride."
Powell was five when his father first took him to the wrestling room of the Oak Park Huskies, a youth club. If it bothered Bud Powell that Mike was at least five years younger than any other boy in the room, he didn't show it. Bud had grown up a hard city kid, the son of a Ukrainian bar owner. He believed that men needed to be tough and that toughness was acquired early. So when Mike got out of line, Bud pulled off his belt or used an open palm. He installed a pull-up bar in the backyard and offered Mike a dime for every one he completed. Then, when Mike tried to collect, Bud said, "You don't want to be the best on your own? You need to get paid for it?"
Fred Arkin, the Huskies' coach at the time, took one look at the small, brown-haired boy and told Bud to take him back. He's way too young, Arkin said. But Bud would have none of it.
The first day was rough. Mike hid in a bathroom stall so that no one would see him cry. It would be the last time he ever felt scared in a wrestling room. Within a month he'd learned technique. By the time he was in the second grade he'd become a demon on the mat—low to the ground, aggressive and indomitable.
That year Arkin decided Mike was ready. During a junior-high-level tournament Arkin approached Mike and his father. We don't have anyone to wrestle the 65-pound class, he said to Bud. Would you let Mike? Bud looked at his son, who was seven years old and about 50 pounds, and knew the answer. Mike won his first match. Then he won again. In the final he faced off against an eighth-grader. It took Mike all of 30 seconds to pin him.
Mike grew into a dominant junior high wrestler, then a dominant high school wrestler. He won the Class 2A 171-pound state championship at OPRF in 1994 and was an All-America at Indiana in '96. After graduating, he was good enough to qualify for the Olympic trials in 2000 but broke a wrist in a bicycling accident. Already bone-on-bone in both knees due to six surgeries caused by wrestling and football injuries—he was a high school linebacker, fullback and placekicker—he decided it was time to stop competing.
That fall Powell returned to his old high school as an assistant coach and assistant special-ed teacher. In 2003 he was elevated to head coach. At first he was all enthusiasm and no strategy, creating practice routines by trial and error. Still, he had a gift. He could see a wrestling move once and imitate it perfectly, then teach it to the kids. So he read books, attended clinics and quizzed other coaches.
The team he inherited was short on talent—a chronic problem at OPRF, which now competes in Class 3A, the largest in Illinois. Powell didn't need stars, though, just kids who were willing to try. So he walked the halls of the school, keeping an eye out for boys who looked lost. He approached football players and asked if they wanted to be part of the hardest-working team in the school.