The last wrestling season

Coach Todd McGinnis (left) directs Matt Gray in a January 2013 pin while Manager Haley Gray and Assistant Coach Brett Roberts record points live on (click 'Search,' then search by state, and whether the meet is a tourney or dual to find the location). Stats are also posted at

It’s not summer or fall, or even spring that’s my favorite season – it’s wrestling season. No time of year affects me the way wrestling season does. Christmas season, of course, is always outstanding – with all of its meaning, the nostalgia, family gatherings and excitement created for the holiday. But wrestling is a whole different horse with different feathers.

To be honest, I have a hard time watching guys tussle, because my son Matt became a grappler when he was in sixth grade. Like most every mama on my side of the mat, I’ve felt tortured. Having to remain submerged in the stands while my baby is being chewed up and spit out by a monster like a tiny piece of Chiclet’s gum is heart-wrenching.

But something happened. Matt started to win more often and my hate relationship with wrestling morphed into one of love-hate.

When winning tides roll, the roars of the crowd crash on Bleacher Beach with wave after pounding wave of foaming emotion. The cloudy contender clears enough to reveal sunlight shining on your son’s face and its warmth soothes the soul, granting you a momentary breath.

There are no two-minute segments of life as intense as those when every vein in your child’s beaten body is swelling with desperation for more oxygen.

I thank God for men like Coach Todd McGinnis, who’s moved by the fact that another class of kids he’s known since they were just small dots on the mat are now in their senior year.

McGinnis is well-acquainted with the grueling nature of the sport. He’s coached in Shen as a volunteer, an assistant or head man since 1996; with the exception of a couple of seasons with Thomas Jefferson High School in Council Bluffs. He came back home to Shen in 2005.

McGinnis cut his teeth on the mat; he grew up watching most every man in his family wrestle – and do it well.

“I haven’t known anything else. My dad and five uncles went through the Shen program. When I was in elementary school, I would practice with them and the other high school kids. There was no league for kids then,” he said. “My Uncle Tim was the first state qualifier from Shenandoah, Uncle Steve was the first state place-winner. Uncle Terry was conference champ; Uncle Matt was a state qualifier. My brothers both qualified, but the youngest was state champion.”

The McGinnis last name alone didn’t grease Todd’s way to Des Moines; he earned every point that spelled out his first name as a McGinnis conference champ.

But coaching kids is his richest reward.

“I enjoy seeing them get better – and seeing the light bulb go on in their eyes – even in the classroom,” he said. McGinnins also teaches middle school Language Arts. “Memories that make me smile are the ones where a kid gets a take down or wins his first match, and comes off the mat excited. A couple years ago, a kid won a match on senior night…I’ll never forget the crowd going wild,” he said.

“There’s a lot I love about wrestling. It’s an individual sport, but we do a lot of team things. Kids learn all the character traits of life, like dedication, overcoming adversity, aggressiveness…all of it. You can never get there by yourself, but you have to do it by yourself when you step on that mat; it’s all you. Not everybody can step in there and do it,” he said.

Wrestling is, well...wrestling, but then there’s the exceptional scoring wrench.

“At any point in time – there’s the looming possibility of a pin. It’s the unique part of the sport; at any moment you can get pinned after dominating the entire time,” he said. “You don’t see that too much with other sports. There’s no 40 point touch down or 12 point shot,” he said.

“There’s no rest, either. You don’t get to take a breath and relax, or you lose. At all times, you’re on defense,” he said. “You have to work to get to the spot where you’re simply reacting, not thinking. Football and the other sports teach you to get back up when you get knocked down, but in wrestling you have to learn that pretty quick.”

On the wall of the Mustang wrestling room hangs a quote by Dan Gable, the greatest wrestler of all time: “Once you've wrestled, everything else in life is easy.” Coach McGinnis hopes that’s the case with the young men on his team.

“I love seeing the kids learn from it and hear they’re thinking about it. Some days I’m teaching class and it’s stressful, but I walk into the wrestling room and see the kids looking at me and it makes my day,” he said. “I’m proud of them, whether or not they’re state qualifiers. My biggest expectation is that they do their best to compete and don’t give up.”

Indeed. When my Matt’s on the mat, and someone is steaming down his back, the last thing I want him to do is walk away.

Actor Billy Baldwin said, “I have a great deal of gratitude for the sport of wrestling for all it’s done for me. I wish we could measure the type of values instilled through the game that transcend to a young man’s academic life, in pursuing his career, his relationships with his wife and his children, and every aspect of life. It’s the gift that keeps on giving.”

During the 1908 Olympics, Bishop Ethlelbert Talbot said in a sermon, “The important thing in these Olympiads is not so much winning as taking part.”

One athlete found the message “of great philosophical significance,” and declared, “…the important thing in life is not victory, but the fight; the main thing is not to have won, but to have fought well.”

The kids under the guidance of coaches like McGinnis will be stronger in every area of life. They will fight well. They’ll not be afraid to fail. They will have success.

Our daughter, Haley, is a team manager for her second year, so she’s right there on the mats with the team; I’m most often on the mat taking photos of each boy’s match; my husband Scott won’t miss a meet; our oldest son in college attends all of Matt's meets that he can, so we’re all in. All of us. But, we’re saying a slow and bitter goodbye to this beast of a sport that has become the love of our family. Matt is a senior this year, and will not wrestle in college. He expects to join the Air Force in August. So, though there may be moments I’ll still sweat bullets over him, I’ll rest assured that he’s well-equipped for whatever tasks lie ahead of him. After all, he’s a wrestler.

One more thing…My son’s impression of wrestling is much simpler than Gable’s or Baldwin’s or Talbot’s. Sitting next to me on the couch while we combed this year’s preseason state rankings, Matt absorbed the data and started to chew his nails. His voice elevated as he pointed out the names in each weight class, remembering at what weight each of his teammate’s opponents had wrestled last year. He described specific bouts with play-by-play precision like they were happening in front of him at that moment. He spoke with deep respect for each boy listed. Then, with a furrowed brow, and muttering around the fingertips in his teeth, he leaned into the cushion behind him and softly said, “I love wrestling because we all know each other.”

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