This is a mostly true story. I’ve remembered events as well as I could. I’ve changed a few names, but not others. I am sure, looking back, that Coach Plunkett inspired a good many students. I was not one of them. Unless you count inspiration for this story. For the purposes of this sketch, he is a character, and I do not intend to defame the real person. He taught me a lesson, in his way.
It’s never a good sign when the high school wrestling mat they order is a bright crimson red. The Mission Viejo Diablos—the old red and gold—were a well-regarded team led by two men: Coach LaRue and the infamous Coach Plunkett. LaRue was new to the school, a former Marine who grew up in Mission Viejo back when it was still mostly rural and La Paz Road ended at Moulton. He wore wire-frame glasses and his hair was short with the sides buzzed. He was muscular, he was strict, but you could tell he loved to teach. He had a geometry class as well, but I never took that.
Then there was Coach Plunkett. He had led the team for twenty straight years. Three championships just in the last five years. Rumor was he had been dishonorably discharged from the military for killing a man weaker than him just because he scuffed his shoe. Plunkett was a big man, wide across the chest and narrow at the waist, with short legs that bulged like watermelons at the calves. His shoulders and upper arms were enormous, and the way he walked was a kind of loping stride where those arms swung wide, knuckles forward so you could always see the championship ring.
Plunkett said things like “do as I say, not as I do,” and “not funny as in hee-hee-haw-haw, but meaning of life kind of funny,” and “can of whoop-ass.” His thinning, graying hair revealed a small head and huge brow that sloped low and overshot its destination, hanging out inches past his eyes and creating an eternal shadow around his eyes. His arms were the hairiest things I’d ever seen.
Plunkett wasn’t just about discipline. He was about ferocity. The other teams know the Diablos were coming because they projected ferocity. The other teams lost before the matches ever started, because they were afraid. Because there were subtle ways the Diablos could evoke fear and inflict pain without venturing out of the bounds of the rules of wrestling. “Subtlety” was a favorite word of Coach Plunkett’s, and he wielded it like a club.
The red mats were one example of Coach’s subtlety. From time to time, in practice or in competitions, a wrestler would inevitably get his nose bloodied, or occasionally lose a tooth. The droplets of blood on the red mats were virtually indistinguishable from droplets of sweat. A Diablo wrestler could have his way with an opponent for quiet sometime before the ref saw the smear of blood across some kid’s face, or the tell-tale red fingerprints on his thighs or arms, before blowing the whistle.
Cruelty was prized. Cruelty won matches. Cruelty was what separated the men from the boys. He did exercises to strengthen our necks—in itself not a bad thing—but he would send an eager junior in to dogpile and try to snap the neck of the stretching fresh-sophs. Part of the exercise was indeed muscle growth (“we’re gonna make your necks so thick your mommas aren’t gonna recognize you”), but part of it was reflex. If we didn’t see the other guy coming, the rationale went, then maybe we deserved to have our necks snapped. Survival of the fittest.
I had ended up on the wrestling team by way of insecurity. I sat in the gymnasium on my first day of high school, a chubby and insecure freshman, sitting by myself in the nosebleed section of the risers (it was called the nosebleeds even though it was only about ten or twelve feet high. This was the home of El Diablo, and poetic license was taken. I was there to get my P.E. assignment.
There was a eight-foot long folding table set up on the floor of the gym in front of the risers, with a handful of teachers and sports coaches calling students by last name and having them trundle down the bleachers to receive their P.E. period and instructor.
There, pacing in front of the seats with Andy Saxon (name changed, etc), the varsity captain and 152-weightclass champ. My name got called, and I grabbed my backpack and made my way down the rows of wooden bleachers trying not to ignore the giant Neanderthal and the wrestling stud who were staring at right at me and whispering.
As I went to collect my card with my assignment, Plunkett and Saxon ambled over to the Coach Kathy Lehman, the tall, gaunt blonde coach (and some said a lesbian) of the women’s basketball team. Plunkett said something to Coach Lehman, and she handed him my card.
Plunkett raised an eye at me, and must’ve noted my mouth hanging open in half-formed protest or confusion. “What do you think, Saxon. Next heavyweight champ?”
Andy Saxon looked me up and down with a tough but thoughtful frown that gradually fed a slow nod. “Could be, Coach. Could be.” Mind you at this time I weighed 165 pounds, still overweight and swathed in baby fat, but nowhere near the 215 mark that was the baseline for heavyweights (there was no ceiling, as far as I could tell). What was he seeing? What were the calculations he was making? What was it he was thinking that Plunkett had seen instantaneously?
Still speaking as though I wasn’t there, Plunkett added, almost as an afterthought—a surprise notion that just occurred to him—“I bet he could be one of the greats.” To which his captain nodded with a grave expression, looking at me with something like respect.
“Son,” said Plunkett, now addressing me directly. His eyes were a soft blue beneath the awning of his brow. “Have you thought of going out for the wrestling team?”
Going out for. As if it were an honor bestowed on the few, the proud. Many tried, only precious few made it…
I shook my head vigorously. “I just need to take two semesters of P.E.,” I said, to which I added stupidly, “I’m an honors student.” Which was true for only about half of my classes.
Plunkett lowered his eyes in a masterly show of humility, but he let his captain field this one, in retrospect probably one of the more common protests they hear. “I’m an honor student!” Andy exclaimed, thrilled to have made this connection. He gave me a conspiratorial nod, “Most of the guys on the team are. We’re not the football team.”
Suddenly I was faced with my own ignorance: I knew nothing about high school wrestling, and had obviously made the common mistake of lumping wrestlers as a social class in with the stereotypical football meathead. Could I be wrong? Was wrestling an elite sport? Was I elite? My brain hurriedly worked to rebuild the landscape of reality around these two ideas, one new and the other just positively reinforced.
“Can we have a minute, Kathy?” At which Coach Lehman, who was already calling down the next student, gave a quick nod in Plunkett’s direction.
Plunkett extended his arm in a curve—a scythe, maybe—to invite me into a brief huddle away from the table. I never stood a chance.
He quickly, and softly enumerated the benefits of the wrestling team for me. It was never a bargaining: he only aspired to the loftiest principles and goals. An ancient sport, going back to Greek and Roman times. Didn’t they just unearth the site of the original Olympic games, Saxon? Why yes, coach, they even found jars of body oil, which they used to rub on themselves to make it harder for their opponents to get a grip.
I noticed a hard look from Plunkett at this extra bit of too-much-information from his captain, but he recovered quickly and went on to talk about getting into shape, being part of something bigger, being part of a team, challenging myself by stepping outside my comfort zone because that’s where glory is, and being able to walk through the school looking every single person in the eye and knowing that nobody will ever mess with you, because you’re on the wrestling team. The basest reason was also the clincher for me. I’d get to avoid P.E.
For me it was a simple calculation—all of the above was fine and good, but to have that hour each day spent with a team where there was discipline was better than an hour spent in a class full of minimally supervised bullies. Sign me up!
By the time he released his steel grip on my shoulder, I was being ushered back in front of Coach Lehman, where Plunkett drew a line through “Phys.Ed. – – – 7 period” and wrote in one of the convenient blank spaces below the simple words “wrestling team” and signed it “S Plunkett”. Then he had me initial at the bottom and hand it back to Coach Lehman. Lehman took it with a busy but courteous “Thank you,” and that was it. I was free for the rest of the period.
[Coincidentally, as a freshman at UC Berkeley four years later, I took Intro to Greek Art and Architecture with Professor Stephen Miller, the man who discovered the site of those games, which were not the Olympiad but the Pan-Hellenic Games at Nemea—the predecessor to the Olympics. And yes, there was body oil.]
“See you at practice tomorrow!” called Andy Saxon. I looked toward Coach Plunkett, but he was already talking to another student up in the risers.
TO BE CONTINUED…