Monday, November 3, 2003

Turning Back the Pages to the 1953 NCAA Championships

Article by Mark Palmer

Every year since 1928, collegiate wrestlers and wrestling fans have set their sights on one event: the NCAA Wrestling Championships, held every year in March.

1953 was no different.

Fifty years ago, wrestlers and fans made their way by car, bus or train to State College, Pennsylvania to be a part of this annual rite to determine the best college wrestlers in the United States.

It would be the last time an eastern college – host school Pennsylvania State University – won the national team title. But that’s just one reason why two former wrestlers – Jamie Moffatt and Roger Olesen – considered the 1953 NCAAs to be worthy of its own book, which they aptly titled A Turning Point.
“America was undergoing significant change,” says Roger. “College wrestling programs were still feeling the effects of World War II and the Korean War, with many athletes having served in the military and returning to school well into their twenties. Thanks to the GI Bill, so many more former soldiers were entering college for the first time, with colleges experiencing explosive growth.”

“These wrestlers were a product of the Great Depression, and World War II,” adds Roger. “Most of their lives were lived having to ‘do without.’”

“Even travel issues figured into the 1953 NCAAs,” says Jamie. “This was before passenger jet travel, so air travel was still very time-consuming and costly. It was a luxury that only a few could afford. And, it was before the national interstate highway system. Trains were still the primary means of transportation cross-country.”

“It was a big deal for athletes from the west and Midwest to come to Pennsylvania to compete.”
Despite these challenges, 166 wrestlers came to State College to compete in ten weight classes in a two-day event at Penn State’s 6,000-seat Recreation Hall. (By comparison, the 2003 Division I NCAA championships in Kansas City saw 330 collegiate grapplers competing at ten weights over three days at Kemper Arena, with a seating capacity of approximately 15,000.) A book 40+ years in the making

The friendship of Jamie Moffatt and Roger Olesen goes back more than four decades. Jamie was the captain of the wrestling team at The Hill School outside Philadelphia in 1961; Roger captained the team the following year. Their passion for the NCAA wrestling championships was demonstrated even in high school, when the two future authors hitchhiked all the way to Corvallis, Oregon to witness the 1961 NCAAs at Oregon State.
Even as successful businessmen (Jamie is a retired Coopers & Lybrand management consultant who now serves as Board Chairman of the College Sports Council; Roger is an investment adviser at USB PaineWebber), the two wrestling aficionados maintained their friendship over the years, getting together whenever possible for the NCAA tournament.

At the 2002 NCAAs in Albany, New York, Moffatt and Olesen discovered in the official program that no eastern college had won the team title since Penn State in 1953. They also noted that, as wrestlers at The Hill School, they shared some of the same coaches as a number of the individual champions that year. They also realized the fiftieth anniversary of this “landmark” event was coming up in one year.

“We talked about the idea of a book over burgers and beer at Albany,” says Jamie. “Roger had been a college English professor, so we thought it was something we could do.”

Jamie had been inspired by NBC News anchorman Tom Brokaw’s The Greatest Generation about those who served their country in World War II on the battlefront and on the home front. “I liked the format, the individual stories of how the war affected their lives. I really liked the ‘human interest story’ aspect of the book.”

The idea of a book on the 1953 NCAAs germinated in the men’s minds for a few months, until, in September 2002, Roger called Jamie: “We need to get on it.”

Putting it together

Jamie and Roger decided they would tell the stories of each of the individual champions in his own words. (Sadly, three of the 1953 NCAA titleholders had passed away.) They also agreed the book would need to incorporate information on some of the coaches involved in the NCAAs that year, and about Penn State and its wrestling program. Roger drew up an outline, and divided up the writing assignments: He would cover the coaches and the Penn State aspects, while Jamie would interview the champs.

“Between us, we interviewed 30-40 individuals,” says Jamie. “We did all the interviews by phone. Some folks we talked to three or four times.”

“No one refused to talk,” Jamie adds. “In fact, guys were mostly anxious to talk. In most cases, they hadn’t been asked about their NCAA title in 45 years.”

In addition to telephone interviews, Jamie and Roger were able to gather a treasure trove of information – including brackets and scores – from Penn State. “We also got tapes of the films shot of the finals matches at the lower weights,” says Jamie.

Jamie and Roger worked on their own assignments at opposite ends of the country (Jamie in New Jersey, Roger in California), editing each other’s manuscripts in the early months of 2003.

Roger arranged to have their book on the 1953 NCAAs self-published. The finished manuscript made it to the printer on the Saturday immediately before the 2003 NCAAs. The first one hundred copies of A Turning Point were sent to Kansas City, to be sold to wrestling fans hungry to know the story of the college championships fifty years earlier.

Pinning down powerful human interest stories

Even after fifty years, most of the participants still had powerful memories of their time at Penn State in late March 1953.

“(Don) Dickason (167 lb wrestler from Cornell University) and (Auburn heavyweight Dan) McNair – both underdogs – could remember every last detail of their title matches,” says Jamie. “On the other hand, Hugh Peery, the 115-pounder who was a veteran of the 1952 Olympics, could recount all sorts of personal stuff with his dad Rex, who was his coach at University of Pittsburgh, but couldn’t remember match details. In fact, he wasn’t even sure who his opponent was in the finals.”

A Turning Point devotes a chapter to each champion’s story of the 1953 NCAAs. The book provides a powerful “you are there” feeling as each wrestler shares his recollections in his own words. In addition, Jamie and Roger provide valuable biographical information on each titleholder, and artfully weave the individual stories together into a compelling tapestry. You’ll meet…

• The only finalist who went on to win three NCAA titles, following in the footsteps of his dad who won three titles while at Oklahoma A&M in the 1930s, and leading the way for a younger brother who earned three NCAA crowns in the mid 1950s;

• The wrestler who, according to teammates, could barely do three pull-ups, but provided one of the most electrifying finals bouts at Rec Hall;

• The champion who assured Penn State of its team title (even though he didn’t wrestle for the Nittany Lions)… and had to borrow a dime from an ice cream vendor to call his family collect back in Illinois to let them know he won;

• The wrestler who survived a hair-raising car trip from the deep South to surprise everyone at the NCAAs by defeating a defending national champion from a national championship program;

• The 157 lb Princeton wrestler who, although he wasn’t a finalist, is arguably the most famous competitor at the 1953 NCAAs: Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld!

What’s more, A Turning Point serves up some fascinating background on the event itself. It also tells the stories of many of the great coaches who had guided many of the great wrestlers to the 1953 NCAAs – coaches whose names may be familiar to even today’s casual wrestling fan: Penn State coach Charles “Doc” Speidel… and high school coaches Frank “Sprig” Gardner of Mepham High School on Long Island, Henry Boresch of Newton High School in New Jersey, and Art Weiss of Clearfield, Pennsylvania. Other coaching legends who left their mark on the 1953 championships include Oklahoma’s Port Robertson, Art Griffith of Oklahoma A&M (now Oklahoma State), Bill Koll of Iowa Teachers (now Northern Iowa), Cliff Keen of Michigan, and Pitt’s Rex Peery.

A Turning Point is well-written, well-researched, compelling reading for ANY wrestling fan of any age. It will give you a new appreciation for the sport as it once was.