I’m not sure how helpful this testimonial will be. As far as wrestling goes, I don’t embody “excellence,” nor would anybody confuse me for being at the “world-class” level that Jim Wilson and Paul Fox and Gabe Townsell and Nathan Traxler and so many other Stanford wrestlers, past and present and future, unquestionably are. But I was those guys’ teammate, and being their teammate—being a Stanford wrestler—is something that I will always consider to be among my very greatest of joys and very proudest of accomplishments.
My wrestling background is pretty unremarkable. I started out as an enthusiastic but unathletic 90-pound sixth grader, and I gradually worked my way up in weight and ability to become the 145-pound captain of a middling high school team in New England. Through that whole time, my passion for the sport was all-consuming. In particular, as a young wrestler, I grew up idolizing the Stanford team. I cheered from my living room as Nick Amuchastegui lit up NCAAs in 2011 and 2012; I pasted articles about Donovan Halpin’s progression from walk-on to team captain on the wall above my bed; I watched and re-watched and re-watched the Cardinal Clips interview with Jordan Bryan after he reached the finals of the Rhodes Scholarship. (Ultimately, like Jordan, I fell just short of the Rhodes Scholar goal—I was a finalist this past year.)
When I was accepted to Stanford, the first person I contacted on campus was Coach Borrelli, to see if he might be interested in a walk-on. I’m so grateful that he said yes, that he gave me a chance. I don’t think that his gamble on me really paid off for him—a series of concussions during my freshman year ultimately forced me to retire after only a season (and just when I felt like I was truly starting to improve as a wrestler!)—but my time in the Stanford room sure did change my life. Walking on to the Stanford wrestling team proved to me that I could overcome a lack of talent and pedigree if I worked hard enough. Walking on to the Stanford wrestling team validated my years and years of discipline, focus, and sacrifice—my years and years of living and internalizing the manifold values and life lessons that the sport of wrestling instills in every one of its disciples.
But most importantly, walking on to the Stanford wrestling team allowed me to be a part of a beautiful, loving community of Stanford men whose athletic excellence was matched only by their excellence of character. It is a magnificent testament to the genuine grace and goodness of every member of the Stanford wrestling team that someone like myself—the walk-on, the outlier, the injury-prone weakest link of an otherwise extraordinarily strong chain—was never treated with anything less than the utmost dignity, kindness, and respect, both when I was on the mat and after my medical retirement.
This upcoming year (because I couldn’t quite manage to win that gosh-darn Rhodes!), I will be heading back to New England, to teach English and coach wrestling at a high school that I often competed against back when I myself was a high schooler. In preparing for this new step of my wresting journey, I can’t help but think back to my own high school wrestling coach, Jason York, who wrestled for Boston University in the 1990s. In 2013, the BU athletics department decided that it would drop wrestling after the 2013–14 season, and I can vividly remember Coach York shedding tears as he coached me and my teammates through the season that would ultimately be his alma mater’s last.
I am struggling to come to grips with the news that (if we even end up having a season this year) my own coaching career will begin in that same way, with me in as much distress as Coach York was six years ago. I am struggling, quite frankly, to come to grips with the news that what should be the exciting beginning of my wrestling future is slated to coincide with the untimely, unforeseen, and utterly cataclysmic destruction of my wrestling past.
In thinking about how to move forward in this difficult situation, I am reminded of one of my all-time favorite pieces of wrestling history. It’s a papyrus fragment from the second century CE, found about a hundred years ago in an ancient garbage dump and now housed in the manuscript library at Columbia University. On this papyrus fragment are instructions, written by an anonymous classical coach or trainer, that are meant to teach the reader how to wrestle. Each one of these instructions ends with the Greek imperative verb “πλέξον” (“plexon”), which can be translated as “fight!” or “mix it up!”
This papyrus proves that, as wrestlers, we’ve been mixing it up for millennia. Let’s use Stanford Athletics’ wrongheaded decision as an opportunity to mix it up one more time. Stanford wrestlers, past and present and future, and all of those who support us, I know that you are ready for a fight. For whatever it’s worth, I’m standing with you—in a good solid wrestling stance, of course.
- Justin Muchnick