Jay Spencer’s coach sat in the corner chair Saturday fighting back mid-match tears for the first time in 14 seasons as the clock ticked down in the Alabama state finals.
Around Huntsville’s Von Braun Center, spectators erupted in fist-pumping, high-fiving celebrations when Spencer put the finishing touches on a national-news-making victory.
It was quite a scene during those frantic final moments, and hopefully sometime soon Spencer will get a chance to see it all on video.
The senior from St. John Paul II Catholic High School became his school’s first state champion with a 7-6 victory in the Class 5A 160-pound title bout. That, of course, isn’t main reason why Spencer’s name appeared in stories on Yahoo.com, USA Today and on dozens of other sites.
The buzz was created by the fact Spencer is legally blind.
“I’ve sat in that corner quite a few times but never teared up,” St. John Paul II Catholic coach James Dowd said. “That was emotional to see a kid who’s up against so much finish it out the way he did. The crowd got into it obviously and that made it a more memorable moment. You see these movies and you see these documentaries where guys live in that moment. Jay’s living that moment and we’re just all observers of it. It’s a pretty emotional thing.”
Spencer was diagnosed with Leber congenital amaurosis 10 (LCA 10) — a rare genetic eye disorder — at the age of 3. He said he can see peripherally but has blurred vision when he looks straight ahead.
Wrestling became a part of Spencer’s life early in elementary school. He appreciated that he could feel his way around positions on the mat and make up for his reduced vision.
“It was one of those sports where nothing was really that different for me and everyone else,” he said. “It was kind of an even playing field. I always liked that.
“I’ve always appreciated that it gave me an opportunity to be the guy — a sport that I was great at and no one could argue otherwise.”
Greatness never comes cost-free, of course. And state titles can’t be found in a bargain bin.
Spencer paid his dues during his climb to the top of the Alabama podium. Drill sessions have been his primary currency.
Dowd said it’s been a challenge to teach Spencer technique while also trying to develop a couple dozen other wrestlers. He often demonstrates holds on the senior 160-pounder to give Spencer a feel while showing the rest of the squad.
“Then once everybody is out drilling you’ll take Jay and his partner and you’ll have to refine it,” Dowd said. “He’ll do what he felt and you’ll do adjust it, do it again and correct it and once he picks the technique up you’ve got to let him drill it and drill it a lot.”
Dowd admits he had doubts about how this would work before he became the program’s head coach two years at St. John Paul II Catholic.
“But when I came over and became his coach and saw the work ethic and the determination to be successful,” Dowd said, “it’s just short of miraculous almost.”
Spencer compiled a 34-13 record and qualified for the state meet as a sophomore. He went 44-10 and placed fourth as a junior.
He approached his senior season with last-chance urgency and pinpoint focus on a state title.
“You don’t go into a sport saying, ‘Hmm, I think I’ll be mediocre at this,’” he said. “You go in saying ‘I want to be the best.’
“It was more of an ‘I have to this year’ instead of an ‘I think I can’ since it was my last year of high school.”
Spencer spent more time in the weight room last summer. More time on the mat training with his club. More time perfecting his technique in one-on-one sessions with his coaches. More time on the track adding to the depth of his gas tank.
“He’s known for his fireman’s,” Dowd said. “His fireman’s is pretty legit. He’s also known for being able to six, seven, eight, nine minutes wide open without a hindrance.”
It took a full six minutes Saturday. Spencer went ahead 7-5 midway through the third period when he reversed Hayden’s Colby Hallmark. He had his lead cut to a point with 38 seconds left when he got penalized for locking his hands.
Hallmark nearly escaped in the closing seconds before Spencer dropped in on a leg and covered his opponent to seal the win, capping a 39-2 senior season.
“It was one of those things where being tired didn’t matter anymore,” Spencer said. “It was just about holding him down.”
There’s no telling how many people Spencer boosted in the process. But he knows his story is one that can inspire people facing challenges in everyday life. He’s already helped his high school program flourish.
Dowd said Spencer was the only wrestler on his high school team three years ago when the school introduced the sport. Four others joined him midway through the season. The Falcons had a dozen wrestlers on the team last year and 22 this season.
“I think (his success is) going to bring more kids to the team, which is what Jay wants,” Dowd said. “He wants his legacy to be there. He doesn’t want it to fall off.”
Spencer isn’t sure yet his what his own future holds.
“They think they found a cure for my eye disease,” he said. “If that works out, that would change my life.”
He said he expects to find out more this spring about possible treatments that would restore his vision. If everything works out, he’d like to enlist in the Army and follow in the footsteps of his grandfather and father.
He also wants to play football with full sight — he started at center for his high school team the past three seasons. He’d like to be able to drive and go hunting without needing someone to accompany him.
And there’s some state championship footage he needs to see, too.
DECADE-PLUS DYNASTIES END IN GEORGIA AND VIRGINIA
Jefferson ruled its division in Georgia for 18 straight seasons. Christiansburg controlled its kingdom in Virginia for 17 years.
But both decade-plus dynasties came to an end last weekend.
Sonoraville toppled Jefferson to win Georgia’s Class 3A title. Sonoraville had 10 medalists and racked up 172 points to finish 3.5 ahead of second-place North Hall. Jefferson finished third with 165.5 points, ending a state title run that was tied for third all-time, according to NFHS records.
The record belongs to Bennington Mount Anthony, which has won 30 straight titles in Vermont.
Christiansburg was on Jefferson’s heels in the record chase. The Blue Demons began their run when current Iowa State coach Kevin Dresser was running the show in Christiansburg and they kept their title string going with four different head coaches.
Christiansburg showed no sign of slowing down when it piled up 258 points in 2018 and finished 121 ahead of second-place Warren County. But a few coaches across the state knew about another power in the making.
Mark Strickland told a couple friends a few years back about a group of classmates training in his Team Predator club that would make New Kent a threat.
“Mark was insistent upon it and he basically got called out for it, like, ‘These kids are in seventh grade. Don’t talk about the seventh graders. That’s silly,’” said New Kent assistant Sonny Close, a former head coach at Christiansburg. “But he was fully committed to the idea when it almost seemed ridiculous. It seemed so far away, but his faith and determination was a huge part of what got it done.”
New Kent’s six freshmen combined to produce three state titles, two more runner-up finishes and a fifth-place medal. Those six accounted for 134 of the team’s 200.5 points.
FOLLOWING UP ON LAST WEEK
Last week’s edition of Writing Time was geared toward some of the sportsmanship issues that have become a hot topic in the sport recently. Kevin Black, a 2002 All-American at Wisconsin and two-time recipient of USA Wrestling’s Women’s Coach of the Year award, offered some strong takes on the topic in a blog he published this week.
Here’s an excerpt:
"Wrestling shows up in our newsfeeds so we think it’s progress, but make no mistake, it’s NOT because of the wrestling. Our sport isn’t becoming more relevant. The antics and side shows are. The media vultures love the low-hanging fruit because it gets them the hits they need to operate a business. I understand it from their point of view, however, what is being projected to the masses is not the good stuff that wrestling has to offer. It’s not helping our sport. It’s hurting it. We’re being used because we’re creating heels and letting them create the narrative. Parents fighting mat side or doing something crazy goes viral almost weekly. Athletes avoiding responsibility for poor decisions is commonplace and the news outlets eat it up. We’re choosing to be identified this way.
"We’re selling out and wrestlers aren’t supposed to do that.
"We pride ourselves on being unique. Wrestling isn’t popular and we collectively revel in that. Now, suddenly we want to do away with important core values in our sport to appeal to some gawkers who have no stake in the game? To those who haven’t dared to endure what we’ve endured? Do we really believe this is making wrestling better and more desirable?”
Here's a link to Black's full post.
ON THE MAT THIS WEEK
Oklahoma State coach John Smith joined us for the On The Mat podcast this week and we covered a ton of ground during the 50-minute interview with the six-time World and Olympic champion.
Here’s a sampling of the topics we discussed:
— Why this year’s dual between the Cowboys and Hawkeyes got moved to the end of the regular season.
— Smith’s favorite and least favorite memories in the Iowa-Oklahoma State series.
— His recollections of the epic 1998 dual with the Hawkeyes.
— The current state of the sport. “We are enjoying the good ol’ days of wrestling right now,” Smith said.
— How Oklahoma State will fit the lineup pieces together for the postseason with five talented wrestlers vying for four spots from 165-197.
“I think it’s going to be a good thing for us, but somebody’s going to be sitting out,” Smith said.
— His relationship with Iowa coach Tom Brands and why he felt Brands would be develop into an Olympic champion when they competed in 1991.
— His thoughts on the current set of college and international rules.
— Which Olympic weight he’d compete at under the current system.
— Who he thinks is the greatest college wrestler ever.
— His thoughts on Dave Schultz, Rich Bender, Jordan Burroughs and Dan Gable.