Chapter 1: January's Darkness
Winter in Central Pennsylvania is cold in more ways than by temperature alone. Many of the little towns that dot the countryside are slowly wasting away to mere shells of former lives when industry was alive and leading the area through the development of the country. Chilly winds whip through the vacant buildings, rattling and creaking broken window panes, whipping dust clouds in the frozen air. The town of Mount Nittany is no exception to this sobering unwritten social law of Pennsylvania. Much of what put the town on the map has been outsourced to cheaper, more temperate clientele. At one point in the 1960s, Mount Nittany was a bustling coal and timber town. Its mines and mills made the town a bustling train stop along the Alleghany Mountains. What remains of the boom are vacant lots and decaying warehouses, the dull and dirty chipping paint that once shined boldly is now peeling away from the blocks from a lifetime of rain, snow, and cold weather. Despite the slow, agonizing death of Mount Nittany, there are glimmers of hope- not coming from business or industry, but from the depths of the high school. Hope of comes in the form of escaping this dilapidated valley to a reincarnation into a modern time; to no longer be permanently stuck in 1965. For one high school wrestler it is only hope that keeps him from giving in to Mount Nittany. His idea of hope is a wrestling scholarship- anywhere away from the life that has reduced so many of his peers to shells of what they used to be. Living in Mount Nittany after graduating from high school slaps you in the face and repeatedly kicks you in the groin with a life filled with dead end jobs and scraping by to make ends meet. David Lewis has too much to accomplish in his life to risk the slaps and kicks that await him if he does not escape Mount Nittany.
Only at dawn does Mount Nittany seem like she is not screaming out in agonizing pain from its slow imminent death. The air is crisp and cold, but silence fills the air; perfect time for contemplation. The back door slams in the near darkness at an average looking salt box home on the side of a stretch barren highway. Footsteps crunch in the snow covering the darkened driveway, walking towards the road. Releasing a deep, foggy breath of air, David Lewis fixes his hat and pulls his hood over his head and begins to run down the empty highway. Nary has a car approaches; it is far too early for even the timeliest first shift workers to be heading off to work. David runs by himself in more ways than by the emptiness of the highway at dawn alone. He is in his final year of wrestling at Mount Nittany High and only David can command the lonely journey he has embarked upon this season. His short stature does not define how tall and grand he stands when he steps foot on a wrestling mat. Twice he has placed at the state tournament in Hershey; this alone has made him a bit of a coveted individual in Mount Nittany. But David is smart enough to realize that the only way he will earn his way out of Mount Nittany is through wrestling. And for David Lewis to get a scholarship it means he will have to complete the nearly impossible task of winning a Pennsylvania state championship. Pennsylvania produces some of the very best high school wrestlers every year. Not regionally, but nationally. While David Lewis can be considered one of the best in the area and probably the state, he quietly doubts his dream and goal of winning state. Despite being successful in the eyes of the casual wrestling fan, he often falls short of his goals in the biggest matches and tournaments. But getting a good run in before school can help the process. David can work on the only aspect of wrestling he is not good at: mental toughness. He is in phenomenal physical shape, even when comparing him to other wrestlers. David Lewis looks and acts like a wrestler who is well beyond seventeen years old. He wrestles more like a collegiate athlete than a seventeen year old high school senior. David spends every free moment preparing and training his body for the battles on the mat. His ears bare the scars of such battles, gnarled and squished into cauliflower. Cauliflower ear is a wrestler’s badge of honor and David Lewis wears it well.
Clear signs of the deterioration of Mount Nittany are all around David as he runs towards the high school. The crumbling Johnson’s Lumber Mill, once the largest in Pennsylvania, has been closed as far back as David can remember. The same rusting truck sits in the overgrown vacant parking lot as it has for the last ten years. But then again, he passes three taverns that are still open at dawn filled with third shift workers coming in for their breakfast of champions: cheap whiskey chased with stale beer. Through the blinking light at the junction of who knows where and this road leads out of town, David passes the sign pointing the way to the old coal mine- Mount Nittany’s largest employer until the company found deeper veins and cheaper labor in southwest Virginia, pulling its business out of town to leave half of the town with a job. That was ten years ago and the place has not recovered. It seems like any new opportunity quickly escapes Mount Nittany. There must be something dangerous in the air to keep hope and possibility around. Hope is a profanity for those who grow up in Mount Nittany.
Ahead in the distance is the high school. Built in the 1950s, Mount Nittany High School remains the oldest school building in the county and is desperate need of repairs. But there just isn’t the kind of money lying around the area to repair the school, so it continues to look like a relic from the past. David trots through the pot hole filled parking lot still covered with last night’s snow squall and to a dented and rusted metal door near the gymnasium. It leads downstairs to his personal temple: the wrestling room.
Two tattered, old mats line the floor and makeshift pads hang on the wall to keep the wrestlers from bashing their (or their opponent’s) skull on the concrete. David has taken a few shots to the bare concrete during his career at Mount Nittany and has the scars to show on his forehead. The wrestling room is the only place where David Lewis feels completely at home. From October to March he spends more hours in the Mount Nittany wrestling room than at his house. There is a musty stench in the air that only those who wrestle can tolerate, an intoxicating perfume of sorts to the wrestler. The heat is always on in the wrestling room; the wrestlers are constantly working themselves down to their respective weight classes sweating off the pounds in long, torturous drilling sessions of repeated slams to the mat, constant twisting and torquing of limbs all in effort to turn their foe on their back for a pin. For a few minutes David soaks in the heat, allowing his body to continue sweating after his three-mile run, sitting in the dark staring at the “Wall of Champions” that shows the history of wrestling at Mount Nittany. David’s name is on the wall as a District champion and State place winner, but he fixates on the spot reserved for State Champions. Mount Nittany hasn’t had a State Champion since Jeff Harrison in 1986. David’s eyes fixate on the fading name on the wall, blurring into background. The Tornadoes of Mount Nittany are well overdue for a new State Champ.
A door on the far side of the wrestling room pops open, a hand reaches in to find the light switch. David’s teammate Tom Marley saunters in and stands above David. Tom pulls a can of Copenhagen snuff out of his coat pocket, taps it a few times with his fingers and places a large portion into his mouth, settling it into his cheek. He spits a black wad of tobacco juice at a garbage can. He misses.
“How was the workout this morning David?” Tom asks, spitting another gob of juice.
David thinks long and hard before he answers. Tom may be David’s teammate, but by no means are they on the same level of talent. Tom is the polar opposite of David’s intensity, desire, and hard work. And it shows in his poor record- wasted talent. “The usual. Cold. Dark. Silent. Just how I like it.”
Tom helps David to his feet. “You are seriously one warped dude to get up every morning at the ass crack of dawn just to run into school. I could never do that!”
“Well, it does get my blood flowing, Tom,” replies David, as they walk out of the wrestling room. “This is my coffee. If I don’t get my workout in before school, I am completely worthless.”
Tom chuckles. “Completely psychotic you mean David; absolutely psychotic. So are you ready to beat up on State High this week?”
Walking together into the boy’s locker room, David sits down on a bench and begins to pull layer after layer of soaked sweatshirt and sweatpants off. Sweat pours off his well muscled body; each step of his abdominal muscles almost burst out of his skin. Tom is secretly envious and jealous of David Lewis but will never admit it. He wishes he had the drive and determination to do as well in wrestling as David. But he snaps back to reality; Tom Marley is one of the most popular (and wealthiest) kids in school. At least Tom has that to fall back on if wrestling continues to beat him down. David disappears for a second; time to check his weight. He returns with a smile on his face. David’s weight must be pretty good, that is if by good you mean six pounds over for this coming Wednesday’s match against State High.
“I’ll be ready to go Tom,” David utters, grabbing a towel and heading into the shower to get ready for the day. “The bigger question is, will you be ready?”
“You know me David,” Tom giggles. “I’m always ready.”
The time before the school day begins is one of the best times for high school kids to catch up with their friends. The four or five minutes between classes just aren’t enough time to start a conversation or begin scheming some sort of plot of mischief. Getting to school well in advance of the first bell affords David and his friends and teammates to congregate in the hallway and act like teenagers. David and Tom run in the same social circle, but Tom tries very hard to deliberately set the pecking order: he is first and everybody else is second. As long as the center of activity is around Tom, life is good. Money will do that to a high school senior.
“Well you said you were ready the last match,” David matter of factually acknowledges. “And didn’t you get pinned? Dude, you should really think about working out with me in the morning. It would definitely give you an edge.”
Tom’s face turns a bright tomato-ish red, obviously embarrassed at his actions. “I need my beauty sleep David. There is no way I would be able to function without sleep. I have people to impress.”
As David shakes his head another teammate of theirs, Chad Phillips, meanders over looking haggard and wiped out. Chad is the team’s weight problem; he is usually the most over his weight class the night before a match than any other Mount Nittany wrestler. The energy Chad wastes on his weight cut shows in his wrestling. He constantly runs out of gas halfway through every match. Sometimes he is able to scramble and hold on to narrow leads to preserve victory. Chad’s clothes hang off his rail thin body like bags, similar to the bags under his eyes. He is always tired, hungry, and dehydrated. Even Chad’s voice tells of his lack of energy. But more than that, Chad is always angry and sad during wrestling season because he is so tired, hungry, and dehydrated.
“Hey guys, what’s up?” mumbles Chad, sighing with malcontent. “Only ten more to cut. I think I can make it. I am so tired of this weight cutting crap. This sucks.”
“Dude, you look like garbage!” Tom utters. “Suck it up or slap on a skirt, girlie!”
Outraged by Tom’s remark, Chad musters what little energy he has and grabs Tom by his designer shirt, slamming him into the nearest locker. He forcefully shoves Tom in the chest, audibly thumping his sternum.
Chad is visibly angry. “Shut the hell up Marley! Some of us are busting our asses for this team. And some of us don’t have to suck any weight and still wrestle like a fish. You’re a fish Marley.”
Still reeling from the shove into the locker, Tom can only watch Chad storm off down the hallway. Before he can chime in, David quickly shoots Tom a nasty look.
“There is some truth to what he said, Tom. You haven’t cut weight in two years and in those two years you haven’t done shit. You would do so much better if you dropped to ’35 and Chad moved to ’40.”
Tom adjusts his shirt and jacket, trepidation leaving his face. “Now that is some messed up crap Lewis; why should I give up my spot at ’40?”
“You always weigh out of practice at 138, so it’s not like you couldn’t cut three pounds,” David suggests, picking a piece of lint off of Tom’s jacket. “Chad needs a break. Do him a favor and give him some hope. Dude’s is so wound up he’s going to snap soon. I don’t want to be around when that happens.”
A new expression of apprehension cascades over Tom’s face. “Tell you what: if I lose at State High and Chad wins, I’ll drop to 135. If, I mean, when I win you have to hand wash and wax my Jeep for a month.”
David and Tom shake hands to solidify the deal. Tom disappears into the growing crowded hallways. Tom is kind of like an illusionist- he can appear and disappear at will, popping up when you least expect and leaving at the drop of a hat. But Tom’s departure is just fine with David. He now has time to find the one person at Mount Nittany who vaguely understands him, his girlfriend Andrea Karelin.
David and Andrea started dating in 9th grade when they met in PE class. They were attracted to each other at their first in class mile run. David was the only one in the class who kept up with Andrea; he did not know that she was one of the top distance runners in the state. He was mad that she beat him in the race, but was impressed with her, which led to conversation, which then led to a first date.
Friends consider David and Andrea as socially awkward because of their dedication to their respective sports. Andrea runs cross country in the fall, indoor track in the winter, and outdoor track in the spring and summer. She understands how committed David is to wrestling and helps any way she can, usually by running home with him after practice. They don’t talk much about the “usual” high school things, like going to the next party or what clothes they will buy at Christmas. Rather they are both concentrated on the future. Not that they don’t have fun like “normal” high school kids, because they do. David and Andrea will check out the latest movie when it comes to town, and “hang out” like “normal” seventeen year olds. But sport is always present in their minds, even if it’s not at the forefront of their conversation. For the couple, their only way to a good future is to leave Mount Nittany. And to leave Mount Nittany they will need a scholarship to college.
David can spot Andrea even in the most crowded hallway; they have some sort of ESP and can sense the other coming which causes the other to immediately begin looking around. And it’s not like Andrea is an ugly girl; in fact she was nominated to the Homecoming Court in the fall. David often tells his friends how lucky he is to have “the hottest blond in school” as his girlfriend. They spot each other near the Library and magnetically meet in the center of the hallway, always with a kiss and hug.
“Sorry I couldn’t talk too much last night David. I had a ton of Trig homework to get through.”
“Don’t worry about it, sweetie,” blushes David. “I had to finish my English paper and read that chapter for Government. It’s all good!”
Their hands meet, fingers interlacing as they walk down the hall. The crowd in the hallway seemed to open up like Moses parting the Red Sea; subconsciously their peers knew to get out of the way of David Lewis and Andrea Karelin. They’ll both shoulder block you out of the way and not think twice about it either.
“How was the run in today David?”
Wrestlers often gauge their workouts based on the amount of weight they lose, not on how good or bad they feel. It’s all about the weight. “Not too bad. I’m only about six or so over for Wednesday. State High should be pretty tough. I’m definitely looking forward to the match.”
Not only is Andrea David’s girlfriend, but she is a mentor, statistician, and tracker of progress. She knows David’s opponents almost as well as David.
“You shouldn’t have anything to worry about,” Andrea reassured, patting David on the back. “You’re guy isn’t one of their better guys. You’ll be fine.”
The tardy bell rings: one minute to get to class. David cannot afford another tardy to his English class. His teacher will throw him in detention quicker than David can take down his next opponent. David quickly kisses Andrea, silently acknowledging that they will see each other at lunch. He scoots down the hall towards his English class, knowing that his teacher Mrs. Johnson will be at the door counting down the seconds with detention slip in hand. Just as the late bell rings, David slides into class, nearly crashing into his seat in the back row.
“That was a close one Mr. Lewis,” Mrs. Johnson chuckles. “It’s good to know that I’m keeping you on your toes and ready for your next match.”
Chad sits nearly slumped over on his backpack in his chair, unaware of the class going on around him. His focus is always on his weight, how much he can eat and drink, and how he will find a way to make weight and escape the wrath of his coach. English class is simply one more distraction that gets in the way of weight cutting for Chad. David pokes Chad awake with his pen to get his attention.
“Chad, I know how bad you’re hurting. You know that I’ve been through the same thing. It sucks ass, but it’s something we gotta do, right?”
Chad sucks in a breath of air, releasing it slowly, sadly. “It’s bull David, and you know it. I’m so sick and tired of Marley talking so much trash and then going out there and getting his ass kicked every match. He’s such a slacker, David. I’m so tired of this. If something doesn’t change, I’m going to quit.
“Dude, don’t give up man,” Scott Stever, a football player and friend of David’s suggested, patting Chad on the back. “You’re one of the toughest hombres on that team Chad. Just keep your faith.”
“That’s easier said than done, Scott,” Chad replied. “When you have to cut at least ten pounds before every single match man; it wears you out.”
A voice bellows from on the floor behind David. “You gotta do what I do Chad-O!”
Virtually out of nowhere leaps Booger Johnson. Booger is a teammate of David and Chad and is one of the most irreverent individuals at Mount Nittany High. Booger is odd, interesting, unpredictable, and often times scary. No one knows what he will do next. Booger jumps to his feet and leaps to Chad’s desk, his nose inches away from Chad.
“You gotta do what I do Chad-O: rip their balls off, feed it to them, and make them want to come back for seconds. That’s what you gotta do Chad-O!”
David, being the voice of reason, interjects. “I made a little bet with Tom Marley. You interested in hearing about it?”
Chad sits up and inquisitively gazes at David. “Sure. What’s the deal?”
“If you win Wednesday night and he loses, Tom will drop to ’35 and let you move up to ’40. If he wins, I have to wash his Jeep for a month.”
“But you know I have Ricardo, David!” Chad rolls his eyes, sighs, looking at the lights. “Man, you know he almost pinned me last time.”
“Rip his balls off Chad-O!” mumbles Booger, finally taking his seat next to David, but making strange hand and arm gestures as he sits.
“If it’s any consolation, I’m having a little get together at my cabin on Saturday,” announced Scott. “You guys are more than welcome to stop by and have a few brew-skis with us.”
David shrugged his shoulders. “It’s the middle of the season Scott, we can’t drink.”
Scott shrugs his shoulders right back at David. “So what, you don’t have to drink if you don’t want to. It’s all good.”
Lunch break is a dangerous time for wrestlers. So many temptations with food and beverage around; so many choices! Many wrestlers have ruined their weekly diet on school food- especially when Mount Nittany serves its famous porkette meal with mashed potatoes. Porkette day is similar to Thanksgiving for students: a time to celebrate with the mystery meat. No one is quite sure what exactly is in porkette, it just tastes good. Most of the time the wrestlers will pack their own lunches, surviving on a diet rich in carbohydrates, a little protein, and water. Nearly all of the Mount Nittany team sticks to their regimented dietary habits like glue. David is no exception. Lunch for him entails two bananas, two bagels with ranch dressing, and a bottle of grape Gator Aide. There is no deviation from the menu. It will always be two bananas, two bagels with ranch dressing and a bottle of grape Gator Aide simply because that’s the way it has been for the past four years. Chad was his usual brooding self, savoring ever last succulent drop of his lunch: one orange. Fortunately, Andrea is much more understanding about the wrestlers’ dietary needs, unlike Chad’s significant other Tina. Tina has never participated in any sports; she has zero athletic bones in her body and less understanding of the needs of a wrestler. She is more of a free-spirit, Grateful Dead type who is all about art, peace, and love. Why she is with Chad nobody knows. The four are joined at their lunch table by Booger’s younger brother Mark, the only freshman in the starting lineup for the wrestling team. Mark is the typical freshman wrestler who makes foolish mistakes on the mat and in his training. He would rather not eat lunch than have to work off his five remaining pounds. David and Chad were just like Mark when they first got on the varsity team. But no matter what pointers they give Mark, he refuses to listen. Unfortunately for Mark, he is David’s main drill partner at practice and receives his fair share of daily beatings when they wrestle live.
“I can’t believe Marley actually accepted that bet David,” Mark tells the group. “Do you think he has a chance to win on Wednesday?”
David shakes his head, pointing at Chad, whose head is buried under his backpack. “I don’t think so. I mean, I would love for him to actually do well. But I just don’t think he’ll pull this one off. Look at Chad- he’s tired and miserable all the time. Don’t you think he deserves a break?”
Before anyone can reply, out of nowhere Booger storms out from behind the cafeteria line, making a high-velocity beeline towards the table of wrestlers. He gets into his wrestling stance, shadow wrestling in front of the table, completely unaware and uncaring of those around him. Booger is always prepared; he even has his headgear on as to not damage his fragile ears.
“You gotta be tough out there Booger!” he shouts to himself, pretending to down block an opponent shooting in on his legs. “You gotta be like Sanderson. You gotta be like Brands! No pain! No mercy!”
Booger finds an open chair at the wrestler’s table and quietly sits down, almost like he flipped a light switch to the off position. He takes off his headgear and returns back to normal Booger, if there is such a thing as a normal Booger Johnson.
“Hey guys, how’s lunch going?” asks Booger, not cognizant of the flabbergasted looks and shaking heads of those around him. “Was there a fight or something? What did I miss?”
Chad props up his head, glancing at Mark. “Why is your brother so messed up, Mark? He’s got some issues!”
Mark chuckles. “I guess he got dropped on his head one too many times as a baby. I don’t know.”
David pats his friend on the shoulder, giving his neck a little pinch. “It’s good to see you’re still with us Chad. I thought you fell asleep or something.”
The table erupts with laughter at Chad’s expense. And just like that, what began as a conversation about weight cutting transformed into a “normal” high school lunch, complete with the regular adolescent ribbing of friends. But the discussion quickly reverts back to the Wednesday night wrestling match.
“How am I going to pull off beating Ricardo on Wednesday?” Chad wondered out loud. “He almost pinned me earlier in the year.”
Usually quiet, Tina decided to add her opinion to the mix. “You just have to keep focused and believe in yourself, Chad. If you do that, you will do just fine!”
David scoots out of his chair, preparing to get ready for his next class. “Listen to your girlfriend Chad. She is absolutely right on this. You can do it. Come on Andrea, I’ll walk you to your next class.”
Andrea joins David and together they exit the cafeteria hand in hand, leaving Chad, Mark, Booger, and Tina at the table all sitting in awkward silence. David tends to be the glue that keeps his group of friends together. Usually they can survive when Andrea is with them, but when she is not there, silence drones out the noise of the busy cafeteria.
“Scott Stever is having a party on Saturday,” Chad offers, to begin the conversation. “Do you want to go Tina?
Tina smiles and cheerily nods her head. “That would be great. We haven’t done anything really social for the past two months, sweetie. I would love it.”
“Well wrestling season kind of keeps me occupied,” Chad replies, kissing Tina on the cheek. “I could definitely use the distraction.”
At the same time, in a different area of the school David and Andrea are having the exact same conversation as Chad and Tina. Andrea is surprised that David wants to go to a party during the season. He is usually one to stay away from large gatherings, enjoying the company of close friends than relative strangers.
“What’s gotten into you David; a party during wrestling season?”
David blushes and drops his head to hide his face. “Yeah, I figure it will be the last real opportunity to chill out with our friends before the meat of the season kicks in. I could use a little diversion from everything.”
“David Lewis wanting to be social?” a stunned Andrea admits. “You are one of the most un-social people I know David! What gives?”
“I just need a little mindless fun for a night.” David reaches for Andrea and pulls her close. “It’s just one evening, nothing special. I think it would be great for us and especially Chad.”
Andrea straightens David’s shirt from within their embrace. “Yeah he’s wound pretty tight right now. He needs a break.”
David leans in and passionately kisses Andrea on the lips. Occasionally the two anti-social jocks slip into “normal” high school behavior and act like the ordinary boyfriend and girlfriend. It is much less often in public; David absolutely hates public displays of affection from other people and does not want to be branded a hypocrite. This embrace will have to hold the two over until after wrestling practice when they see each other again. Opportunity for moments like this is few and far between for David and Andrea, so they try to make the most out of them. Many couples would not be able to survive in a relationship like theirs; idle hands lead to misdirection, which then lead to conflict.