Chapter 3: Sports Runs in the Blood
For a little background on me and my sports career, particularly how I started wrestling and progressed through my journey, it started with my Dad, Greg McLaughlin Senior. He came from a hockey family and skated on elite teams throughout his childhood. After playing for Hebron Academy, a powerhouse Massachusetts Prep School, he moved on to play for Brown University. In his Junior year, he was the high point scorer on the team.
Brown was good to my Dad. He met my mom through a teammate, my Uncle David, whose sister, Jane, he eventually married.
By the time I hit 4-years-old, he had me on skates and I played on travel hockey teams throughout my youth as well. I was small, quick and knew the game inside and out. My Dad coached me and my teams throughout my entire childhood. By age 10, I was the second highest goal-scorer on our team and had the most assists. I could play any position, left wing, center, right wing and even defense. I won the opportunity to represent my town at an NHL game in the Mini One-on-One competition between periods at the Hartford Civic Center during a game against the Los Angeles Kings. I met hockey great Bobby Orr, shook his hand and even touched the Stanley Cup. And as he walked by me, coming off the ice after the end of the second period, the legendary Gordie Howe, playing into his 50s at the time, cracked me over the helmet with his stick and wished me luck.
Hockey gave me strong leg muscles, great endurance and an instinct to attack and score. While I had a tiny frame, I grew to become one of the most athletic kids in my grade.
The Avon Old Farms private school had a world-class high school hockey team, coached by John Dunham, a former teammate of my Dad’s at Brown. Every year, players from Old Farms moved on to play big time NCAA hockey at premier Division I schools like Minnesota, Wisconsin, UVM, Boston University and Boston College. The prep school boasted numerous alumni that played in the NHL including All-Star and Stanley Cup champion Mike Leach of the New York Rangers.
I was accepted to the school coming out of the eighth grade and intended to play for Coach Dunham. But then I broke my Dad’s heart. All my friends from Middle School were attending the public high school in town, Avon High School. I was young, shy and socially immature. It made me nervous to move on to a new, foreign environment where I didn’t have any pre-existing friendships or acquaintances. I told him I wanted to turn down the invitation to attend Old Farms and go to AHS instead.
Avon High had no hockey team, thus ending my decade-long hockey career.
At 5’1 inches tall and barely 88 pounds as a high school Freshman, I had no chance of playing basketball in the winter. I might have been a decent gymnast. But, in reality, I sat around at home watching television every day after school during the winter. For the first time in a long time, I had excessive free time, and I relished the art of wasting it.
One day, not too long into the winter sports season, I was sitting around in Study Hall during the last period of the day. For the life of me, I have no idea where the teacher had gone, but I know we were completely unsupervised for at least 10-15 minutes. The class consisted of a couple Freshman friends of mine and some burly sophomores.
The sophomores picked on the Freshman and some innocent, playful scuffling occurred. Ever the daredevil, I hopped onto one of the desks, jumped the biggest sophomore from behind, wrapped my arms around his neck and my legs around his back and started choking him. He yelped and tried to shake me off, but with my strong legs, I hung on tightly and probably overdid the choke hold.
The sophomore, Pete Lindley, was a member of the Avon High School wrestling team. When the bell rang for school to end, he carried me down to the wrestling practice room – I was still wrapped around his back and clinging to his neck.
“Coach,” he announced. “I found our new 91-pounder.”
As it turns out, I was the only kid in the school small enough to wrestle in the lowest weight class. That moment changed my athletic life and, to a large degree, set me on a life-long path of new accomplishment.
I won my first match four days later, instinctively utilizing moves that I had just learned in practice. Two days later, I wrestled in the Bristol Central tournament, one of the biggest, most prestigious tournaments in the state, and in a shocking surprise, I won first place. I had very few moves in my arsenal, but I benefitted from competing primarily against other Freshmen and definitely from my leg strength and toughness. My performance earned me the nickname on the team of “Mad Dog” McLaughlin, a moniker given to me by the senior captain of the team, Dave Drago and my idol, senior Rich Hernandez.
I finished the season 7-2, won our Conference tournament and came in fourth place in the State Class S meet. It was surreal to experience such success in such a short time, although losing in the semi-finals showed me a glimpse of what the road ahead would look like. I faced another Freshman, Don Nardi, from Nonnewaug High School. He was two inches shorter and covered in real, adult muscles. He dominated me. He squeezed me so tight, I wanted to quit. He pinned me en-route to winning the championship. I had beaten other wrestlers on a mix of natural ability, athleticism and desire to win. This would not be my first tangle with Don Nardi, but it certainly was my least successful effort against him.
Following my Freshman year, I started wrestling in Spring and Summer USA Wrestling freestyle tournaments. I learned the sport better. I shored up my stance. I honed my repertoire of moves. And, I became a pretty effective upper-body wrestler and pinner, meaning, I developed a proficiency for throwing my opponents from their feet to their back and keeping them there until their shoulders touched and the Ref called the pin.
I placed in the State Qualifier and made the Connecticut National Freestyle team that traveled to Iowa every year for the USA Wrestling Junior Nationals.
It was a combination of my Coach Bill Riccio’s teaching and my execution at these Spring and Summer tournaments where I perfected my headlock.
I went 15-3 as a 98-pound Sophomore and 14-2 as a 105-pound Junior, winning the Bristol Central and Conference tournaments and coming in third place in the State Class meet both years. I benefitted from having wrestled essentially an additional season each Spring and Summer. So, by the time I moved from a Freshman to a Sophomore, I had the equivalent experience of a Junior, by my Junior year, I had the experience of a College Freshman.
I racked up an undefeated record of 18-0 as a 112-pound Senior. I won the Bristol Central tournament for a fourth straight year becoming the first wrestler ever to win that event four years in a row. I won the conference and I won the State Class S meet, beating Don Nardi 6-3 in the finals.
I moved on to the State Open, which combined all the State Class meets into one ultimate State Championship. I took third place, but to this day, feel like I could have - and should have - won. I didn’t. I lost in the semi-finals to a short muscular kid named Darryl Stokes. Stokes went on to lose to Chuck Boyle in the finals. I had beaten Chuck Boyle numerous times over the past several summers and I am convinced that I would have beaten him had I made it to face him in the finals. But I lost and didn’t make it to the finals and he did. I didn’t get the chance to wrestle for the title, so I finished third. Boyle will forever remain the 1986 Connecticut State Open champ at 112 pounds. He earned it, and he deserves it.
I did beat Don Nardi again 1-0 along the way to third place.
In college, I bounced around. I transferred a couple times and it took me a while to settle in to a situation that worked for me. I ended up at Rhode Island College, a very strong Division III wrestling school. I weighed about 145 and wrestled at 118 and 126. Each season, I dropped the 25 or so pounds to compete. But for my Sophomore and Junior seasons, I had All-Americans ahead of me at 118, 126, 134 and 142, so I could not break into the varsity line-up.
I considered transferring. I even quit the team for a week in my Junior year. But ultimately, I stuck with it. And by my Senior year, a spot opened at 126 when All-American Brian Allen, who I could compete with but just never quite beat, moved up to the 134 pound weight class. This gave me one and only one year of eligibility to prove to myself what I could accomplish. I just didn’t know what goals to set.
So, not knowing what outcomes to expect, I set daily objectives for myself to bide time while I tried to define my own upward potential in the sport and on the RIC roster. The goal I settled into was to wake up each morning, make it to every practice first and to be the hardest worker in the room. This was not a goal that had a tangible finish line or defined reward. It was more of a covenant with myself that I would pursue with blind faith that the effort would pay off at some point before I graduated college or ran out of eligibility. Each day that elapsed without making the line-up was one more day of hard work that I put in toward salvaging my wrestling career, but also one less day of eligibility making up said career.
But, I couldn’t worry about that. Instead, every day in practice, I would look around, observe anyone who might be working harder than me and then double my efforts to outwork them. I figured that on a daily basis, I couldn’t control whether I made the starting line-up. But I could control my own actions and how hard I worked. I kept that faith for three years that the work would pay off. And at the tail end of my college career, it did. Eventually, I formed more specific goals to make the starting line-up and even to win the New England championship once that reality seemed plausible. But it all started with the initial objective to be the hardest worker in the room every day.
As a senior, I earned the starting spot at 126 pounds after narrowly beating the other 126 pounders on the squad in pre-season wrestle-off competitions. I won my first college tournament, the Ithaca tournament, which was one of the premier early-season tournaments in the country. As an unknown, I was seeded 32nd, literally dead last. I caught the first seed of the tournament in my first match. That first seed turned out to be David Hirsch, of Cornell, who, only two years later, ended up winning the 126-pound Division I NCAA National Championship.
I battled Hirsch well. He clearly had more experience and talent than I did. But I didn’t give him an inch. I squirmed out of every move he tried on me and kept the score close. With ten seconds left in the match, he had a 5-1 advantage. He could have run away and stalled to win the match. Instead, he wanted to win by an even bigger score than 5-1 against the last seed of the tournament. He shot in on a high crotch takedown and I hit him with an unorthodox move that I learned from Scott Martin, one of the All-Americans at RIC that had graduated the previous year. The move was called the “Worm”, where instead of sprawling to stop the move, I lowered my hips, clutched his leading shoulder into my stomach, fell back to a far hip, arched my back and kicked a leg over his hips to flip him to his back. The move only worked because it was so unorthodox and unexpected. But, using it, I was able to wrap-up this kid, Hirsch, and throw him right to his back. I held him there for the remaining five seconds of the match to earn the two-point takedown and the three back points I needed to win a near-miraculous come-from behind, last second shocker 6-5.
The win sent tremors across my weight class and suddenly, I had an intimidation factor that didn’t exist prior to that win.
I beat the next wrestler 10-9 on another last second score, this time executing a two-point reversal in the final five seconds of the match to transition from losing 9-8 to winning 10-9. I pinned the next two wrestlers using my headlock and found myself in the finals. The final match went to overtime and I won the tournament on an upper body throw to complete the classic come-from-nowhere Cinderella story. I even came in second in the voting for the Most Outstanding Wrestler award, which went to my teammate, Scotty Carlsten , also an All-American on our 1991 team, which ended up in the RIC Hall of Fame.
So, there I was, a 21-year-old fifth year college senior. I had one season of eligibility left to achieve the highest level I could reach. But I did not know what that threshold could be until my coaches, Rusty Carlsten and Tim Clouse, told me that they thought I could win the New England championship. That became my supreme objective. I won many matches that season, several by pin with my devastating headlock. I entered the New England tournament as the first seed, wrestled as well as expected and made it to the finals.
In the finals, I drew Ken Schiller from Norwich Academy, who had wrestled most of the season at 142 pounds and sucked down to 126 to try and take the tournament from me. He seemed much bigger and definitely stronger. When we tied up, he head-butted me in the eye, and my entire face blew up in an ugly purple swollen mound.
They stopped the match and iced it. I could barely see out of it. That didn’t stop me. When we resumed wrestling, I tied right back up with him. I took an overhook, used my chest to roll his head into position, sickled his head like a guillotine and hit him with probably the most vicious headlock of my wrestling career. He went straight to his back and I scored the margin I needed to beat him and win the tournament. I didn’t pin him as he was strong enough to eventually arch his way out of bounds. But the five-point advantage was all I needed to ultimately beat him 8-4.
Winning the State Class S meet over Don Nardi and winning the New Englands in college gave me this sense that I could achieve the ultimate happy ending to my goals if I dedicated my whole being to my objectives, focused incessantly on the steps required to get there and stayed motivated in my desire to win despite the many distractions that life presents. These lessons stayed with me and affected every endeavor of my life from other sports to my social life and ultimately my career.
I went on to continue wrestling every spring and summer after college out of the sheer joy of competing and the sense that I had a talent and skill that I wanted to maximize while I still could. I racked up dozens, if not hundreds of medals and trophies. I beat Chuck Boyle a couple more times. I made the finals of the Connecticut Nutmeg State Games, losing a close match to a Division II All-American. I won the USA Wrestling Eastern Regionals a couple times and the AAU Eastern Nationals. I even qualified to wrestle in the Regional Qualifier for the Olympic Trials, where I was beaten handily by two guys that ultimately made the team as alternates.
I had fun. I experienced great success. I earned respect in the region as a formidable wrestler
I also met Shirzahd Amadi. Shirzahd was in his 40's when I was in my 20's. He had wrestled in the 1976 Olympics as a member of the Iranian National team. The first time I wrestled him as a high school senior, he crushed me. But each time I wrestled him subsequently, I did better and by our third or fourth match-up, I started beating him. In fairness, he was typically ten pounds lighter than me and 20 years older. But we always had solidly competitive matches. And we both respected each other. We worked out together. He cheered for me when he wasn’t facing me. He gave me advice, encouragement and a lot of respect. I admired his pedigree and dedication to the sport at an over-40 age. At times, I pictured myself wrestling into my 40's like him. But I never took it seriously. I figured I’d fade out by age 30. And that is basically what happened.
In my last tournament, at age 28, I wrestled a 20-year-old Division I wrestler. I was better. I knew I was. By then, I was wrestling at 165 pounds. Wrestling while maintaining a 60 to 80-hour full time job and spending all my free time with my new finance made it impossible to control my weight and stay in top shape. At 165, I had the frame and physique of a 135-pounder with 30 pounds of meaningless padding that only slowed my movement and left me much weaker than the field.
In the match, I threw my 20-year-old opponent on his head and took a 3-0 lead. We tied up again. But he was bigger, stronger, quicker and in better shape. I had good position. But he managed to pop his hips into mine, lift me off my feet, throw me and pin me. That match ended my wrestling career at 28-years old. I didn’t know it at the time, but marriage, career pressures, bills, eventually kids and a mortgage, would all take me off point from continuing to wrestle each spring and summer. Along with the distractions came the additional weight gain into the 170's, 180's and 190's. Late night ice cream, extravagant business dinners, lunches with co-workers and snacks to get through the workday crashed my metabolism, expanded my waist and ballooned my weight.
I stayed engaged in sports, playing hockey, volleyball and softball. I would focus on career and family for the next 20 years, raising my kids, playing with them, coaching their teams and attending all their activities and events. Their priorities would occupy every spare moment of my time, thought, focus and effort. I hit my forties in what seemed like a heartbeat after passing through my thirties and transformed into the 200-pound middle aged blob that I had become. There was no way I could wrestle again – not with the way I had deteriorated physically. It would take a miracle, or at least a super-human effort to change myself.
I was about to reach deep inside and find that super-human strength.