September 28, 2021

Praying to win in Elroy

Ithaca High School in South West Wisconsin has been known over the years for its championship wrestling teams. I wrestled on some of those teams in the late 1960s when Steve Waterman, now of Osceola, was our coach. Steve encouraged us to give our best for the school and the team, but he also made it very clear that church, family, and relationships with friends came first. His supportive style of coaching and his caring personality fostered a team spirit that, for many of us, resulted in great individual achievements. We knew that he cared about us more than he cared about winning, and that made all the difference.

There were many of us in those years who excelled beyond personal expectations and abilities because of the support and encouragement that we received from Coach Waterman. But of all the good wrestlers I knew at Ithaca, the best among us was one who never won more than a few matches in his whole high school career.

Roland Spencer was our heavyweight. At 5′4″, 162 pounds, he was smaller than most of the wrestlers he went up against. Some of them were over six feet tall and weighed up to 300 pounds. He wrestled some guys who looked absolutely terrifying. There were several occasions when we tried to convince Roland to forfeit rather than risk getting hurt, but he always insisted on wrestling, and he always got pinned.

Most of us would have quit after three or four matches like that. But Roland was not a quitter. He went out, match after match, and gave the best that he had to give. After a while we began to root for him just to get through one match without getting pinned.

I have never been one who believed in praying for myself, or for my team, to win. I always prayed that God would help me to do my best and have always been satisfied with that, whether I won or lost. There was, however, one occasion when I prayed with all my might for our team to win. It happened in Elroy, at a late-season meet against the Royal Panthers. After 11 bouts we were ahead by four points. There was one match remaining, heavyweight. Roland was to face one of the biggest and best heavyweights in our part of the state. All he had to do was keep from getting pinned and our team would win by one point.

It looked like David against Goliath when Roland went out to stand across from Royal’s big heavyweight. We were yelling and cheering for Roland at the tops of our voices, and I don’t think I was the only one who was praying like I had never prayed before: “Dear God, don’t let him get hurt and keep him from getting pinned.”

We thought it was going to be all over in the first period. The big man took Rolland down and tipped him over onto his back in a matter of seconds. Somehow Roland was able to keep his shoulders off the mat until the buzzer went off ending the first two-minute period. The second and the third periods were the same. Each time Roland was turned onto his back almost immediately, and each time he strained and pushed and somehow kept his shoulders from touching the mat for the required two seconds.

The Royal heavyweight pushed him back and forth across the mat several times, trying almost every pinning combination in the book, but this time Roland would not be pinned. When the final buzzer sounded, the Royal wrestler’s arm was raised in victory, but it was Roland who was really the winner, and everyone in the gymnasium knew it. By not getting pinned he gave our team the victory.

We ran out onto the mat, hoisted Roland up onto our shoulders, and carried him off. No champion ever received or deserved more adulation and praise than Roland Spencer got that night. We whooped and hollered all the way home. And in the few quiet moments that came in the midst of our celebrating, I thanked God for keeping Roland safe and helping him to win.

(Roland Spencer is a self-employed mechanic in Lone Rock, Wisconsin. Steve Waterman retired as superintendent of schools in Osceola, Iowa. This story was published with their permission in my 1991 book, “Lectionary Stories.” Ithaca High School still produces some of the best wrestlers in the nation.)

John Sumwalt is a retired pastor and the author of “Shining Moments: Visions of the Holy in Ordinary Lives,”, 414-339-0676