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Sports

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Coach understands allure of wrestling

Forty-three years he’s sat on that folding chair at the corner of the mat, one cowboy boot planted firmly on either side of it. Forty-three years he’s spent his winters leaning this way and that, trying to keep 43 years worth of kids off their backs.

So you can understand a little why New Haven wrestling coach Barry Humble’s feeling a trifle flattened himself these days, now that the days are down to a couple at most.

After 543 wins, 10 sectional titles, two regional titles and three top-10 state finishes, he’s about to rise from that chair and walk away, and though he knows it’s time, it’s never time. Not when your heart’s been flat technical fall-ed by a sport whose attraction no one really understands except those who, well, understand it.

“You know what?” Humble said. “It’s really about the relationships. And the relationships I hope never grow old. Those are what’s kept me at least semi-young.

“I don’t think there’s any sport that can replicate that. These guys have spent the offseason in tournaments and maybe even working out against each other, and they know each other. They’ve spent that time.”

And so when he says there are mixed emotions at work here, it’s not just something to say. Twenty-one years at Adams Central, smack in the beating heart of wrestling country in this state; then a couple of years at Northrop and three as an assistant at South Side; then 17 more years at New Haven …

Well. That’s a lot of takedowns and reversals and near-falls. That’s a lot of time spent in that chair on the corner of the mat, watching the years march past and then, magically, reappear in a different incarnation down the road.

The IHSAA state finals this weekend, for instance?

Yes, Humble will be taking Reese Seiger at 138 pounds and Rashad Jackson-Tatum at 160, his 46th and 47th state qualifiers. But at some point he’s going to look up, and there will be Luke Fielding coaching Garrett, and Joel Richmond coaching Eastside.

Humble coached the two of them on the same team at New Haven. And one of the young men who’s helping him out these days, why, Humble coached that young man’s father more than 20 years ago.

“It just keeps going on,” Humble says. “I think about that a lot.”

What he also thinks about, when asked, is the great irony that what keeps going on as he steps away will go on no longer at the Olympics – whose leadership decided to drop wrestling, one of the oldest Olympic sports.

Pull a 3,000-year-old urn out of the Aegean Sea, after all, and there’ll be a mosaic on it of two guys wrestling. The ancient Olympics, let alone the modern, included wrestling as one of its core disciplines. And now, absurdly, the alleged guardians of Olympic tradition have ditched it to make room for, among other things, golf and rugby.

Ticks Humble right off.

“Here you have one of the original sports going all the way back to Biblical times, and you’re talking about taking it out just to be modern?” Humble says. “That’s not what I understand the Olympics to be all about.”

What wrestling’s about, however, he does understand.

“It really came to a head at sectional,” Humble says. “A number of guys who came up and talked with me and said, ‘I heard you were retiring,’ and I got a little emotional.

“Those were special times with those kids. And it still touches me.”

Ben Smith has been covering sports in Fort Wayne since 1986. His columns appear four times a week. He can be reached by email at bensmith@jg.net; phone, 461-8736; or fax 461-8648.

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