When he was wrestling at Bald Eagle Area, Josh Wagner visited some of the sport's major venues in the Northeast.
Iron Man Tournament in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio? Check. Easton Duals? Check. Manheim Holiday Tournament? Check. Been there, got the medals to go along with the T-shirts.
In the winter of 1997-98, Wagner's senior year, BEA was beginning to cast a longer shadow on the landscape, finishing second to Cleveland St. Edward's at the Iron Man and winning the Manheim Tournament. Its only losses were to Easton and St. Edward's at the Easton Duals.
At 140 pounds, Wagner followed Corey Guenot, Mike Maney and Jeremy Lucas and was just ahead of Hunter Guenot at 145 in the heart of the BEA lineup. He was sixth at the Iron Man, fourth at Manheim and third in the District 6 and Sub-Regional tournaments as he wrapped up his final season with a 32-13 record.
He's Staff Sgt. Wagner, USMC, now. And he's a half a world away from The Hole, as they call the wrestling room at BEA, stationed at Taqaddum, Iraq. It's a different world and a different life from the one he knew when his biggest fear was incurring the wrath of Dick Rhoades if he didn't make weight.
Since then, he's served as a security guard when Pres. George W. Bush visited Beijing, walked around Moscow's Red Square in his dress blues and left his footprints in the soil of 10 other foreign countries.
And while he couldn't have known it at the time, the pain, the drudgery and the demands of wrestling practice helped him prepare for the increased pain, drudgery and demands of Marine boot camp.
"I'll admit that Coach Rhoades' pep talks, the Peters brothers' bone-crushing technique, (Steve) Millward's slickness and (Don) Burris' intense whistle-blowing can prepare you for a lot but in boot camp, you have to deal with so much more, "Wagner said via e-mail from Al Taqaddum, an abandoned Iraqi air base 74 kilometers west of Baghdad. "They're two completely different experiences. The toughest part of boot camp for me was dealing with being homesick. Everything else was pretty easy for me. Discipline, commitment and endurance are a few things that I learned about as a wrestler and then polished up while in was in boot camp.
"Hard work, dedication and the willingness to make sacrifices will take you a long way. In everything you do I feel you will eventually reach a peak or a stand-still. But you can maximize your potential in everything if you're willing to put forth the effort to what you committed yourself to. For the most part, as an athlete, you get out of the sport what you put into it. You can only coast your way through until you hit a certain level. Eventually, the one who works the hardest will prevail. The same rules have applied to my military career. If you just try to slime your way through, you'll get weeded out in a heartbeat."
Wagner's days in charge of a communications platoon have a certain sameness to them.
"I wake up at 0600, have PT (physical training), breakfast, work, lunch, work, dinner, work and then go to sleep when I'm done with work for the day, "he said. "The only day that is a little different is Sunday. It's the best day of the week because I sleep in until 0730 and it means we're another week closer to sunny and 70-degree weather in California.
"I have a good platoon working for me. When everything is working correctly, our job can be very slow and boring. As soon as services go down then you have to do whatever it takes to get the services back up. It's one of the fields most Marines take for granted until it's gone. I do my best to keep the attitudes in the platoon positive. There is no use in being down and depressed out here. This place will eat you alive if you let it."
Distractions are provided by occasional incoming artillery fire as well as sports, mostly softball and volleyball.
"Softball games are a great morale booster, "Wagner added. "Sports are an easy way to break through the boredom. I'm pretty fortunate to be located at a place where we are able to let our guard down a little. My company has put together a pretty good (softball) team. I don't see us losing for the rest of the deployment."
In July, Wagner will have put in eight years in the Marines and expects he'll complete a 20-year tour. By then the memories of his time in the Corps will far outnumber those of his days as a wrestler but won't diminish them.
"Just about every time I'm back home BEA wrestling stories come up, "he said. "My buddies and I can tell old wrestling stories for hours. It's always the same stories but they never get old. I was fortunate enough to be part of some good teams. We had a good coaching staff and they did their best to prepare us for every match. The stories always end up making us laugh now even though we weren't quite as chipper at the time.
"At the time it wasn't always fun, but when you look back at it now, you realize how fun and easy it was."
Ron Bracken is sports editor of the Centre Daily Times. He can be reached at 231-4641 or [email protected]