Blacks were ‘born to wrestle’

But so far, getting them on the mat has not been easy

This column continues the Only One series in which this reporter shares his experiences as the only African American journalist on the scene. 

Sam Truen
Sam Truen

There’s a simple, one-handed measuring tool to gauge diversity, which often is used at sporting events:  If you can count all the Blacks in attendance with one hand, diversity is clearly lacking.

The tool was used again at a Minnesota Golden Gophers wrestling match against Oklahoma State a few weeks ago by the Only One, who sat on press row alongside Mike Allen, the Big Ten coordinator of wrestling officials; high school wrestling coach Darryl Johnson, who was watching a couple of his former wrestlers; and Johnson’s wife and daughter.

College wrestling is the real deal, not some WWF coin flip to decide who will win stuff. But not seeing any wrestler of color on either team that night, when we have seen them before at the U of M Sports Pavilion, either at Gopher matches or national meets, was quite a surprise to this reporter.

“We should have more,” noted Allen, who worked 15 NCAA championships and other major college events in the Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-10, and other conferences in his nearly 30 years as an official. He easily remembers his own Only One status as a college wrestler, then later as the first Black to officiate in the Iowa state wrestling tournament and named to the Iowa State Officials Hall of Fame in 2003. Allen also was a five-time high school championship coach in Iowa.

“We need to bring more African Americans and people of color out here,” added Allen.

“Wrestling saved my life,” admitted Johnson, who coached at St. Thomas Academy, St. Paul Humboldt, Apple Valley, and now at Benilde-St. Margaret’s. “Had I not started wrestling when I did, I probably would have been in the streets somewhere, lucky to make it to [age] 18.”

He believes Blacks were born to wrestle, but getting them on the mat isn’t easy. “It can be hard, but it’s work,” said the coach, adding that he has a “very diverse” group of wrestlers at his current school: “I’ve got at least five kids of color.”

Minneapolis South junior wrestler Sam Truen, age 16, says he doesn’t run into many wrestlers who look like him. “There’s not that many on teams that I see. There are a few out there,” he pointed out.

“I went into wrestling mainly because of my friends,” he recalled. He was in second grade then, “and I didn’t do anything, and they wrestled. So my parents talked to their parents, and they wanted me to wrestle as well. I found it to be a great sport and a good way to spend my winters.”

“I’ll be 50 years old in May,” said Johnson, “and I’m still competing. Wrestling keeps me young. I will continue to help out as many kids as I can” as a coach as well.

“Wrestling is a great sport,” said Truen. “I love the sport, and I have great passion about the sport. I don’t see any other sport I’d rather do but wrestling. It is a hard sport, and it is very mentally challenging at points. But once you try it, I think you will like it.”

Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to