The weigh-in was over now and there was nothing to occupy Dan Hodge's mind but the man he must wrestle in five hours. For two days his immediate enemy had been food and drink. But now he weighed 177 pounds officially and his weight no longer mattered. The thick steak gave his belly a pleasant, packed feeling, but the pleasure of anticipation was gone. He had talked all morning of eating. "Ice cream. Steak. I'm going to get me some ice cream and steak." Now he was not hungry any more and his thoughts turned to the match at 8 o'clock. Thinking about it made him nervous.
"Want to lie down for a while, Dan?" It was Port Robertson, the Oklahoma coach. "We have two rooms upstairs if you want to lie down."
Dan stared around the lobby of the hotel. The team always stayed here when it came to Stillwater to wrestle Oklahoma A&M. The television set in the corner was tuned in to a pro basketball game, but Dan did not feel like watching basketball.
"Naw, Port. Think I'll go to the movies."
He gathered a few of his teammates and went off to lose his nerves.
Dan Hodge is the best college wrestler in the country. He has never been beaten in 41 college matches. More astounding, in the college sport in which a pin is a rarity, Hodge has pinned 32 of his opponents, the last 19 of them in succession.
This weekend, March 29 and 30, more than 200 wrestlers from 60 colleges and universities will gather at the University of Pittsburgh for the national college wrestling championships. Of them all, the man to watch is Hodge. Not only will he be after his third straight intercollegiate 177-pound championship—a feat rare in itself—but he will also be trying to gain recognition for the second straight year as the tournament's outstanding wrestler.
MUSCLES FOR THE PANTHEON
There is every reason to believe he will realize his ambition. Rex Peery, coach of the University of Pittsburgh team, describes the 24-year-old Oklahoman as the finest collegian to come along in years. "He's too good for college boys," said Peery. "He's head and shoulders ahead of anything we've got." This is high praise coming from Peery, a fellow who was an intercollegiate champ at Oklahoma A&M in his undergraduate days and who since then has coached two of his sons, Hugh (now graduated) and Ed, to national championships at Pitt.
Largely because of Dan Hodge, Oklahoma will be favored to win the NCAA team title, but not without strong opposition from Iowa, Pitt, Oklahoma A&M, Penn State and Lehigh, perennial powers in a sport which seems to be dominated by muscular types from the states of Iowa, Oklahoma and Pennsylvania.
Hodge was born and raised just outside Perry, Okla., some 120 miles from Spavinaw, birthplace of Mickey Mantle. He came from the same sturdy stock as Mantle. Dan's father, William E. Hodge, has worked most of his life as an itinerant oilfield roughneck—a casing rigger who works at the top of 140-foot oil derricks. Dan, too, has worked in the oilfields in the summertime. Oklahoma, already taking proud bows for Mantle—as well as for Bud Wilkinson and the only team in college football with a 40-game winning streak—is about ready to admit Dan Hodge to the state pantheon.
The best way to learn about Dan, of course, is to visit Oklahoma. I caught up with him at Norman, a day or two before Oklahoma U.'s final dual match at Stillwater against Oklahoma A&M, currently the reigning national collegiate champions.
I met his coach, Port Robertson, first. We sat in his windowless office in the Oklahoma field house just across the street from the dominating bulk of the OU football stadium.
"Wrestling's a tough sport, you know," Robertson said. "The season lasts five and a half months. It's all work, work, work, and maybe you wrestle 12 matches counting tournaments. Five and a half months for 12 matches. That's a long season." He paused long enough to let the length of the season sink in.
"We start working October 15, and we begin with handball. It's the best game ever developed for conditioning. It sharpens reaction, develops agility and stamina. Then after a while we start calisthenics. I let them go at it easy at first and then work them up to 30 minutes of pure calisthenics gradually. Then by the middle of November I've got the kids ready to start wrestling a little.
"A wrestling match lasts nine minutes. I figure it takes 10 weeks of training to get a kid ready to wrestle a match. You figure to gain a minute of stamina in a week of training. So, for a nine-minute match, I train them 10 weeks. I like them to have that extra minute in reserve.
"This is a strong league and you have to have strong men, follow me?"
As if to demonstrate this thesis, Dan Hodge himself walked in. He had none of the caged-cat nervousness that was to be evident the next day in Stillwater. He seemed what he was: a big, strong country boy and, as it turned out, a hungry one under restraint. At lunch he passed up the chicken, potatoes and pie that were getting strong play with most of the others. He addressed himself mournfully to a couple of slices of lean roast beef, cold.
"That's all I get to eat until weigh-in tomorrow," he said. "I weigh about 195 when I'm not in training, so I can't eat much if I'm going to make 177."
Robertson does not believe in sweat-box weight control. He would rather see Hodge wrestle at 191 pounds in the NCAA tournament than have him starve and sweat down to 177. But Hodge likes the lower weight and will not be swayed.
"The biggest objection I have to sweatbox control," said Robertson, "is what it does to morale. I think what you can't work off or run off, the good Lord put there for a purpose. I don't let my wrestlers use a sweatbox."
"Naw," said Dan, "he'd much rather see us starve."
That afternoon at practice, Dan looked anything but weak from hunger. He was dressed in red tights and white canvas wrestling shoes. His torso rose in a V to powerful shoulders and corded neck. On the mat he was no longer a diffident country boy. His workout opponent that day—as on every day of the long training season-was his teammate Gene White, who was Oklahoma's first-string 177-pounder before Dan came to school. It is White's fairly thankless job to try to beat Dan. Sometimes he comes close, but only because that, too, is part of the training job.
"I let him get me every once in a while," says Dan, "just to remember what it's like to have someone on top of me—so I won't be lost if it happens in a match."
It has not happened yet. Gene White, for one, does not think it will ever happen in American catch-as-catch-can wrestling: "He's a strong man. Strong as maybe three men, in fact. Every once in a while I think maybe I have him, and then he explodes. I can't whip him. I don't think anybody can."
Dan decided that the SPORTS ILLUSTRATED man should learn firsthand what some of his holds feel like. "I'll just use quarter-pressure, so don't be nervous." I agreed. We got down in the referee's position (Hodge on all fours, I to his side with my right arm looped about his waist, my left hand with a death grip on his left arm). Since I had done a little schoolboy wrestling and outweighed Dan by 20 pounds or so, I had a brief vision of giving him a run for his money. At the signal to start he backed into me and my head went over his shoulder. Next thing I knew, my neck was in a vise grip. My torso and legs were up there somewhere, miles above my head in free flight. I landed on my back, pinned as neatly as a basted hemline.
"Shouldn't have stuck your head over my shoulder," said Hodge in a gently reproving tone. "That's a basic mistake."
For the next 15 minutes I was half crushed in a Hodge scissors, stretched at least two inches in a double grapevine, bent into a circle in a cradle, forced to chew on my own fist in a double bar arm. More than anything, the experience helped me develop a real feeling of compassion for Gene White.
Dan has been wrestling since he was 13. At that age he moved in from the countryside, with its limited country school, for the better opportunities of high school in Perry (pop. 5,200). His high school wrestling coach at Perry, John Devine, got him a job at a filling station and a place to sleep in the fire house. Dan worked his way through school, won two state championships and was undefeated his last two years. When Dan graduates from Oklahoma U. in June, with a degree in industrial arts, he wants to go into high school teaching—coaching wrestling on the side like John Devine. "Professional wrestling? Not for me. I want to be a teacher."
Dan was asked about the story that he has never been beaten since high school.
"That's not exactly true. I lost once at the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki and once again at the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne."
I had to get the rest of the story from Coach Robertson.
"Dan tried Olympic freestyle wrestling for the first time in 1952. He got to the Olympic quarter-finals. Freestyle is different from our college style. It's almost like learning a new sport. You can't roll free and easy to maneuver for position in Olympic wrestling because an instant brush of the shoulders on the mat is considered a pin. If they worked it that way in college wrestling, half the champions would wind up pinning themselves in half their matches. Sometimes a man has to brush his shoulders on the mat to gain an advantageous position. That's what happened to Dan at Melbourne. He missed winning the 174-pound gold medal by two seconds. He was way ahead of this Bulgarian on points, but while trying to roll for a better hold his shoulders touched the mat. The referee called it a fall just as the buzzer ended the period. Dan won a silver medal. Still, it was the highest award the U.S. got in wrestling."
On the morning of the trip to Stillwater, the Oklahoma wrestling team met early at the gym and the wrestlers checked their weights. Ten were making the trip, and weight was a touchy subject with all of them. Two were slightly over their limits but counted on the two-hour car trip to help them shed a quarter of a pound. It worked, and everyone passed the scale test that afternoon. Hodge came closest to his limit. "No sense losing any more than you have to," he said.
An hour before the matches, wrestling fans began filling the A&M field house. By match time there were 6,000 of them.
Coach Robertson called his team together in the dressing room. They sat on a rubdown table in a neatly graduated, red-robed row. "The Aggies," Robertson told them, "are no patsies. Maybe we beat them early this season, but that was at home. This is Aggie country and that crowd out there is going to be helping them, not us. I want you to hustle, understand? Be aggressive. You be aggressive and you hustle, you're going to whip the pants off them.... O.K. Now let's go out there and win."
They did, indeed.
Oklahoma beat the Aggies in seven of eight bouts. The final score was OU 23, A&M 3, the worst the Aggies had ever been beaten in their proud wrestling history. The most impressive victory of the evening was Dan Hodge's.
THROATY, INCREASING ROAR
When he stripped off his robe just before taking the mat, a hum of anticipation buzzed through the crowd, rather as if Mickey Mantle were walking toward the plate at Yankee Stadium. Then his opponent, Jimmy Harding, was introduced—a well-muscled youngster, but the crowd sound shifted, just perceptibly, to a tone of pitying sympathy. Then, as Dan stepped from his corner to shake hands with Harding, the characteristic crowd sound of wrestling began: a low, throaty, increasing roar. By the time Dan made his first lunge at Harding the sound was boiling.
Dan went for an arm first. He grabbed just above the elbow, but with wrestler instinct Harding pulled away from the danger. Again Hodge went for the arm and again Harding started to pull back, but he had made his mistake. He had allowed his leg to get in too far and Dan snagged it below the knee. Harding's backward momentum tripped him and he went down, Dan on top and in control. Harding scrambled frantically to get belly-down, to keep shoulders as far from the mat as possible. But Hodge was too strong. As Harding twisted, Dan moved with him, gained a clasping double grapevine with his legs, and began to apply constrictor pressure.
Now Harding was powerless from the waist down, and on his back. The double bar arm was easy: both of Harding's arms were forced up over his head in agonizing parallel, squeezed and held viselike—not the "punishment" hold of pro wrestling but a preliminary in Dan's book to the pin. Then Dan increased the grapevine pressure. The muscles where shoulders make a V at the base of the neck bunched. His legs stiffened and he pushed down, down, down. All his strength was focused against the man beneath him, striving for the moment when a wordless surrender passes to him from his opponent—when resistance is gone and muscles relax.
Now the sequence of motion on the white square was very nearly complete. Harding's eyes bulged and he gasped for air like a man drowning. He resisted for only a second or so.
Then it was over and Dan Hodge stood in the middle of the white square, his arm raised in victory. It had taken 50 seconds.
Then came the congratulations.
His wife Delores hugged him and beamed.
Two high school officials offered him coaching jobs which he refused.
"You're the greatest wrestler I ever saw," one of them said.
The small fry were solemn, awed. "Mr. Hodge, I'd just like to shake your hand," they said.
Hundreds more stared from the background. "Look at those arms. What a neck! Didja ever see a neck like that?" they said. They maneuvered in the crowd to get closer.
Dan lingered with the fans for 15 minutes, then showered and dressed. What would he do now, I wondered. Where would this hero hold court now?
Half an hour later we were in an ice cream parlor and I had my answer. Dan was wolfing down a double portion of vanilla.
"What now?" I asked.
"The Nationals in Pittsburgh."
"Any special plans?"
"No, just to win."
CHAMPION HODGE pauses in a wrestling drill to consult Oklahoma Coach Robertson.