It was late last Saturday morning and Mack Gable was lounging in his suite at the Orrington Hotel in Evanston, Ill. This was the day he had been looking forward to for a long time, for later that night his son Dan would have a chance to win his third NCAA wrestling title. It was also the night Dan would conclude the most distinguished career in the history of wrestling and perhaps in all collegiate sport. In three years of high school in Waterloo, Iowa and four at Iowa State he had won all of his 181 matches.
"Dan came to me last night and said, 'Are you worried about Owings?' " Mack Gable recalled. (Larry Owings of Washington was to be Dan's opponent in the finals of the 142-pound division.) "I told him, 'I worry about all of 'em.' Dan said, 'Don't. I know I can beat him.' I told him, "O.K., but remember that anything can happen.' "
The buildup for this match began on Wednesday when Owings registered to compete at 142 pounds. People snickered. Gable, on the other hand, came to the championships at Northwestern with the biggest advance billing any college wrestler has ever had. He was going to be the first to be undefeated in both high school and college. His celebrity was such that he had been constantly accepting awards, giving speeches, posing for pictures, signing autographs and enduring interviews. And during the past year he had been replying to more than 20 letters a week.
"Kids want to know my 'secret,' " Gable said. "I don't have a secret, but I tell them about the way I do things, and to train hard. One girl wrote that her boyfriend was a state high school champ and she wanted me to encourage him in wrestling. She also wanted me to tell him that she really loves him, because she felt he'd believe it if I told him so. I was glad to write the letter."
This, then, was Dan Gable, hero. Owings was not cast as the villain, but that was mainly because hardly anyone felt he had a chance to be the first to beat Gable. Several fine wrestlers had deliberately avoided the 142-pound class—and Gable—by going up to 150 or down to 134. Not Owings. He went out of his way to face Gable, cutting his weight from 173 pounds to do so.
"I want to face Gable for the championship," Owings said on the first day of the tournament. "I faced him at the Olympic Trials in '68 and he beat me. I was a high school senior, and he was already a national champ. I made up my mind back then that I wanted to meet him again and beat him.
"I weighed 173 last fall, and during the season I wrestled three times in the 177-pound class and won all three. Then I really cut down. I got to 155 easy. I had to work harder and eat less to get to 148, and then I almost had to stop eating completely to make 142.
"I think 142 is right for me. Last year I made a mistake at the Nationals by cutting too much weight. I had decided to avoid Gable [Dan competed at 137 pounds], so I cut down to 130. I won three matches. Then I lost 14-12 because my stamina was low. Right then I decided to go after Gable this year.
"My favorite pastime is eating, especially shrimp. After the Nationals last year, I must have gained 25 pounds in a week. My stomach hurt so much I couldn't sleep. I had to lie in bed with my belly hanging over the side."
Owings was far more accomplished than most people realized. He had won more than 200 matches in high school, and at the Greco-Roman trials for the 1968 Olympics he had finished first in his weight before being knocked off the team in a round of final eliminations. This season he had lost only one of 25 matches, and that to Mike Grant of Oklahoma, last year's 145-pound titlist.
Owings was seeded second at Northwestern, thus making it possible for him to face Gable in the finals—if he could win all his bouts along the way. The 19-year-old sophomore from Canby, Ore. came to the tournament with two handicaps: a dislocated left thumb and back pains from a congenital condition he describes as "a split tailbone." But Owings also came with armor-plated optimism. "When I'm injured," he said, "I always wrestle better. I'm not saying I'll beat Gable, but I think I have a good chance."
Still, Owings drew little attention during the early rounds. Gable, however, was so much a favorite that as soon as it was announced on which of the 10 mats he was to wrestle, thousands of spectators shifted to the appropriate side of the bleachers. Besides being a winner and Mom's apple pie, Gable is a crowd pleaser, the type who shoots for a pin from start to finish—and holds the record of 24 consecutive pins.
It was largely because of Gable that the tournament was such a success. There were 394 entrants from 117 schools (both alltime highs for the NCAA championships), and a total of 31,000 spectators watched the three-day show.
Gable pinned his first five foes in an average of just over four minutes each. Owings got four pins and displayed sufficient speed, strength and cunning to make it evident that his optimism was due to more than mere bravado. Thus the scene was set for Saturday's match, by which time Iowa State had locked up its second straight team title.
In the suite occupied by Gable's parents, a stock of 7-Up was being laid in, the better to celebrate the wins by Dan and the Cyclones. Owings' plans were less definite. "When it's over I guess I'll eat a lot of shrimp," he said. "I just found out that my wisdom teeth are coming in, and maybe that means I'll be smarter and able to win this time.
"My girl friend called me from Seattle this morning at 7. Lynda said that if I didn't win she'd wreck my car. She drove me to the airport and still has my '66 Malibu, so I guess I'd better win."
And then it was time for the showdown. Gable and Owings sparred only briefly in the opening period, which begins with both men standing. With 29 seconds gone, Gable dived in for a two-point takedown. Owings got one point for an escape and then executed a whirling side-spinthrough that sent him sliding across the mat and behind Gable for a takedown and 3-2 lead.
The final two periods are three minutes each and commence with both men on the mat, one with his hands and knees flush to the surface, the other on top with one hand around his foe's waist, the other on an elbow. Gable was on top, but 27 seconds later Owings had escaped and pulled off a fireman's carry for a takedown and a 6-2 lead. Gable was then penalized for intentionally going off the mat. In quick succession, Gable got a reversal, Owings an escape and Gable a takedown. The round ended with Owings in command 8-6 and with some 8,500 fans in near-hysteria.
Owings started the last period on top, only to have Gable reverse him quickly and tie the score. Over and over they rolled. Gable hanging on and looking for a pin, Owings trying to break free. Owings got loose with 1:03 to go. That put him ahead 9-8 on the scoreboard, but Gable had ridden him long enough to have piled up two points for riding time and a 10-9 edge.
With half a minute left they were upright near the edge of the mat. "I had his arms locked in front of his chest," Owings said later. "I looked down and saw his feet, and I knew I had to go for them. I tripped him and as he went down I was on top of him and got his shoulders to the mat." Owings got two points for a takedown, two for driving Gable's shoulders to the mat. Owings now led 13-10 with 22 seconds left.
Gable needed only five of those seconds to escape and make it 13-11. Both tried for takedowns and went off the mat. As he walked back on, Gable glanced at the scoreboard in disbelief. Three seconds left. Two points behind. To get a tie he needed a takedown for which there was hardly time. Gable was stunned, so much so that it was Owings who drove in to try for a takedown. At the buzzer Gable sagged to one knee. He had lost.
Fifteen minutes later Gable mounted the victory platform beside Owings and accepted something he had never received before—a second-place medal. As he took it, 8,500 people rose to applaud. Gable's chin was on his chest. He bit his lips. The applause continued. Thirty seconds. Forty-five. It lasted another half-minute and during that time Gable slowly raised his head until it was erect. Even in victory he had never been so honored nor received the tribute of a crowd that expressed itself more eloquently.