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All the clichés about sports building character ring true when you talk to Clint Billings.
Billings graduates from the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy next week. He wrestled there all four years, like he’d done during his days at Wilson Senior High School.
As his college career wound down, he had a talk with one of his Academy coaches about the day he showed up to say he was going out for the team, traditionally among the more successful wrestling squads at the NCAA’s Division III level.
“My coach admitted that when he met me, he figured I’d be one of those guys who shows up to a few practices and then quits,” Billings says with a laugh. “That didn’t happen. Not after what I’d been through in high school.”
What he’d been through was his high school quitting wrestling before his senior year.
The sport has long had the support of administrators and athletes in the suburban public schools and urban private schools in this region. Some of the strongest prep programs in the country are nearby—one Catholic school, DeMatha, has produced 22 college scholarship wrestlers since 1988.
Wrestling, however, has been failing for some time within the city public schools league, the D.C. Interscholastic Athletic Association. By the mid-1990s, only two schools were fielding full teams, Ballou and Wilson. And by the time Billings entered Wilson as a freshman in 2001, Ballou had given up on the sport.
But the Wilson team, because of the efforts of Coach Ed Coss, was strong, and even without any DCIAA competition was able to cobble together a full season of meets against private and suburban teams and in regional tournaments.
Billings, who wrestled as a 215-pound heavyweight at the Merchant Marine Academy, wrestled for the Wilson varsity as a freshman, sometimes in the 103-pound class. He now admits he had to adopt a silly diet, or non-diet, to make that weight.
“That’s the sort of sacrifice you can only do when you have a team,” says Billings. “Misery loves company, and nobody was telling me what I had to do, lose so much weight, but you see all the other guys going through it, you can go through it.”
Before Billings’ junior year, Coss lost his job as Wilson coach after a squabble with school administrators. The team stayed together for that season with a new and part-time coach and just six wrestlers. Then before Billings’ senior season was to begin, that coach quit, and Wilson officials eliminated the wrestling program entirely. Nobody from the school bothered telling Billings. He learned that his sport had been cut only when he read the official Wilson winter activities schedule and saw that there was no mention of wrestling.
But he didn’t give up wrestling just because Wilson did. He called up his old coach, Coss, and told him he wanted to keep training.
“I was teaching at Bunker Hill Elementary in Northeast then,” recalls Coss, a former college wrestler, “and after I finished work, Clint would be there to work out. We’d just go in a classroom and throw a 10-foot-by-10-foot mat on the floor and start working.”
Wilson administrators said Billings could wear a singlet in the school colors, but only if he arranged all his own matches and funded his one-kid wrestling campaign by himself. That included paying all entry fees to the competitions.
With Coss’ help, Billings put together a pretty full schedule. As the only public school wrestler in the entire city, Billings went 12–7 his senior season.
Asked at the time why he went through so much trouble to stay in wrestling, Billings told me, “I thought it would look good on [a college] application.”
He was right about that. His extracurricular activity and stick-to-itiveness helped get him into the Merchant Marine Academy. His mucked-up high school wrestling situation left him behind his teammates in college and contributed to what Billings describes as a mediocre collegiate won/lost record. But, true to form, he stuck it out all four years.
He says the self-sacrifices he made both during his solo battle to keep wrestling alive at Wilson, and while trying to catch up to his teammates in college, have made the rest of his life seem pretty easy.
After next week’s graduation, he’ll immediately enter the U.S. Navy, following his grandfather’s path. He’ll be deployed next month to a warship based in Japan.
To get an officer’s commission, Billings had to be licensed to operate a big ship, and that meant passing seven separate engineering exams, 21 hours of tests.
He passed every one on the first run.
“I had to basically study everything I’d learned in the last four years at [the Academy],” he says. “That means I didn’t sleep. Wrestling in any situation requires a lot of work and dedication, and that definitely helps in those situations. I remembered the stuff I put up with in high school, about not quitting when I didn’t have a team, just pushing through my senior year. I can see how that really helped me cope with things that came later.”
Wilson hasn’t had any wrestlers since Billings left. Other than a mat club at Bell Multicultural that was started last year, wrestling is dead in the city schools.
Most folks who have wrestled lend an almost spiritual benefit to participating in the sport.
Billings is among the believers.
“Any extracurricular activity is good,” Billings says. “But more than any other sport, wrestling teaches you about yourself, what you’re capable of, and that gets you mentally ready for everything else in life.”
Coss, who still teaches in the city schools but gave up coaching after Billings went off to college, doubts wrestling will ever have a comeback here.
“If I had to bet, I’d say wrestling is gone forever,” Coss says. “And that’s a shame.”
The death of D.C. wrestling bothered him more than usual this week, Coss says, after Billings stopped by to say goodbye before shipping out.
“If my kid grows up to be like Clint,” says Billings’ old coach, “I’ll be a happy man.”
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