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If Wilson Senior High School had had a wrestling coach this year, he wouldn’t have been able to use that old saw, “There is no ‘I’ in team!’”
But Wilson didn’t have a wrestling coach. Excepting private and charter schools, no other school in the city did, either. Wilson and the city, however, did have a wrestler.
Again, a wrestler.
“Wrestling is a team sport,” says Clinton Billings, a Wilson senior. “It would have been nice to have a team.”
Billings, 17, was the best wrestler in the D.C. Interscholastic Athletic Association (DCIAA) this winter. And the worst. He was the biggest wrestler and the smallest. The purplest and the greenest. The fill-in-the-blankest wrestler. He was the one, the only.
Billings could be the public-school league’s last wrestler, too.
Wrestling has for decades been a big draw for athletes and fans at suburban high schools and the city’s private schools. The public schools’ athletic confederation, when it was known as the Interhigh League, held its first wrestling tournament in 1936 but has never had much of a grip downtown. The sport’s peak here came in the ’70s, when four city schools had teams—Cardozo, Ballou, Anacostia, and Woodson. But despite such things as the potential for college scholarships—DeMatha, a Catholic school in Hyattsville, has seen 17 of its wrestlers awarded free rides since 1988—support from students and the school system has been meager for years.
Only Ballou was still fielding a squad in 1995, when Ed Coss, then a physical-education teacher at Wilson, started the wrestling program there. Coss filled out the Tigers’ schedule with private and suburban schools, and brought the team to tournaments in wrestling-rich areas of Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia. Ballou has since dropped the sport.
Billings first came under Coss’ chicken wing when he was in eighth grade at Deal Junior High School. Billings remembers his first day of wrestling practice well, and fondly. That’s the day that Coss, who coached at Deal as well as Ballou, gave him a nickname: “Little Fat White Boy.” Billings weighed 130 pounds when practices began. A year later, as a freshman, he was down to 105 pounds and wrestling for the Wilson varsity.
“He was a tough coach, but wrestling is a tough sport,” Billings says. “I loved it.”
Two years ago, Coss left the wrestling program at Wilson after a dispute with the administration about the way he was running it. His teaching job at the school was later eliminated during a round of budget cuts, and he now teaches at Bunker Hill Elementary. A replacement for Coss from outside the school was hired to handle the Tigers for the 2003–2004 season, but the new coach didn’t bring any new wrestlers into the program. A typical wrestling match, called a dual meet, has grapplers in 14 different weight classes; last year’s Wilson squad had only six members.
“Nobody wanted to schedule against us because we had so few wrestlers. The matches would be over in 25 minutes, and we’d be paying the referees to just declare forfeits,” says Eddie Saah, Wilson’s athletic director. “And we couldn’t get any students interested. We tried everything.”
Four of the six members of the 2003–2004 team graduated last year. Then Billings heard that the only other underclassman on that squad, also a junior, wasn’t going to wrestle this season. So, going into the school year, he had a pretty good hunch there would be no team at Wilson for his senior season. But nobody from the school told him that.
“We found out that wrestling was canceled only because the school didn’t list it in the activities sheets,” says Kevin Billings, his father. “But it was important to Clint to have a senior season. He really wanted one.”
Sharon Bomer Lauritsen, Billings’ mother, says his secondary love at Wilson was studying Chinese—until that portion of the school’s language department was eliminated during another recent round of budget cuts. He’s taking Chinese at American University now.
“I’m disappointed that DCPS [District of Columbia Public Schools] wasn’t able to support him here,” says Lauritsen. “But Clinton never gave a thought to transferring, to not going to Wilson. He’s a very strong public-school advocate, and he didn’t want to leave his friends at Wilson behind. He’s proud to be a Wilson Tiger.”
The Billingses convinced Saah to let Clinton wear Wilson’s colors if he would find his own matches and cover all costs, such as tournament entry fees.
“I thought it would look good on a college application,” says Billings, with a big laugh, when asked why he persevered. (He’ll be attending the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in the fall and plans to go out for the wrestling team there.)
He handled his own conditioning schedule. He did road work around the city by himself, and got Coss to hit the mat with him in after-school training sessions at Bunker Hill, located east of Catholic University on Michigan Avenue NE.
“He’d come all the way over here from Wilson three days a week, and we’d roll out a 10-foot-by-10-foot mat with a circle on it,” says Coss, who wrestled in college and also coached at Gonzaga and Ballou before starting the Wilson program. “I’d ask him if he was ready to get his ass whupped, and he’d say, ‘Sure!’ and I’d just pound on him. But he kept coming and coming and coming. Wilson wrestling went from nothing to a great program to defunct. For him to go through this, to do what he did just to wrestle, well, you can’t find a better kid. I know in all my years of wrestling I never did.”
Billings, with assistance from his father and Coss, arranged matches either by entering Wilson as a one-man team in tournaments or by calling up coaches at area private schools and asking if there were any vacancies in the heavier weight classes at tri- or quad-meets. Billings now weighs a taut 180 pounds, but if a 215-pounder needed an opponent, he’d show up.
“Clinton would take any match he could get,” says Josh Waxman, wrestling coach at St. John’s College High School.
Coss had to quit the one-on-one workouts near season’s end when old wrestling injuries to his hip and knee flared up. So Billings contacted the coach at Maret School and got the OK to work out with that squad. Though unseeded, he placed eighth in the 189-pound class at the St. Albans Invitational, the most area’s prestigious annual wrestling meet, which had many regional powerhouses in its field of more than 30 schools.
On Feb. 19, Billings wrestled in the last tournament of his Wilson career, the DC Classic at Model Secondary School for the Deaf, which is open to teams from all public, private, and charter schools in the city. Billings, the sole DCIAA rep, made it to the 189-pound championship match before losing to Robert Wilkinson of St. Albans. That gave him a 12-7 record for the year.
The fact that he had a record at all was worthy of celebration.
Back when he coached Wilson, Coss had a tradition of throwing a banquet for his team at the end of each season. There’ll be no banquet this year, but in its place, Coss took Billings to Cactus Cantina after the DC Classic. At the restaurant, Coss presented his final protégé with a T-shirt he’d designed and had printed up. On the back, it had Billings’ name next to “The Final Chapter.”—Dave McKenna