Last April, Westport native Terry Brannigan shared his memories of growing up near the Mill Pond with “06880” readers.
Today he turns his thoughts to wrestling, friends — and jiu-jitsu.
We live in a town obsessed with three sports: soccer, football and baseball. Others are up and coming, but wrestling seldom makes cocktail party chatter, or sparks debate or drama about tryouts, cuts and travel teams.
I wrestled at Staples, and with Nick Garoffolo coached there for nearly 10 years. In the process I met wonderful kids and parents, and we won our share of titles.
The plaque over the door to any wrestling room could almost be replaced by the inscription at the foot of the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses.”
Or maybe: “Give us your short, skinny or heavy kids who did not make the travel team. They’re welcome here!”
Rarely does the athletic superstar choose wrestling. Why would he? It’s misunderstood, the uniforms are funny-looking, and it’s hard.
If the #1 tennis player gets beaten, it’s a tough loss. But his opponent was a better player that day. Imagine the 9th grader — 95 pounds soaking wet — who has to step out onto the mat wearing tights. He faces down the opposing senior captain with his peers, mother and possibly his girlfriend in the stands — only to have his shoulders pinned to the mat for all to see.
Then he stands there watching his opponent’s arm get raised — and walks alone back to the bench. There’s no shade.
However, to those of us who wrestled, it remains the greatest sport on earth. It’s the most honest and sportsmanlike pursuit in high school athletics, and that’s why the lessons we learn on the mat stay with us for life. It is both an exclusive fraternity, and open to all. You are a wrestler for life — and it changes lives.
Nothing makes me happier than bumping into the legions of kids I coached. As a father, I pined for the day when I could introduce my boys to the sport.
Like their dad, they will never be big or tall — you can’t coach height. Luckily, wrestling has weight classes. So 2 years ago I enrolled Terry Jr. (6) and Eamon (4) in the Westport Recreation Department wrestling program.
On the first day, to my wonder and pleasure we were greeted by John Chacho. The same John Chacho who coached crosstown rival Bedford Junior High when I was a kid — the same wonderful man who fed Nick and I wrestlers at Staples for years. There he was, right where he belongs: on the mat, rolling with the kids. There’s no other way to teach the sport. It’s the circle of life.
In a room full of celebrities, hedge fund masters of the universe and beautiful women, 2 wrestlers will find each other and ignore everything else to talk about matches that took place 20plus years ago. It’s in the blood.
Fast forward to the 2009 Staples football season. I was at the fence watching the action when a guy to my left whispered, “You still beating guys up on the mat?” I turned to see the unmistakable smile of Joe Oppedisano. I coached him at Staples. As we reunite, I can’t help but notice the positive changes in the shape of his ears, breadth of his back and girth of his neck. The guy’s been busy.
Joe modestly says that he has been practicing jiu-jitsu. (By “practicing” he means competing at the world championship level). Jiu-jitsu is a remarkable art, filled with the same kind of people you find in a wrestling room. Technique always beats athleticism, and divas need not apply.
The circle of life continues. Joe was opening his own studio on the Post Road in Fairfield. I couldn’t wait to check the place out. I had tried various “martial arts” places around town for the boys. It felt more like daycare wearing a gi. I wrote checks to pay for colored belt ceremonies almost monthly. I’m sure that’s great for some, but it was not what I was looking for.
We checked out East Coast United Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu before it officially opened. I found the room full of participants (male and female). I quickly recognized my lifelong friend Skip Garoffolo, and one of my favorite wrestlers: Andy Lobsenz. Then Jeff Lauzon joined. It’s like moths to the flame. Roll out a wrestling mat and people show up!
Joe is now coaching me — and I have taken over for John Chacho. The circle of life continues.
Terry and Eamon go 2 to 3 times a week. They’ve learned so much in such a short time — and they love it. Joe has an amazing way with the kids. He makes it fun, while teaching the fundamentals of fitness, strength, technique and responsible self-defense.
On Eamon’s birthday he stopped class early and surprised us with a birthday cake.
The place has a great vibe. Anyone who understands anything I’ve written above will fit right in.
You’ll probably come out wearing a gi.