Tim Vanni walks into the Veterans Memorial Building wearing a floral-patterned apron, carrying a stainless steel pot.
“I’ve got to make a salad,” Vanni said, because of course he does. He’s a wrestling coach and a former world-class one at that, and this is what all American wrestlers do if they want to wrestle for a living — anything it takes to be able to wrestle.
So, Vanni spent this weekend chasing down pots and pans and serving tri-tip and salad dinners to raise money for his Porterville High wrestling program. He sold off vintage posters, sent boosters to the Terra Bella wineries, made go-for runs into town for more kitchen equipment.
“Where are the plates?” Vanni yells from the kitchen.
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He wanted to drive to Los Angeles to watch the invite-only premier of “Foxcatcher,” a just-released film about the his former teammate and high school friend Dave Schultz, a world-champion wrestler who died doing what all wrestlers do — anything he could to be able to wrestle.
For Schultz, that meant living and training at the “Foxcatcher” compound of billionaire wrestling supporter John DuPont, who shot and killed Schultz on his estate grounds for absolutely no sane reason in 1996.
Vanni lived there on the “Farm” one month out of the year for years as a member of Team USA in the 1980s and early ’90s. He, too, lived off monthly stipends provided by DuPont so he could afford to train and wrestle full-time.
Together, Vanni and Schultz traveled the world, competing in hard-line communist Russia during the Cold War, placing at World Championships abroad, both medaling at the Pan American Games in Argentina months before Schultz was gunned down in a driveway.
It was Jan. 26, 1996. Vanni had just landed in eastern Russia, having seen three sunrises in 36 hours of travel. He wishes Schultz had made the trip with him. That’s when he found out what happened a world away.
“It was such devastating news,” Vanni said, mixing mayo with the iceberg salad leaves. “John DuPont was showing signs of some real issues with his behavior up to the day of Dave’s death. People were telling Dave to get off the Farm, but ... ”
Where was Schultz supposed to go? DuPont’s financial support let Dave keep wrestling. The checks and housing provided for Schultz and his young family while he trained. Schultz was going to wrestle forever, Vanni swears, even if he wasn’t any good anymore.
Wrestling is all wrestlers know to do.
“I wasn’t going to get rich off those checks, but it was a lot when you’re used to getting nothing,” Vanni said.
DuPont made U.S. wrestling a viable post-college option. Schultz, and Vanni, and the whole lot back then needed DuPont because they still needed wrestling when the NCAA scholarship ran out; if that meant putting up with his increasingly bizarre psychosis, then that’s what it meant.
Then, DuPont put a slug through wrestling’s heart. This weekend’s movie release has only served to strike at the wound that remains open and bleeding to this day.
“I don’t think we’ll ever have closure,” Vanni said. “There was some closure when John died a few years back, but not really. We still lost Dave, and I don’t think we’ll ever know why. For me, it’s such a tragic loss.”
Vanni remembers being holed up with Schultz and his American teammates inside the U.S. Embassy in 1983 — or was it 1982? Whenever. They spent three weeks competing in Russia back when it felt like it lasted three eternities. They went to the embassy to visit some Marines. They watched a tape of the Super Bowl, which had been played weeks earlier. They ate pizza. They drank Coca-Cola. They felt like Americans, and American brothers at that.
Vanni misses his twice-the-size friend. He wants to see the movie. Except he doesn’t. Vanni talked with Dave’s wife last month, and she was fine with the film. He’s talked with other former wrestlers, and some of them aren’t fine with it.
Vanni doesn’t know what to do. All he knows is, these beans are going to take 45 minutes to cook and they’ve got guests coming, so let’s go people.
“I’m a little apprehensive about seeing this movie, a little anxiety about it all,” Vanni said. “I don’t really know how to feel about it.
“Maybe I’ll call a few friends who have already seen it, just for my peace of mind.”