Not that anyone at Rabobank Arena noticed, but a 113-pound kid from Porterville just showed us why high school sports mean so much more than trophies and varsity letters.
His name is Andrew Nelms. You won’t read about him anywhere outside of his hometown paper this weekend. He went to the CIF State Wrestling Championships and didn’t win a medal, just like hundreds of other wrestlers you’ll never know about either.
But, Nelms’ story is worth a read. You can see it in the way he goes to the edge of the mat before he wrestles, the way he wiggles out of his red or black warmup shirt, then folds it nattily into a square as if he works the floor of a department store.
“Rest in peace, Jason Nelms” is all that shows, and that says it all.
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So what if Nelms’ senior year ended Saturday, 13 years of wresting stopped one bracket line short of a top-eight medallion? High school sports proved its incalculable worth by Nelms showing up in the first place, when burying his laces with his father would have been so much easier.
“I don’t know how he did it,” said Linda Nelms, his mom and No. 1 fan. “Ever since he went out for wrestling when he was 4 years old, his dad was in his corner, always there for him. To turn around one day and he’s not there … ”
There was no way Nelms would ever wrestle again. That was decided the night he got the phone call 14 months ago. His dad was dead; his best friend was gone and he wasn’t coming back, no matter how many times Nelms called his cell phone that night, swearing Dad would pick up on the next ring.
Nelms sat on his couch bawling, waiting for someone to wake him up on a night he never went to sleep. His mom sat next to him with his girlfriend. A Porterville High coach and a local pastor sat there, too, fumbling for words when no words would do.
“I didn’t think I could wrestle again,” Nelms said. “I didn’t think I could return without my dad. But, when I would think about it, I could see my dad out there with me. I could see his smile, I could hear his voice. … It kind of lifted me.”
Wrestling was the high school sport that gave Nelms a daily escape, two hours in a sweatshop of a room with music blasting and heads butting and coaches whistling with no time to think about how lousy life had just become.
Nelms got to last year’s state tournament and missed a medal by two matches. Nelms came back this year because it was a living connection to his dad, their shared sport of choice. As long as Nelms wrestled, he could feel his dad there in the corner, cheering, coaching, yelling.
Porterville coach Tim Vanni sees sports do this all the time for teenagers. They escape their broken homes, domestic disasters, abusive relationships, exacting expectations, abject poverty. Wrestling gave Nelms something to dive into other than his abject pain and guilt over something that was never his fault.
“It’s a great release for kids,” Vanni said. “Kids get to check it all at the door for a while and just have some fun, have some focus.”
Maybe we should remember the next time we catch a local prep game that we don’t know what we don’t know. Maybe Nelms wasn’t slacking when he stunk it up at a January tournament; maybe his head was nothing more than a fog station on the one-year anniversary of his father’s death. Maybe your team’s star shooter is in a funk because his mom has cancer, or his dad lost his job, or his pregnant sister ran away.
Just maybe, when we see a kid like Nelms neatly folding a T-shirt and placing it in the corner before a wrestling match, we won’t think he’s just another superstitious kid.
Nelms is wrestling to remember, even as he wrestles to forget. Too bad we don’t give out medals for that.
“I wouldn’t say I’m back,” Nelms said. “I’d say I’m a different person. I can do anything with God’s help, and I can do anything knowing my dad is right there beside me.”