This is a rough draft of a story about my older brother who passed away in 2017. I’m in the process of collecting stories about him from friends and family, so there should be some additional stories about Jim in the future.
Like most people, Jim loved sports. Football, baseball, basketball, dodgeball, golf. It didn’t really matter. In the days before the internet, Jim was as much of a sports junkie as he could be and, growing up in the Midwest, there was plenty to do.
We’d watch baseball, usually the Cubs, Cardinals, or Reds, because those were just about the only teams you could get on a television with the foil-wrapped aerial antenna. We’d watch football. Usually the Bears, Bengals, or Cardinals (until they left St. Louis) on Sundays with the Fightin’ Irish thrown in on Saturdays. Every May, there was the Indianapolis 500 to watch.
We played sports too. Lots of sports. Street football was a popular choice, usually with the added benefit of pissing off the grouchy neighbors when an errant pass hit one of the cars they’d parked in the street. Pick-up games of baseball were also a common occurrence, usually played on one of the diamonds down at Greenstreet Elementary with Dad as the all-time pitcher (mostly because every time Dad batted, the damn ball flew three-hundred and fifty feet and landed in the parking lot next to the bowling alley). We played just about every sport as a family and Jim was just as keen to win as the rest of us.
Its safe to say that Jim loved sports. When we weren’t playing backyard basketball (it was Indiana), Jim was playing school sports. He played football in middle and high school, but that wasn’t the sport he truly loved. In his heart, Jim was a wrestler.
Jim stood, bowlegged, maybe five-and-a-half feet tall. He weighed around a hundred and forty pounds or so (in school) and had fairly broad shoulders for his size. He wasn’t what you’d call “technically proficient” on the mat, instead relying on strength and deceptive speed. Jim’s biggest attribute on the mat, as you might have already guessed, was his heart. In his head, Jim saw himself as a champion; a “this takedown wins the Olympics” kind of wrestler. There was only one, teeny, tiny little problem.
Jim was an insulin-dependent diabetic. I’m not talking like hours of normal life before needing a shot (these were the days before portable insulin pumps), I’m talking minutes, especially during a wrestling tournament. Jim had all of the speed, strength, and heart necessary to be a decent wrestler, but his body would frequently let him down.
I got started in wrestling when I was four years old and Jim was there, hit or miss, for most of my career until I finished high school. Dad used to throw us in the car and drive all over Indiana, Michigan, and Ohio to local, state, regional, and national events. Jim and I would wrestle, sometimes with Josh joining us. Dad and Jim would referee the tournament between matches, and we’d all come home. Usually with only two medals.
Jim’s matches became almost scripted. With his blood sugar at something approaching normal, Jim could usually hold his own in those tournaments, usually building up a lead on a wrestler who just wasn’t as quick or strong. That lead would hold, just shy of a technical fall (the mercy rule), for around two minutes, maybe three. With alarming regularity, Jim’s blood sugar would tank right about then. Not enough to drop him unconscious to the mat, but enough to make it look like he’d had a few beers before lacing up the old Asics. Within fifteen seconds or so, the other wrestler would figure out what was happening and Jim’s lead would evaporate. Two points here, three points there before, mercifully, one of two things would happen. Either Jim would be so drained that the other wrestler would simply roll him over to his back and pin him or, more often, time would expire and Jim would be on the wrong end of another 15-13 score.
You might ask several questions at this point and I’ll bet they cover a few possibilities. Why didn’t he put sugar in his water bottle, or Gatorade? Why not have a soda or a Snickers bar nearby? How about giving him a glucose stick during a medical time-out? Could he take an insulin injection during medical time? The answer to all of those things is simple. When Jim was wrestling, the rules prohibited all of those things. Barring a medical emergency (and a forfeit), the only thing Jim could have during a match was water.
In the decade we wrestled together, I can’t remember Jim winning more than a handful of medals or ribbons. His body just wouldn’t last the full five or six minutes of a match. Those blood sugar drops became something everybody just knew was coming.
Our high school wrestling coach still likes to tell a story about Jim’s body failing him. In the story, New Castle is barely winning a dual meet and all Jim had to do was make it to the end of regulation time. That’s it. He couldn’t get pinned and he couldn’t get beat by more than fourteen points. He could literally get beat 14-0 and New Castle won’t lose the meet. Coach tells Jim this, smacks him on the headgear, and sends him onto the mat.
Jim goes out there, steps on the line, and, in typical Jim fashion, holds his own for the first two minutes. The other wrestler shoots, Jim parries. The other wrestler shoots again, Jim sprawls, catching the other wrestler in a front-headlock. Jim starts to spin one way, the other wrestler, on all fours under Jim, follows. Jim picks up speed and when he feels the other wrestler move to keep up, Jim stops and shucks him by, scrambling behind for a two-point takedown.
The first period ends after several scrambles, with Jim clinging to an improbable lead. Jim already looks gassed, hands on his knees, chest heaving, blood sugar dropping rapidly. What happens next is predictably tragic. The other wrestler chooses to start in the down position. At the referee’s direction, Jim takes the top position. The whistle blows and, from that moment on, Jim is just along for the ride, a cowboy desperately clinging to the bull.
Fifteen seconds into the second period, the other wrestler posts his arm and swings his legs out from under Jim. Jim, too tired to react, is still pushing forward when the other wrestler leans back, creates a little space, and rolls. His arm catches Jim by the neck as the roll continues. In less than two seconds, Jim is flat on his back, in a half-nelson, counting the lights on the roof of New Castle’s Fieldhouse. The ref looks, finds both shoulders flat on the mat, reaches out and slaps the mat, blowing his whistle at the same time. The match is over. Jim got pinned. New Castle lost. By one point.
You’d think stuff like that would discourage a person from wrestling. Normally, you’d be right. But Jim wasn’t normal. He never blamed his diabetes. There was always something else that he needed work on, something else to practice. In fact, the only time I can remember Jim willingly bringing up his diabetes at a wrestling tournament, was at the AAU Regional Championships in Ypsilanti, Michigan.
The regionals started early, weigh-ins at six in the morning and first matches getting called at around seven. We wrestled all day long. Jim finished on the podium, in sixth place, and I ended up in third (I lost to two wrestlers that day and kicked off a years-long rivalry with both). We both ended up wrestling our last matches of the day at around eight or nine o’clock at night and everyone was ready to go home. Unfortunately, we couldn’t leave. Even though our places had already been scribbled onto the pairing charts, neither of our weight classes had finished. Neither championship match had been wrestled.
After sitting around for an hour, Dad and Jim started talking quietly. Next thing I know, Dad is telling us to grab our stuff and we’re heading around the mats towards the area where the medals and ribbons are handed out. When we get there, Jim starts looking like his blood sugar just tanked again and Dad starts explaining how we need to grab our stuff and get him out of there and to a restaurant before he requires an ambulance. I watch Dad and the official go back and forth for a minute while Jim continues to look worse and worse. After a brief and heated conversation, we have our awards and are out the door and on the way to the car. Jim looked surprisingly normal and Dad was laughing.
They put on an act to get us out of there. Jim faked low blood sugar and Dad faked panic and anger, and the poor guy at the awards table bought it hook, line, and sinker.
That’s pretty much how wrestling went for Jim. To this day, I’m still not sure what he got out of it, but he kept getting up and going back for more.
Fast forward a few years. I’m a high school senior at New Castle and Jim is living with us again. He’d been living in Virginia for a few years, refereeing and coaching in his spare time, and we’d only been at the same tournament once in the time he’d been away.
Well, my senior year was rolling by fairly fast and, next thing you know, its April. At the beginning of that month, every year, New Castle hosts one of the state’s largest freestyle wrestling tournaments. I don’t remember how many wrestlers used to show up, but the tournament usually required ten or twelve mats and at least two gyms (including the world’s largest high school fieldhouse). I can’t count how many times I won that tournament, probably eight or nine times at that point, and never with less than ten wrestlers in my weight class.
Jim, Dad, and I got to the tournament at around six in the morning. I headed off to weigh in while Dad and Jim went to the referee’s meeting and hospitality room. By seven-thirty in the morning, Mary (a wrestling mom from Belmont and the state’s pairings chief), gets on the announcing system and tells everyone that the pairings sheets have been posted. I made my way up the bleachers to the main concourse and walked around the fieldhouse towards the forty or so pieces of paper that told everyone who was wrestling who for the first two rounds. When I finally made my way to the one for my age group and weight class (Junior 123), I got a little surprise. I was the only wrestler on the chart.
Having no one to wrestle was a bit of an odd occurrence for me. I don’t think I ever really learned how to deal with that. All the way back to a tournament at Delta High School in 1989 when a certain 1988 Olympic Gold Medalist showed up, I’d had huge weight classes. The tournament at Delta that year had me wrestling from seven in the morning until two the next morning.
Sufficiently confused, I headed back down the bleachers to one of the mats on the basketball floor. Jim and Dad were standing there, waiting for the first matches to be sent their way. I let them know I didn’t have a soul in my weight class and that I was probably going to shower, change, and head out to Westwood to play golf. Jim didn’t say anything. Dad just nodded. I walked across the rest of the mat and up into the bleachers again. When I got to my bag and cooler, I decided to grab a snack before taking off the wrestling shoes and heading to the locker room.
I broke into the box of Triscuit crackers and started sipping from a bottle of Wild Cherry Clearly Canadian while Mary started calling wrestlers to their mats. Within minutes, the Fieldhouse (which seats just under 10,000 fans) was alive with all of the whistles, buzzers, yelling, crying, cheering, and screaming that goes along with a wrestling tournament. As I finished my snack, I was called to the pairings table.
I put my stuff down and headed over to where Mary was waiting. When I got there, Mary handed me a copy of the pairing sheet and a gold medal. I put the medal in the pocket of my hoodie and went back to my spot in the bleachers, ready to gather up my gear and head home.
About the time I got my shoes off, I heard my name called to mat number four. Since mat four was the mat my Dad was refereeing on for the day, I figured he wanted me to run for food or something. I headed down out of the bleachers and waited at the edge of the mat for him to finish up calling a match between two five-year-old kids who seemed intent on just holding onto each other for dear life and rolling around the mat until the each had scored twenty or so points.
That match finally ended and Dad looked over. I walked onto the mat to ask what he wanted and, well, he didn’t seem to know. I told him I’d been called to the mat, figured he wanted something. He denied calling me over. I shrugged and headed back to my stuff as my Dad went to the mat table to call the next two wrestlers to the mat. I was three rows up in the bleachers when I heard him calling me. I turned around and he’s holding a match sheet and pointing at me.
This is where it gets a bit interesting. My Dad is holding a match sheet and indicating that my name is on it. Only one problem. Match sheets are color-coded by age group. My age group was “Junior”—hence a purple sheet. The one in my Dad’s hand was white—Espoir age group. I walked back down the bleachers and out onto the mat again, Dad grinning like a Cheshire cat the whole time. He handed me the sheet. I looked. There, on the left, the red wrestler was listed as “Matt Hardman”. Next to that, under the section for the blue wrestler, was the name “Jim Ker”.
Jim had somehow convinced Mary to bump me up one age group and two weight classes, all of which was perfectly legal, for an exhibition bout against him. I asked Dad if he thought Jim was serious and Dad pointed. Sure enough, right behind the scorer’s table, there was Jim, in a blue singlet and a pair of Asics wrestling shoes, getting pumped up for a match.
Dad just smiled.
“Don’t hurt him”.
I went back up into the stands, laced up a pair of royal blue Adidas (which I still have) and headed down to the mat. I got my sweats off and the straps on my singlet up and walked out to the middle of the mat where a third-party referee was waiting. Dad just kind of stood there shaking his head and Jim comes racing out on the mat, all hyped up and ready to rumble.
Now is the point where I should tell you that, while I was putting my shoes back on, Dad went to talk to Jim. I don’t know what they talked about. I can only assume that Dad asked Jim if he’d lost his damn mind. Whatever happened during that conversation was pretty irrelevant because I was standing in the middle of a mat, just seconds away from wrestling my older brother (who outweighed me by a good twenty pounds).
The referee called for me to put my foot on the line. Jim was already there, waiting, ready to pounce. I looked over at Dad, we both shrugged, and put my foot on the line. What happened next takes much longer to type than it took to occur in real time.
The whistle blew. Jim took a shot, an ugly attempt at a double leg. I sprawled, backed up and push him away.
Three seconds in.
Jim came charging in again, trying to lock up. I obliged, my right hand on the back of his neck, my left on the front of his shoulder, pushing him back.
Six seconds in.
I pushed into Jim, with my arms, but not my legs, nudging him backwards off the mat. Jim pushed back a little harder.
Nine seconds in.
I gave Jim another shove, nearing the edge of the mat. Jim pushed back, hard, like a cornered animal. When I felt that, I pulled down with my right hand, lightly. Just enough pressure on the back of Jim’s neck to make him think…and there it was.
Twelve seconds in.
Jim, on pure reflex, stands straight up, trying to avoid being snapped face-first into the mat. He’s pushing into me and standing as tall as he can. I stepped into him, turning my hips slightly as my right arm shot behind his head and my left clamped down on Jim’s right arm. Once my hands made contact with each other, I finished stepping through, popping my hips into Jim and ripping sideways on his head, neck, and arm.
Fifteen seconds in.
Jim’s heels left the ground, tracing a circle through the air as Jim flew over my back and toward the mat. He hits hard, with both shoulders square on the mat. The referee was already waiting, saw both shoulders touch. He raised his hand, signaling a fall, and got confirmation from the mat judge. The whistle blew.
The match was over. We got up and headed back to the middle of the mat. We shook hands and both walked towards Dad. Jim gets there. He looks at Dad and speaks.
“How’d he get that fast?”
Jim smiles sheepishly.
I ran over to my sweats and grabbed the gold medal from the pocket. I walked back over to Jim and draped it around his neck. Jim looked at it for a second and then gave me the biggest bear hug he’s ever given me.