Emotions linger for former Illinois State wrestler

AP Photo/Katsumi Kasahara

After wrestling at Illinois State, Kevin Bracken went on to compete in the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney.

They came from places such as Urbana, Ill., home of the Sweetcorn Festival, and spots all over the state of Illinois. No, this was not a wrestling juggernaut. The Illinois State wrestling team occasionally knocked off a few top-20 teams in duals but was never going to hoist a national championship trophy. The team operated on a shoestring budget. Three to four guys to a room on road trips, one bus rolling through stops all over the barren Midwestern landscape.

Kevin Bracken's wrestling career took him all over the world, but he always had a soft spot in his heart for those guys from his college days. That's why it was so hard for him when Illinois State called and wanted to add his name to the Redbirds' Hall of Fame. Hard feelings don't necessarily fade in time, especially with someone as stubborn as a wrestler.

Part of Bracken wanted to tell his old school where to stick that award. In 1995, Bracken's final year of college, Illinois State cut its wrestling program. Strapped with financial constraints and Title IX compliance issues, the school chose to drop wrestling and men's soccer and add a women's soccer team.

So the mats were removed from the wrestling room at Illinois State, and roughly 30 lives scattered. Bracken left town and kept training, and eventually made it to the Olympics in Sydney in 2000. It was a huge deal for a kid who spent his formative years in Normal, Ill. Illinois State wanted to recognize it. In 2005, the school moved to put Bracken in the Hall of Fame.

He wanted to say no, but then he talked with his teammates and friends, and relented. Bracken figured it was a way that they could be remembered, too. That wrestling could be remembered.

There are 79 wrestling programs left in Division I, down from the 146 that were around three decades ago, when Bracken was a kid in Illinois dreaming of competing in college. This, Title IX critics say, is what is wrong with a piece of legislation that promotes proportionality. It created opportunities but took away other athletes' chances to compete.

Back in the mid-1990s, universities all over the country were faced with tough choices about how to comply with Title IX, and at least one answer, in some cases, was to cut wrestling. Bracken feels as if it's his responsibility to help keep it alive. He trains wrestlers in his spare time and has an 8-year-old boy named Connor who just finished his first season of club competition.

The thing Bracken used to love most about his sport was that anyone could compete, regardless of size or financial means. He's not sure that's the case anymore. Years later, Title IX is still a very sensitive subject in wrestling circles. Bracken said he doesn't hate Title IX. He never did. It's just complicated.

"How could you hate something that's creating opportunities and helping people?" he said. "But how could you celebrate something if it's also hurting people?"

The wrestlers at Illinois State did not go quietly. They made picket signs and stood in protest at a big track meet the Redbirds hosted that spring. They marched from their dorm rooms across campus to the president's office with a megaphone, chanting, "Save our sport." They enlisted the help of an attorney in Chicago and filed a lawsuit against the university.

Although Title IX is 40 years old, it took decades for universities to really start complying with the law. Many school administrators were waiting to see the outcomes of several lawsuits. A major one was Cohen v. Brown University, in which women at Brown won a ruling in federal court that they were discriminated against when Brown demoted the women's gymnastics and volleyball teams to donor-funded status.

But even before that ruling in 1996, change was afoot, prompted by the fear of lawsuits and of losing federal money. Illinois State, which had long considered itself ahead of the curve in providing women's opportunities, faced some tough decisions in 1995, said Linda Herman, who was ISU's senior women's administrator at the time. The school had just been hit with a $1.2 million cut in state funding, and the campus, which had a slightly larger female population, had more male athletes on scholarship than female athletes.

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Bracken wrestles Harry Lester during the 2004 U.S. Olympic team trials in Indianapolis.

If the school didn't make cuts, it stood to possibly lose federal funding. Football, Herman said, complicated the issue, because it required so many scholarships. Football was not a money maker at ISU, so it could not pump any funds into the athletic budget to add a women's team or two and make the numbers equal.

So what could the school cut? Longtime athletic administrator Larry Lyons said ISU looked at every possible scenario and crunched every number.

Administrators and officials held meetings and crunched the numbers again. Women's soccer, Herman said, was an easy sport to add. It was gaining popularity. Slashing wasn't so easy.

"It was agonizing," Herman said. "It's something you never want to do. Anytime athletes are impacted by a sport being added or dropped, either way, it's an emotional decision.

"We were still offering more programs than our counterparts were offering. But I don't know how to say it's not agonizing when you know you're no longer going to have a men's soccer program and a wrestling program. You're making those decisions with good criteria, but how do you not feel bad about that?"

ISU wrestling coach Kevin Bellis had hints throughout the 1994-95 season that his team was in trouble. He knew about the meetings and the numbers that needed to add up. But he couldn't fathom that anything would happen to wrestling. The program wasn't spending a lot of money, he said. The wrestlers were passionate and relatively successful.

However, Bellis was overwhelmed that year. His wife had died over the Thanksgiving holiday. He had a 2-year-old son to take care of and two families to try to hold on to. "It was almost like an out-of-body experience," Bellis said of his life at the time. "You don't know how to handle it all."

He was once a wrestler himself, having competed for two years at Illinois State. So when the decision came down just after the season ended, and he had to gather his team together in the wrestling room one last time, Bellis vowed to fight to get the program back.

Coaching that team, he said, did not put a lot of money in his pocket. But he loved that program. To understand it, he said, you have to be a wrestler.

"You do it because you like the competition," he said. "Something draws you to [wonder] how good you can be. Guys don't eat. You're on a college campus, and you're dieting to wrestle. And nobody comes to watch us. You do it for internal reasons. There was no external kumbaya or pat on the back or anything."

But it was over. The university honored the wrestlers' scholarships and established a club team. However, they couldn't compete at NCAA meets, said Greg Hall, who was supposed to be a senior in the 1995-96 season. So Hall didn't see the point.

Hall had walked on at Illinois State. He was not talented or well-known enough to transfer to another university and finish his career, so he was finished. For the past 17 years, it's almost as if there's been something unresolved.

It was over. The mats were removed from the wrestling room, and Bellis went back to his job running a painting business.

"To me, it was such a silly decision," Bellis said. "We weren't spending that much money, and we weren't hurting anybody. We were just doing something we loved.

"We didn't ask for anything but the chance to follow our dreams. Then they took it away, for what? The dreams are casualties. When you don't have 30 kids who can follow their dreams, it's hard to measure what kind of effect that has on their lives and their families' lives. How do you measure that?"

Time moved on. The wrestlers at Illinois State became husbands and fathers and high school coaches. Greg Gardner, a captain from the early 1990s whose family was deeply embedded in ISU wrestling history, got married and had three kids -- all daughters. His oldest, Bre, became a star high school soccer player in their hometown of Springfield, Ill., and Gardner is proud.

He said she probably won't play in college, but Bre knows where she's going to school next year: Illinois State.

It is, in some ways, still their university. Some of Gardner's best friends are the guys he wrestled with in college. He has no idea where he'd be without them. In 2005, Gardner, who was coaching football and wrestling at Springfield Southeast High, took an early-morning jog on a January day before class. He was hit by a car, suffered a subsequent stroke and is now a quadriplegic.

"When I'm feeling down," Gardner said, "I don't know whether God's looking down on me or whatever, but it just so happens that one of those guys will call me to check up on me.

"There's a group of guys who are just like brothers to me."

The old college teammates went to St. Louis together last month for the NCAA championships. Seventeen years later, it's still strange to not be able to root for their alma mater. Gardner rooted for the University of Illinois.

Here's the thing that nags at Kevin Bracken: If he were in high school today, a hard-working, raw unknown like he was in the early 1990s, he might not have a chance. Bracken wasn't good enough back then to earn a scholarship at one of the big wrestling schools like Illinois or Iowa.

AP Photo/Darron Cummings

After taking off his shoes -- signaling his retirement from the sport -- Bracken does a backflip during the 2004 U.S. team trials.

He got his chance at Illinois State. So many of those smaller Division I programs are gone now, and Bracken wonders what happened to all those wrestlers. Was there a kid like him who never got a shot? Is the sport he loves destined to wither away?

Bracken's memories of his final days at Illinois State are still vivid. He trained three or four times a day that season because he desperately wanted a national championship. He was knocked out of the second round, and played that match over and over in his head on the ride back from Iowa City.

Bracken was a senior in 1995 but could have petitioned for another year of eligibility. It didn't matter upon his arrival home from nationals, when the meeting was called.

He knew his career wasn't over. Bracken had trained with the U.S. national team as an underclassman and was destined for bigger things.

"Luckily, I was able to move on," he said.

"The thing about wrestling is that you can go to any school you want, and with hard work and some dedication, you can make the Olympic team. To lose that basic structure of wrestling programs is a disservice to underprivileged kids, to kids who want to work hard in a sport for all sizes and body types. And it's becoming a disservice to women because women are starting to come on the scene in wrestling."

Four years ago, Kevin and Stephanie Bracken had another child. A girl. The youngest member of the Bracken family is a ways off from learning about wrestling. Kendall Bracken is into ballet and does a little tap, too.

Will she wrestle someday like her dad? Bracken hesitated for a moment when asked about that. He said he would support her if that's what she wants to do.

He wants his kids to be able to experience the same things he did. That wrestling room at Illinois State, Bracken said, was a place where so much growth happened in his life. Seventeen years later, he still struggles with what he sees as the positives and negatives of Title IX.

A long time ago, when he was training for the Olympics, he met legendary Tennessee women's basketball coach Pat Summitt. They talked over a meal, and Bracken heard stories of what Summitt went through as a young woman trying to play sports.

"I understand the idea of her struggle," he said.

"But don't create the same struggle for my sport. I don't think it's fair. I don't think it's what the law intended."

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