Commentary

Grajales takes opponents to the mat

Updated: January 8, 2009, 9:12 PM ET
By Lucas O'Neill | ESPNRISE.com

Contrary to what you might have heard, Eric Grajales is beatable.

[+] EnlargeEric Grajales
Riku & Anna for ESPN RiseEric Grajales went undefeated and captured a third straight state crown last season, then became one of only two high schoolers to make the U.S. Olympic Trials.

The Brandon (Fla.) senior grappler lost twice at the U.S. Olympic Trials in June.

Sure, he was wrestling up a weight class and his two opponents were in their mid-20s, but Grajales did lose. He's even lost to kids his age a few times -- all at elite national meets, mind you, but losses just the same.

But to find the last time Grajales dropped a Florida high school match, well, you'd have to go back to a time before Grajales was even in high school: He lost in the state championship match as an eighth-grader while attending Temple Heights Christian.

Since arriving at Brandon, Grajales has won 143 consecutive matches and three Class 2A state titles. Florida's top wrestler, he is aiming for his fourth straight individual and team state championships this year while attempting to eclipse his own record of 52 pins in a season.

A cadet and junior national champion many times over, Grajales is rated the nation's top 130-pounder by W.I.N. Magazine and is arguably the best grappler -- pound for pound -- in the United States.

In his warmup gear, Grajales doesn't look all that intimidating. He stands just 5-foot-4 and his weight fluctuates between about 125 and 145 pounds depending on where he is in his training.

When Grajales dons a singlet, however, it's clear he's in ridiculous shape. His legs are like tree trunks and his arms aren't much smaller. Almost as easy to see is the competitive fire that consumes him, driving him to snarl as he fights and erupt in a triumphant yell when he wins.

Which, if you hadn't figured out by now, happens a lot.

But for all of his titles and accolades, Grajales wasn't the reason an ESPN film crew documented the Brandon wrestling team's 2007-08 season.

Grajales is just the latest, greatest wrestler in an Eagles program that has given new meaning to the word dominance over the past three decades.

"Having a team like Brandon, it's like one in a million," Grajales says. "I wouldn't be nearly as good as a wrestler if it wasn't for my teammates, my practice partners. Every single guy here wants to be the best in the country, and they're willing to work for it."

"The Streak," which aired on ESPN2, followed Grajales, his teammates and legendary coach Russ Cozart as they fought to extend one of the nation's longest prep winning streaks. Entering last season, Brandon hadn't lost a dual meet in 34 years.

But with success comes detractors. Florida isn't a real wrestling state, they'd say. Come to Ohio. Come to Pennsylvania. Take us on. Never mind that Brandon wrestlers consistently beat competitors from all over the country en route to winning national titles.

So a few years back, Cozart started the Jim Graves Tournament (named for the Brandon coach under whom the streak began), with the tagline "Beat the Streak." Anyone who wanted a crack at the Eagles was welcome to attend the bracket-style team event. Instead of avoiding teams that could put the streak in jeopardy, Brandon invited them into the Eagles Nest.

"It was almost like a death wish," Cozart says. "We were trying to get beat."

Grajales' favorites


TV Show: "Prison Break"
Movie: "Hitman"
Musical Artist: Metallica
Ringtone: "This Is Not" by Static X

And last year they finally did. Though Grajales won his match -- no surprise there -- Brandon fell to a terrific South Dade team that went on to win the Class 3A state title. The streak was over at 459 consecutive wins.

And the film crew had an even more compelling story than it had anticipated.

For Grajales, the loss was tough but not devastating. Like a lot of the Eagles, he had a complicated relationship with the streak. His dad, Cesar, was on the Eagles' 1982 state championship team. His brother, Cesar Jr., was Brandon's first four-time state champ and now wrestles for Penn.

And for three years, Eric had done his part to extend the streak and solidify Brandon's reputation as one of the nation's top programs. But it was never the Eagles' foremost concern.

"We never really talked about it," Grajales says. "It was just one of those things that was there. It wasn't a real thing. It's not something you can hold in your hand.

"My brother was part of the streak. My dad was part of the streak. It was hard to deal with (losing) at first. A lot of the guys were pretty down about it. I was one of the captains last year, so I couldn't show that. I had to say, 'Look guys, it's over now. It's time to move on.'"

And they did. Six weeks later, led by Grajales, then-sophomore co-captain Joe Cozart and two other individual state champs, Brandon captured its eighth consecutive state title. Grajales capped off a 58-0 season with his third state crown and was named Class 2A Wrestler of the Year and Mr. Florida.

He went on to place fifth at the U.S. Senior Nationals in the Greco-Roman division to qualify for the Olympic Trials. There, for the first time in a long time, Grajales was an underdog.

"It was something I'm not used to," he concedes. "I'm used to going into a high school arena and a lot of times I'm expected to do well. I was going into this tournament with literally nothing to lose."

Grajales may have lost his two matches at Trials -- to older, heavier opponents -- but he got a valuable glimpse of a place he hopes to return to in four years. Coach Cozart, who has worked with Grajales at the Brandon Wrestling Club since he was 4, likes his protégé's chances.

"Our goal is to produce an Olympian, and maybe Eric's going to be that guy," Cozart says.

First, Grajales needs to decide between the slew of selective colleges recruiting him, including Michigan, Penn, Cornell and Columbia.

"Wrestling will only take me so far," he says. "I know that I want to win NCAA titles and go to the Olympics, but once that's over I want to have a degree that I can do anything with."

Lofty goals, to be sure, but there's no reason to start doubting Grajales now.

Lucas O'Neill covers high school sports for ESPNRISE.com.