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History on the D6 mats

Commentary

February 22, 2011
By JEFF FISHBEIN, Sentinel sports editor, jfishbein@lewistownsentinel.com

Pennsylvania's district wrestling tournaments take place each February, which coincidentally is the month that, since 1976, has been designated as Black History Month in the U.S.

And it's fitting for that reason to learn that the District 6 Class AA tournament just concluded featured a bit of that history.

Wrestling has integrated better than some sports - say, ice hockey or auto racing - but still is dominated by white participants. Until the 1950s, wrestling, like most organized sports, was a door not opened to non-whites. That's the decade that saw the sport's first black collegiate champ crowned (1957, Simon Roberts of Iowa); Pennsylvania's scholastic state tournament saw a black champion two years earlier, when Reading's Bruce Gilmore won a title.

More than half a century later, black history did double duty in Altoona, in both cases involving a man well known in Mifflin County, referee Bernie Chatman. Bernie informs me that he and his son Nate, also an official in the sport, were the first father-son duo to call a match together in the District 6 finals - in fact, they were to do a second bout Saturday night, but the officials were changed for that one (no word on whether the coaches involved were cheering).

The thing I found amazing - until I thought about the mostly white faces I've seen at numerous wrestling tournaments at every level in the 35 years I've been around the sport - was when Bernie told me this was the first District 6 tournament to feature three black referees. The third was Bruce Haselrig, one of the senior statesmen of officiating in the world's oldest sport.

Haselrig, who founded a college wrestling program at Pitt-Johnstown, also has a family tie to the sport's history. Nephew Carlton Haselrig - you probably remember him as a Pro Bowl selection from the Pittsburgh Steelers - wrestled for Bruce at UPJ, where he set a record that can never be broken by winning six NCAA titles (three each in Division II then Division I). The NCAA now prohibits class jumping; the policy has been known as the Haselrig Rule since its inception.

The black community has seen just a few more than a dozen of its members enshrined in the National Wrestling Hall of Fame and Museum; among those is another Pennsylvania official, Fred Richardson, who has worked numerous state and national championship events (he's one of a very small number who have been at it longer than Haselrig, who has been recognized by the Pennsylvania chapter for his contributions to the sport).

The elder Chatman may not have as many wrestling accolades accumulated yet, but the retired state police officer is a Medal of Honor recipient for a heroic act to save a partner's life, and in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, helped coordinate a relief effort in Mifflin and Juniata counties - which perhaps explains why he was so quick to spearhead a donation drive among officials at the district tournament over the weekend to benefit the family of deceased Juniata wrestler Tad Treaster.

It seems, as Black History Month comes to a close, that men like Bernie Chatman and Bruce Haselrig epitomize the most memorable line of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech: They must be judged by the content of their characters - which is rich indeed. I'm honored to know that I was in the room when their little bit of history was made.

***

Jeff Fishbein is sports editor of The Sentinel. Contact him at jfishbein@lewistownsentinel.com.

 
 
 

 

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