What some might view as an act of arrogance, two North Central wrestlers know is a symbol of tribute.
Before and after each of his 158-pound matches, Mike Caballero touches his lips with his hand a raises a finger high in the air.
Although he shows no outward display, fellow sophomore David Sandberg understands its significance.
“I’m pointing to Eddie when I step on and when I step off the mat,” said Caballero. “I’m just telling him I’m ready to go and asking him to help.”
Eddie is deceased teammate Eddie Jones, last year’s top wrestler and emotional team leader who died in a recreational vehicle accident shortly after the season ended. Both Caballero and Sandberg, despite their youth, have been asked by Coach Randy Cloke to exemplify Jones’ spirit.
So far this year the pair have lost just once each in Greater Spokane League competition, and NC, after winning just once last year, is a surprising 3-3 with two matches remaining in league.
Their styles are similar if their substance differs. Caballero is more volatile and naturally talented. Sandberg is reserved and a success because of hard work. It is, said Cloke, their complementary styles that most represent NC wrestling and personify what Jones brought to the team.
“Eddie was not a phenomenal wrestler, but he had a heart as big as Texas,” said Cloke.
“These are two kids who exemplify what wrestling should be. They realize you buy your ticket to a state championship every day in the room.”
Jones’ death dealt an emotional blow to a coach and team already reeling from an uncharacteristically bad GSL season and forced them to reassess their priorities.
“God took a kid away, and you don’t want to get your heart stepped on again,” said Cloke. “But I learned these kids are on loan, and he gives them to us only a short time.”
Caballero has been a fixture in North Central’s practice room since the fifth grade, when his brother, Rob, wrestled for the Indians. Last year he met Jones. They became friends and practice partners. This year the wrestling room seemed empty.
“I came into the room and didn’t want to wrestle anymore,” said Caballero.
Cloke told him to think about what Jones would have done had the situation been reversed.
“I had always been dedicated to wrestling,” said Caballero. “That pushed me even harder.”
Sandberg, too, became friends with Jones last year through wrestling. They had made a pact that this year they would be team captains.
“When he died, I felt like a big part of my wrestling quit,” he said. “It inspired me to wrestle tougher.”
During a match he remembers Jones, and when he wins and has his hand raised, he pictures Eddie next to him with his hand raised as well.
Sandberg’s father died when Sandberg was in the sixth grade, and he has been raised in difficult economic circumstances. But like Caballero, he’s a three-sport athlete who once thought he’d both play basketball and wrestle as a freshman.
Once in the wrestling room, he never gave basketball a thought.
“I just like the challenge,” he said. “I like the work. It teaches me a lot about life.”
Although a 10th-grader, Sandberg is helping lead NC with his work ethic and memory of his late teammate.
“It could have been me in his place not being able to wrestle again,” said Sandberg.
The tragedy has spurred North Central to a break-even season so far, a vast improvement over a year ago.
“A year ago we won one match and would have been happy with two,” said Cloke. “Now we’re not satisfied with three.”
Caballero will settle for nothing less than the league title NC earned when his brother wrestled. Both have their sights set on state places. “My goal has always been to win a state title. Now it’s personal between (Eddie) and me.”
Sandberg’s goal is a top-six state finish this year.
“I don’t want them to be Eddie Jones, but to steal a bit from him and use it like a piece of emery cloth, to polish and refine their character,” said Cloke. “I hope in three years, when they leave the room, other kids can take a piece of emery cloth from them.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Photo