There’s not much room for irony in wrestling – just you and the other guy, a mat, 7 minutes, will and fatigue.
OK, not always 7 minutes.
Sometimes 7 seconds.
That’s all the time that elapsed from the moment Walker Clarke dared initiate the move he had to think might jump-start him toward a second national championship until he found himself on his back, immobilized, marooned without rescue, saddled with one of those oh-dammit flashbacks that may take a while to lose.
It’s all the time Jamelle Jones required to turn a rather humdrum final round of the National Junior College Athletic Association wrestling championships into something electric, and borderline breathtaking.
To turn the match of the night – the collision of two national champions – into, well, the night.
Sure, the night had other moments. Clackamas Community College won its first team title in 40 years. Jones’ teammate, Jesse Nielson, became the Cardinals’ first national champion from Coeur d’Alene.
Its last-night come-throughs boosted NIC up to second, 10 points short of a 14th NJCAA title.
More than 2,700 spectators filled the boxy space at the Spokane Convention Center, another modest huzzah for a collegiate endeavor too often consigned to being a punching bag for Title IX, feckless administrators and greedy King Football.
But the night will always carry Jones’ imprint, just as the mat – on loan from Mead High School – may forever carry the imprint of Clarke’s shoulders.
“I knew I was going to win,” the North Idaho College sophomore said. “I just didn’t know how I was going to win.”
So here’s how:
The evening had slogged through a succession of prevent-defense matches that all seemed to end 3-2 when Jones and Clarke, a sophomore from Labette Community College in Kansas, scaled the steps to the center platform for their showdown at 197 pounds, the next-to-last of 10 weight classes for the evening.
Their opening period was more of the same. Jones took a 1-0 lead on a quick escape to open the second, and 30 seconds later Clarke – knowing that one takedown could turn the momentum – took a shot at getting it back.
“He came in with what’s called a ‘super duck,’ ” Jones explained, “and his head got stuck. That’s my good side. I call my left leg my ‘impossible leg.’ ”
“If you shoot on it, I might pin you,” he said, “and that’s what happened.”
So in that sense, it’s also a “possible” leg.
In any event, Clarke’s admirable boldness was countered in kind.
“He slip-ducked, trying to be pretty, and I landed him on his back,” Jones said. “Once I get them there, I don’t let them up often.”
That was as remarkable as the suddenness of the strike. Clarke may as well have been encased in cement.
The match of the night was also the shortest of the night, over in 3 minutes, 42 seconds.
“That’s Jamelle,” NIC coach Pat Whitcomb said. “He’s never boring.”
No kidding. His first match of the tournament lasted 34 seconds.
Clarke had won the 197 title a year ago over NIC’s Kamron Jackson; Jones won his title three years ago in 2008 before taking a self-imposed two-year hiatus from school when his son was born – to work and earn and, well, get it together.
“I worked at the middle school where I used to go,” said Jones, whose hometown is Winslow Township, N.J. “I was like a teacher’s aide in seventh grade and coach of the wrestling team. I was like ‘Coach Jones’ around the building.”
When he was ready to return, Jones discovered the school for which he’d won that shiny medal – the Meramec campus of St. Louis Community College – had not only pink-slipped the legendary coach who’d been there for 39 years, but then gassed the entire program.
Every time a JC program dies – and only 45 schools among the NJCAA’s 500-plus members offer the sport – it’s a knife to the gut of the survivors, many of them schools where the sport lives on only through the sheer will of long-established and connected coaches. So Meramec giving it up gave Whitcomb pause.
But having recruited Jones out of high school, he didn’t hesitate to try again.
“I think we did things right with him,” Whitcomb said. “We didn’t bend, and he didn’t. He could have gone to another college where maybe he didn’t have to work as hard and then come in and tried to win it at the end.
“But he came out knowing how hard he was going to have to work, and he put in the work – in class, in the room, everywhere. I hope that’s helped him.
“And Jamelle is ready to wrestle when the light comes on.”
Often, it doesn’t stay on long.