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Wrestlers’ Breakfast: Former Foes Enjoy Friendship and Welcome the New Guys

by on May 15, 2019 5:00 AM

It’s a twice-per-year event for the fiercest of former foes who have become the closest of current comrades.

If you visit the semiannual “Retired District 6 Wrestling Breakfast” as I did on May 8, you’ll be impressed by the throng of smiling faces. Apparently, those who used to rub each other’s faces in the mat are delighted nowadays to pat each other on the back. The group which began with 25 attendees in the fall of 2011 now draws more than 200.  

As I looked around the fellowship hall of a Flemington church, I saw wrestlers, coaches and officials from central Pennsylvania, mostly over 40 years in age and mostly retired. Rich Lorenzo, former Penn State coach who will soon be inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame, came to the event along with his wife, Cindy. Then there was Dick Rhoades, former head coach of Bald Eagle Area High School who built the Eagles into a 1990s dynasty. And John Hughes, a former NCAA champ at Penn State who is now associate head coach for Lehigh. Jeff Byers, the radio voice of Penn State wrestling, also made time to attend as did Chuck Yorks, the Rec Hall voice of Nittany Lion grappling who attended with his wife, Jennie. Four of the five legendary Packer brothers at BEA from some 50 years ago (Glenn, Blair, Grant and Paul) were present; only Wayne, who lives in Florida, couldn’t make it.  

And then there was a guy named Cael Sanderson. Yes, the Nittany Lions’ head coach was in attendance but in this group, he’s a youngster who won’t turn 40 until June 20. Scott Moore, Lock Haven University’s head coach, also made the scene, but he’s even younger than Cael.

Those who used to cut weight for wrestling don’t take breakfast for granted. (Photo by Jennie Yorks)

WHAT’S THE DRAW?  

So what attracts so many of these stalwarts from central Pennsylvania wrestling? Not the food, although most filled their plates with tasty high-carbohydrate items they could only covet when cutting weight years ago.

“They come because of their friends,” says Dick Rhoades, one of the event’s organizers. “We competed hard against each other, but after the match was over, we were friends.”

Lloyd Rhoades, younger brother of Dick and another breakfast organizer, offers a similar perspective. “It’s a family reunion,” he says, “the wrestling family reunion. There’s thousands and thousands of years of wrestling experience here.”

According to Tom Elling, the other event organizer, “We just get together to break bread, to talk about wrestling, to talk about anything. We’re old friends here.”

Yes, these old friends who have somehow transcended old rivalries — sometimes bitter rivalries — are now enjoying warm relationships. As Jeff Byers noted, “One of the neat things to me is that guys who were rivals in high school are now friends 50, 60 or 70 years later and able to swap stories.”  


The breakfast brought back memories for John Hughes, a former national champ for Penn State who is now Lehigh’s associate head coach. (Photo by Jennie Yorks)

A SAMPLING OF COMMENTS

Throughout last week’s breakfast gathering, outbursts of laughter punctuated a steady hum of old narratives. My love for wrestling prompted me to listen in and to ask some of my own questions. So here’s a sampling of comments about the event and about the friendships that it helps maintain.     

Jack Childs served as head wrestling coach at Drexel University until his retirement in 2011. “It’s just special,” he said, “to reminisce and talk with the old wrestlers and coaches and officials I’ve been associated with for so long. It’s fantastic.”

Doug McDonald served as sports editor for the Centre Daily Times for several decades. “This is terrific,” said McDonald. “Boy, when you hear a voice, see a face or see a nametag, it just brings back mucho memories.” McDonald’s longtime colleague at the CDT, Ron Bracken, also attended the breakfast; both have been recognized by the Pennsylvania chapter of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame for their coverage of the sport.

Dick Rhoades wrestled at Lock Haven State and coached at Bald Eagle Area High School where several of his teams finished first in state championship polls and one of those, 1998-99, was chosen by all three major polls as the nation’s best. “The old timers really enjoy coming back just to visit,” said Rhoades. “Of course, the stories get a little more embellished each year. But some of them probably just forget. I’m sure they wouldn’t stretch the truth at all.”

Galen Driebelbis certainly wasn’t stretching the truth when he said, “I just finished watching my 70th year of Penn State wrestling.” The former State High grappler and current Penn State booster added, “It’s also been that long that I’ve known a lot of those guys from wrestling in high school — from Hollidaysburg, Philipsburg, Bellefonte.”

Given his decades of experience in fly fishing, Joe Humphreys has probably heard a few stories about the big one that got away.  He said the same is true when old wrestlers congregate for morning chow and then he offers a humorous imitation of his buddies: “If I would have done this, I probably could have won the states.” Or, “I always wanted to be a state champ but this guy was in my way.”

Marc Billet has a lot in common with Humphreys. Both are well-known experts in landing trout, and both coached high school wrestling for decades. In Humphreys’ case, the coaching took place at Kittanning, Penns Valley and Bald Eagle. Billet, on the other hand, spent 40 years at Greater Latrobe High School. “The fraternity of people we have here in the great family of wrestling, it’s just awesome,” said Billet, noting that he gladly drove two and a half hours each way to meet his friends in Flemington. “I think we all respect and appreciate what everybody’s gone through, how much dedication it took.”

Tom Elling wrestled for Lock Haven University and then coached at Lock Haven High School before focusing on promotion of the sport through such publications as the annual Pennsylvania Wrestling Handbook. Elling noted that many of the breakfast’s regular attendees are “dual fans,” rooting for Penn State and for Lock Haven University. “Penn State is near and dear to their hearts,” he said, “and I really thank Cael Sanderson for taking the time out of his busy schedule to come here. But he loves the sport and he loves the people who are here.”

Speaking of Cael Sanderson, the Nittany Lion leader said, “It’s just an honor to be here because you can see the love of the sport and how it brings people together. Wrestling’s unique in that way. And the passion for wrestling in this part of the country is really amazing.” By the way, those who have achieved various honors in grappling were asked to stand during the post-breakfast program in Flemington. Perhaps four or five men arose when it was time for NCAA national champs to be recognized, but not Cael. Perhaps he thinks he’s already received enough recognition for his achievements. But of all the champions at the breakfast who deserved to stand up, Cael was clearly the headliner. Only four wrestlers have ever captured four individual titles in NCAA history, and Cael is one of those top dogs.  

Jeff Byers, known to his friends and followers as “Ironhead” does a remarkable job of communicating the drama of Penn State wrestling via radio. Like others, he chuckled at the tendency of attendees to exaggerate their achievements. And, like others, he expressed his appreciation for the bond between former competitors. (“I’m sure it exists in other sports,” said Byers, “but (not) to the same degree as in wrestling, because of the shared trials and tribulations.”) The broadcaster, however, told me about one unique conversational tidbit that he enjoyed. Said Ironhead,“There are a lot of married guys here who wanted to share advice with someone who’s about to get married. The (tip) that’s probably going to serve me the best, and I’ve had several say it, is this: “The two most important words in marriage are, ‘Yes, Dear.’”


Paul Packer and Andy Thal enjoy reviewing their experiences together as wrestling referees. (Photo by Bill Horlacher) 

Bellefonte’s Andy Thal is a local legend for his achievements as a wrestler and for his decades of serving as a Little League baseball leader and as a wrestling referee. Now 78 years old, Andy lights up as he interacts with old buddies like Paul Packer, the youngest of five brothers who provided “Packer Power” to Bald Eagle in the late 1960s and early 70s. Thal helped mentor Packer when the latter was a new referee, and there was no end to the teasing I observed between the two of them. “You know,” says Thal, “referees get a lot of abuse from the fans, but they also get a lot of abuse from other referees.” But of all his old cronies who were hanging out in the Flemington church’s social hall, there was one figure Andy chose to highlight. “Between wrestling and refereeing,” says the boy from Bellefonte, “I met so many great people. One of my dearest friends is here, Rich Lorenzo.”

Indeed, because so many other people share a deep respect for Rich Lorenzo, he was the only person to receive a standing ovation at the breakfast gathering. Yes, he served as Penn State’s head coach from 1978 to 1992 and yes, he’s about to be inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame. But the folks who stood and applauded were just as motivated by Lorenzo’s consistent kindness—something he claims is a product of the sport’s climate. “People have been really good to me all along,” says Lorenzo. “This sport tends to bring a lot of people together. I’m proud to be in it; I’m proud to help support it. I’ve had a great life because of wrestling.”


The semiannual wrestlers’ breakfast began with 25 attendees in 2011 and now draws over 200. (Photo by Jennie Yorks)



Bill Horlacher is a native of Happy Valley, a 1970 graduate of State College High School and a 1974 graduate of Penn State (journalism). He has spent his last 30 years in service to international students, helping them with personal, cultural and spiritual adjustments to America. After 39 years of living in California, Maryland and Texas, Bill returned to State College in 2013 along with his wife, Kathy.
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