Mr. Wrestling

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For many boys at the New York Institute, the man that made self-respect achievable was one Clyde L. Downs of Downsville, Maryland.

When Clyde Downs first came to the Institute in 1929 at age 21, the Institute did not have a wrestling program, and Downs did not come as a wrestling coach. He appears to have been a general physical education coach, engaging students in a variety of activities.

Overbrook School in Philadelphia has been credited with the first wrestling program for blind kids, started in 1929,[3] the very same year that NYI hired Clyde Downs. The Institute would sometimes compete against Overbrook. The Philadelphia-based program was an all-white program, while the New York Institute was integrated. When the two teams met, the Institute’s non-white players were not able to participate, so the Institute was subjected to a handicap. But it seems that in the early years Overbrook had a genuinely superior program. A February 1937 story in Time Magazine describes a 22–5 beating handed to the Institute by Overbrook. By 1942, however, New York Institute students and graduates began to appear at or near the top of regional and national tournaments to a degree that Overbrook never had.

Though Coach Downs led the NYI wrestlers to meets with Overbrook and likely other racially exclusive schools, there was a point at which he drew the line. Joe Giovanelli recalls the day when Coach Downs decided not to take the team to a White-only meet:

On one particular day in gym just before our team was to travel to Georgia for a match, the gym teacher had all of us sitting on the floor as he talked to us in a way which was unlike anything he had ever said. He told us that our team would not be going to Georgia. He said that it had to do with something called “Jim Crow”. I never heard of that, and I’m not sure if any of the rest of the guys had heard of it. The instructor told us about something I surely didn’t know anything about. He told us that some of our team members were African-Americans and that the Georgia school wouldn’t wrestle with any of them. The only way that our team could be invited was to leave the black kids behind. The instructor said that this was absolutely unacceptable, so the team would not go …[4]

Clyde Downs was very likely the founder of the Institute’s wrestling program, and he was certainly the one who put together the Institute’s first competitive wresting squad in late 1934.

Downs also directed the Institute’s summer camp in the Green Mountains of Vermont, Camp Wapanacki. The camp was first opened in 1938 and Downs first became camp Director in 1940. He remained Camp Director for most of his remaining years at the Institute.

His strength as a coach, so far as I can discern from a range of reports, derived from his natural talent, his insistence on constant intra-team competition, and his passionate concern for the kids put into his care. What his wrestlers accomplished was largely due to his support, such as getting the team to meets and tournaments as distant as Baltimore and San Francisco, often in his own clunker of a car, but it seems as though he was no wrestling expert, at least not to begin with.

Coach Downs kept the boys on their toes. No spot on the squad was secure. It could be challenged at any time. If a boy’s spot was challenged by another, he would have to wrestle to defend it, and if he lost the match he would have to forfeit not only his position on the squad but also his beautiful gold-on-blue letter jacket.

Downs could be downright mean, but even at his worst he ever seemed to have the boys’ best interests at heart. Perhaps the best example of this is Robert Russell’s account of his experience with Coach Downs in his bestselling memoir, To Catch an Angel.

Young Robert Russell was introverted, timid, and overweight, but Downs approached him about giving wrestling a try. Wrestling didn’t come easy for Robert. When the boy couldn’t keep up with Coach Downs’ rigorous physical training regimen, Downs would call him names like “Fat.” The myriad of echoing noises of the gym overwhelmed the boy, and he was uncomfortable wrestling strangers from other schools. When he failed utterly against an opponent on Columbia University’s JV squad, Robert quit the team. When he quit, he stayed quit, but Coach Downs refused to gave up on him. Downs kept coming back to Russell and giving him opportunities to try again, for instance during ordinary gym class workouts. Russell eventually returned to the team, and he would become one of the Institute’s best wrestlers by the time he graduated in 1941. Among his accomplishments was winning his weight class at the Westchester County Championships. He would later wrestle for Yale University’s varsity squad.

Though Downs had been particularly hard on Russell, yet Russell saw in his coach an exceptional ability to divine the psychological needs of a child:[5]

Mr. Downs was an excellent coach and he trained some really first-rate wrestlers, but he was much more important as a molder of character and attitude. He did everything he could to make people like me aggressive, … Clyde Downs was one of the few people at the Institute who worked creatively with our psychological problems. He taught us that we could win in competitions with the sighted.

The medals that Coach Downs’ wrestlers won at Metropolitan and National championships were won without a sophisticated training program. This was a school that graduated only about 15 students per year.[6] My guess is that over the years, Downs learned as much from his wrestlers (collectively) as they learned from him, and surely much of what Jensen, Tarrant, and (later) Manfrini learned they learned at the 23rd Street YMCA.

Altogether, Coach Downs was nothing less than a miracle, a miracle that extended far beyond the sport of wrestling. Fred Tarrant relates:

Clyde L. Downs was the total picture as regards wrestling at the Institute. Without him it would have been a void. The blind girls had no such challenging program and so got the short end of the stick.

In addition, here’s an anecdote offered by Tarrant:

Coach Downs at one point attended night court down near the Battery in connection to a course he was “struggling with” at Columbia University.

A big bum jumped from a doorway grabbing Downs from behind in a bear hug. He had a knife. Downs had his hands in his overcoat pockets as it was winter and cold. As he could not get his hands out from his pockets he did the next best thing: [he] tore both pockets from the coat and dumped the poor devil on top of a fire plug; put the bum in hospital for three weeks but went to visit him taking him packs of cigarettes and so forth.

This says much about Coach Downs. Had he himself entered the Nationals as a heavyweight or near to it, he would have taken the gold no doubt, but he never competed.

His teaching was on the mat, hands-on always. Fabulous! [7]

As Jensen’s and Tarrant’s lights faded in 1944, Coach Downs would continue to coach younger wrestlers, including rising stars Anthony Mattei and Gene Manfrini who went on to win Metropolitan titles.

In 1947, after accompanying his remaining star Eugene Manfrini to the Senior National Championships in San Francisco,[1] Downs returned to his native Maryland, where he would become known as “Mr. Wrestling.” He was inducted into Maryland’s Wrestling Hall of Fame in 1981.[2] The NY Institute’s wrestling program returned to obscurity after Downs’ departure.

The bulk of Clyde L. Downs’ obituary follows:

Born Oct. 17, 1907, in Downsville, he was the son of the late Ross Wolford and Emma Katherine Hetzer Downs.

His wife, Martha Haines Gormley Downs, died in 1986.

He was a graduate of Ithaca College in Ithaca, N.Y., and received his master’s degree in education from Columbia University in New York City.

He was employed as a teacher at the Institute for the Education of the Blind in Bronx, N.Y., from 1929 to 1947. He taught physical education and health at Washington Street School in Hagerstown from 1948 until his retirement in 1976.

He started instruction in wrestling at Washington Street School and at the YMCA. Many state champions resulted from the program. He instructed at a referees’ school at South Hagerstown High School. In a 1981 Daily Mail article, he was referred to as “Mr. Wrestling.” He was inducted into the Maryland State Wrestling Hall of Fame for Secondary Schools in 1981 and was inducted into the Washington County Hall of Fame in 1989.

He also was a Boy Scout leader in New York City, and camps director for the blind at Camp Beacon Lodge in Lewistown, Pa., and Camp Wapanacki in Hardwick, Vt.

He was a member of Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church, Williamsport.

He also was a member of Optimist Club, Order of Eagles and YMCA in Hagerstown.

© 2016 Kaweah

[1] Pelham Progress, June 20, 1947 (Vol. 9, No. 2)

[2] To this day, the winner of the Washington County Wrestling Tournament receives the “Clyde Downs Trophy.”

[3] According to Time Magazine, 22 Feb 1937

[4] Giovanelli, Joe. Let There Be Light: The Inspirational Achievements of a Man Born Blind. 2010. Page 46. It is possible, but unlikely, that Giovanelli is recollecting someone other than Coach Downs in this passage.

[5] Russell, Robert. To Catch an Angel. The Vanguard Press, Inc. New York (1962), page 60

[6] NYI graduated 17, 7, 16, and 13 in 1942, ’43. ’45, and ’47 (respectively).

[7] Letter dated August 2, 2016 from Fred Tarrant to Dan Jensen.