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Cowboy up: A day in the life of an Oklahoma State mat champ, 85 years ago

As an Oklahoma State wrestler, Jack VanBebber wrestled in a ring... and had a tough daily routine
As an Oklahoma State wrestler, Jack VanBebber wrestled in a ring... and had a tough daily routine
Photo on left from 1938 Oklahoma State Redskin yearbook; Jack VanBebber image from Oklahoma State, used with permission

Think you put in a long, tough day? Whether you’re currently a college wrestler, or a mat fan who juggles a job, family, a killer commute, and a heavyweight roster of errands, your typical day may not be as demanding – or as drawn out – as a day in the life for one of the great mat champs of 85 years ago, Jack VanBebber.

VanBebber wrestled at Oklahoma State in the late 1920s and early 1930s, for legendary coach Ed Gallagher, back when the Cowboys were the formidable program in college wrestling. As a Cowboy, VanBebber compiled a perfect 21-0 record, winning three straight NCAA titles (this was back when freshmen were not eligible to wrestle at nationals), and earning a gold medal in freestyle at the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles.

How do we know what a typical day was like for VanBebber? Thanks to his 1992 memoir, “A Distant Flame: The Inspiring Story of Jack VanBebber’s Quest for a World Olympic Title.”

In the book, the Oklahoma native chronicled his wrestling-related life in incredible detail… right down to describing a typical day as a wrestler each year at what was then called Oklahoma A&M (Agricultural and Mechanical) College. For example, during his freshman year (1928-1929), VanBebber started his day at 3:45 a.m. to get to the local dairy barn to help deliver milk to homes along a route; while someone else drove the truck, he carried the bottles up to each home’s doorstep. (Back then, homeowners could have milk delivered directly to their homes.)

“The milk delivered, I legged it to my morning classes,” VanBebber wrote. “At noon I ate a snack at Lynn’s (a local restaurant). From 1:00 p.m. until 4:00 I attended classes. From 4:00 to 5:00 I swept classrooms at Whitehurst Hall. I double-timed it to the gym for an hour of wrestling. I’d jog then to the Briscoes’ (the family who provided him with a place to live at school). There in the quiet of my bedroom, I studied. Every minute I could squeeze in went for study, for I must make satisfactory grades to stay in college and be eligible to wrestle.”

At 9:00 p.m., he went back to Lynn’s for a free dinner, where he then washed dishes and pots and pans for an hour. He’d then go back to the Briscoes’ and study an hour before going to bed.

VanBebber’s course load his freshman year was hardly lightweight. He had four three-credit-hour courses: freshman English, general botany, general chemistry, and first-year military science. In addition, VanBebber had four one-hour courses -- farm shop work, animal husbandry, marketing types, and wrestling.

Realize that times were tough for VanBebber – and for most students at Oklahoma State back then. VanBebber grew up in a large farm family that struggled with the challenges of the Oklahoma Dust Bowl, along with the Great Depression that loomed on the horizon. The VanBebber family’s challenges were probably typical for a farm family out on the Great Plains.

Even as Jack VanBebber made a name for himself on the mat at the premier college mat program of the pre-World War II era, his days got no easier. Nor did his money worries go away. The man who would eventually win gold at the 1932 Olympics and be named one of the ten greatest amateur athletes of the first half of the 20th century had a succession of jobs throughout college to earn money to pay for classes, books, and room and board. One of the strangest: working overnight at the local funeral parlor. Most of the time it was a matter of waiting in case the phone rang after hours; however, one night, he had to go out to pick up the dead body of a man who had been robbed and brutally murdered out on the highway just outside Stillwater.

The point of this article is not to say, “Gee, you folks today got it easy!” Instead, my goal is to help provide readers with a greater appreciation of just how challenging it was “back in the day” for great college wrestlers to become great. It’s hard to imagine that any recent-vintage three-time NCAA champ had to juggle multiple jobs at the local greasy spoon or mortuary while in college. Nor did today’s wrestling champs have to compete in wool trunks or tights, stripped to the waist, in a roped-off ring like VanBebber did, at least in his home meets.

Conversely, Jack VanBebber didn’t face some of the pressures of today’s mat greats. He and his teammates never had to deal with missed connections at O’Hare or Detroit or Atlanta; they traveled by train… or car. He never faced the constant attention of wrestling websites, publications, bloggers and online forums – not to mention fans on social media -- commenting on his every move. None of his opponents dissed him during online video interviews.

The good old days, indeed.

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