Goodwin: The last man to wrestle Dave Schultz


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The last man to wrestle Dave Schultz remembers their last conversation as a normal one. It was Jan., 25, 1996, and Brandon Slay, a business student and wrestler at the University of Pennsylvania at the time, had just gotten his tail kicked by Schultz, widely regarded as one of the sport’s greatest technicians.

Afterward, Slay gathered his things to head back to Penn’s campus, around 25 miles from “The Farm,” as they called it. “Hey, I’ll see you again next Tuesday,” he recalls telling Schultz.

The next day, Schultz, at just 36, was gunned down by multimillionaire John du Pont.

“I was in our locker room at Penn,” Slay said. “Coach [Roger] Reina came in and said, ‘Hey Brandon, I need to talk to you.’ And I knew that whatever he was going to share with me wasn’t good.
“He said John killed Dave, about 3 o’clock.”

The story of Schultz’s death is highlighted in the movie Foxcatcher, which tells the harrowing tale of du Pont and his relationship with Schultz and younger brother Mark. The movie is set to release in select markets today.

Slay, now 39 and a resident freestyle coach for USA Wrestling, watched the movie last week. Schultz’s widow, Nancy, flew to Colorado Springs and gathered those who were involved in her husband’s life for an early screening at the Olympic Training Center.

“It was emotionally grueling for me because it hit so close to home,” Slay said. “I knew Dave. I trained with Dave. I was very close to Foxcatcher … When they showed [Schultz’s murder], it was pretty difficult to watch.”

Watching the movie took Slay, if only for a couple of hours, back to The Farm. He was back wrestling with Schultz in the Foxcatcher practice room, the one with mats like those used in the Olympics that had a navy-blue poster hanging with “Team Foxcatcher” on it, the exact place where, according to several wrestlers at the time, du Pont once walked in carrying a gun.

“Seeing the guys run around The Farm and go into the wrestling room at Foxcatcher,” Slay said. “It was eerily similar.”

Being back on The Farm for those few hours allowed the memories of that whole year to flow like a coursing river. Slay was in his third year at Penn at the time but decided to take that season off from competition. He drove out to Foxcatcher every Tuesday and Thursday to train with the team.

Slay befriended Schultz during that time. He hardly ever scored on Schultz during live goes, and if he did, “I think it was because he gave it to me,” he said and laughed. “Dave kind of threw me a bone every now and then.”

After practices, Slay picked Schultz’s brain about specific wrestling techniques. Schultz always obliged, and in both 1997 and 1998, Slay earned All-American honors at the NCAA Tournament, placing second both years at 167 pounds.

The time spent around Schultz helped bolster Slay’s wrestling ability — he ultimately won an Olympic gold in the 2000 Sydney Games and dedicated the medal to Schultz — but it also taught Slay what made Schultz such a loose, easy-going, personable guy.

There’s the story of Schultz learning Russian because he traveled there so often. A lot of Russian wrestlers, coaches, and fans appreciated that, and rooted for him on the mat. Schultz was once given one of those beaver-skin hats, and he relished wearing it.

There was even a moment when Slay and Schultz sat in the sauna together. Schultz loved tea and had a cup with him in the sauna. All of a sudden, he jumped and spilled on Slay’s leg.

“He had just got done boiling the water, so it was scalding hot,” Slay said and laughed. “I screamed out profanities. He goes, ‘Man, was that hot?’ I go, yeah, it’s hot. So he took the same cup of tea and poured some of it on his leg and burned himself, just so he could feel the same pain and experience what I just experienced.

“That’s the type of guy Dave was. He was very adventurous and wanted to live life to the fullest.”

Foxcatcher centers more on the life of Mark Schultz, but Slay said the film does a good job of depicting Dave as himself, a guy who was universally loved in the sport of wrestling. The problem with death is that we often emphasize the years on the tombstone more than we do the dash in-between. With Dave Schultz, his story, and all that he stood for, lives on in a myriad of ways.

Slay admitted to being apprehensive about seeing the movie. He was worried about how they would represent his hero-turned-practice partner.

After the viewing, though, he couldn’t help but smile.

“My college-wrestling coach, he named his son Dave, after Dave Schultz,” Slay said. “And I told Coach Reina, you would be totally fine taking your son to see that movie and knowing that that man is his eponym.

“David Reina, after watching Foxcatcher, will be proud to know that he was named after Dave Schultz.”

Follow @codygoodwin on Twitter for updates, news, and analysis about the Iowa wrestling team.

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