By BOB ETTINGER
For the Star Beacon
Like most young boys, Gaige Willis wanted more than anything to be a football player. At age 4, that just wasn’t possible. But it led to Willis finding a sport he could pursue with gusto.
Willis, the son of Sean and Christine Willis, became a wrestler.
A very good one.
“He was upset because he couldn’t play football,” Sean Willis said. “We wanted to get him into something, so we took him over to Conneaut Lake, Pa. and we got him started in wrestling. It was one of the best things we’ve ever done for him.”
Gaige Willis, a 12-year-old student at Pymatuning Valley Middle School, in eight seasons, has compiled 507-36 record (.934) and has claimed two state championships and another pair of fourth-place finishes.
“He’s one of the most competitive people I’ve ever seen,” Sean Willis said. “Whether it’s video games, sports or anything, he wants to win. It started when he wanted to play football really bad. He started playing in the yard with his brother, J.T., a junior at PV. (Gaige) didn’t care how big J.T. was, he wanted to beat him.”
“I get the best feeling out of it when I win,” Gaige Willis said. “(When I lose), it makes me pretty upset, like I didn’t work hard enough for that match.”
That competitive nature has only grown as Gaige Willis has grown.
“(He competes) all day, every day,” Sean Willis said. “Everything is a competition with him, whether it’s video games, playing in the yard or shooting bows, it’s all a competition. It’s even a competition to see who gets the last word in.”
Gaige Willis just completed a 75-7 season. He was 84-9 a year ago and 74-1 in 2011 in compiling his 500 wins.
“Words can’t describe how proud of him, or my other kids (including 8-year-old Isabella) that I am,” Sean Willis said. “But what I’m most proud of is that no matter how much he’s accomplished, he’s kept a level head. He’s not a bragger. He’ll beat on a kid and he’ll come back and want to be his friend.
“He’s a good, down-to-earth kid.”
Those 500 victories were a major goal for Gaige Willis. So much so that he and his family went to extreme lengths in order to get him there before he became a teenager.
“Most weekends, we’re doing two tournaments,” Sean Willis said. “We do one on Saturday and one on Sunday. It’s a pretty vigorous schedule, but it’s what he wanted to do.”
It’s almost as if Gaige Willis were born to be a wrestler.
“He’s always had a natural athletic ability, plus he has that competitiveness,” Sean Willis said. “When he first started, his coaches said it would be good if he were a state champ some day. He’s just a natural. He wrestles more of a Pennsylvania style — if he gets you on the mat, he’s going to keep you there.”
Where Gaige Willis is going to beat his opponents is by using his legs.
“He can run the legs,” Sean Willis said. “You wouldn’t believe how good he can run the legs. His opponents’ coaches will be yelling not to let him put the boots in — and boom! — it’s too late.”
That talent, in some ways, helps Gaige Willis. In others, it hurts him.
He wrestles in tournaments in both Ohio and Pennsylvania, where the styles differ greatly. In Ohio, the concentration is on getting takedowns. Across the border, wrestlers focus on their mat wrestling.
“It helps him a lot on the ground,” Sean Willis said. “For Ohio kids, even at tournaments, it’s not set up for ground wrestling. It’s all set up to be stand up, there’s no top bottom or neutral after periods.
“On the ground is where he feels comfortable, especially when he’s on top. That’s not to say he isn’t good on his feet. He’s just better on the mat.”
Wrestling in the two states forces Gaige Willis to improve both aspects of his strategy.
“(Wrestling in Ohio) forces him to get better on his feet,” Sean Willis said. “It helps to make him an all-around wrestler.
“Over (in Pennsylvania), he feels more at home, but it’s a tougher situation because they’re the same type of wrestlers he is. They’re mat wrestlers, too.”
“It’s a big advantage (to be good on the mat),” Gaige Willis said. “Ohio kids pretty much wrestle on their feet and don’t have much experience on the mat.”
A good deal of Gaige Willis’ success can probably be tied to his toughness, as well.
“He puts pain to the side to wrestle,” Sean Willis said. “He broke his thumb and tore ligaments five days before regionals at practice. We taped it up and sent him out to wrestle. He said he wanted to wrestle.”
That doesn’t mean he won’t step away if he needs to.
“When Gaige says something hurts, I know he’s hurt,” Sean Willis said. “When he’s hurt, I leave it up to him whether he wants to wrestle or not. He knows his body better than anyone.”
Ettinger is a freelance writer from Ashtabula.