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The Dodger wrestling connection

Why do we feel close to this program? It inspires us to be better versions of ourselves — and to each other

Messenger photo by Britt Kudla: Fort Dodge's 2021 seniors: (left to right): Lane Cowell, Drake Ayala, Kody Cook and Dreyzon Phillips.

Members of the Fort Dodge wrestling program may not fully realize it yet, but their impact continues to extend far beyond a gym room or a trophy case.

It resonates with a former FDSH teacher who now lives in a Sun Belt state. An ex-Dodger wrestler who resides in Colorado. A current basketball player who casually observes the work ethic it takes to be a champion from afar. A fan from another school district. A reader who would otherwise have no real interest in the sport. An FDSH graduate stationed overseas. A young up-and-comer who wants to be a part of it all someday.

This is a small sample from the dozens of calls, texts or messages we’ve received in recent years during state tournament time. While head coach Bobby Thompson’s squad rightfully focuses on the medals and results at Wells Fargo Arena, people from across the country — some who are fans of the sport, some who aren’t; some who are Dodgers, some who aren’t — see a much bigger picture in their performance.

There is something about Drake Ayala’s toughness, or Dreyzon Phillips’s evolution, or Kody Cook’s resilience, or Lane Cowell’s persistence that reaches us. We want more of this in our own lives, so we are inspired to emulate. Just like with Sam Cook, Brody Teske, Triston Lara, Drew Bennett, Cayd Lara, Carson Taylor, Levi Egli, Damond Lockner, Erik Birnbaum and so many others. We respect and admire their commitment to the process and each other, which in turn, often pushes us to take needed self-inventory.

Thompson spent more time talking about the Dodger family at the conclusion of the week than his team’s performance. Fort Dodge’s incomparable stretch of six consecutive state trophies came to an end very quietly. It mattered, of course, but not in the way it might to other coaches or programs. While winning is important, it doesn’t come at all costs and measures around here.

Messenger photo by Britt Kudla: Fort Dodge Drake Ayala (left) and his younger brother, Dru, walk off the mat together on Saturday at Wells Fargo Arena.

Trophies don’t define the Dodgers. This brotherhood will always be rooted in mettle, not medals.

Take an exchange I had with Ayala an hour after his championship match as an example. Keep in mind this is a wrestler who could very easily make this all about himself and slip into the trap of thinking he’s “above” the program.

I asked him about the emotions running through his mind before the semifinals and finals, and if they were different this time around compared to previous years.

Ayala immediately brought up his brother, freshman Dru Ayala, and his senior classmates, who all fell short of the ultimate championship goal. The mixed emotions Drake felt. And how excited he was for Dru’s future, calling him “my best friend,” saying “I love him” and admitting he gets more excited, anxious and nervous watching Dru or a fellow teammate compete than he does for his own matches.

Drake even stopped himself at one point and apologized, saying, “I know that’s not really what you were asking.” I got it, though. He didn’t want to dominate the spotlight. And it wasn’t because he was trying to make himself look good. This is just Dodger wrestling in a nutshell.

They look out for each other. They care about each other. It’s rule number one in the FDSH program: have the back of the person next to you at all times, not just in the wrestling room, but life in general.

As for Ayala’s legacy, he added, “I just hope people remember me as a humble, kind, sincere guy. What you see is what you get. It’s not about being a three-time champ or nationally-ranked whatever. It’s about becoming a better leader and a better person.

“I know I have kids looking up to me, watching how I act and what I say. That’s cool. I understand it more and more as I get older. I want them to know that I’m just like them in a lot of ways. I like the stuff they like. I don’t want to be put on a pedestal.”

These aren’t words to wrestle by. They’re words to live by. And it’s the main reason why Dodger wrestling continues to transcend and connect us in ways championships alone never could.

Eric Pratt is Sports Editor at The Messenger. Contact him via email at sports@messengernews.net, or on Twitter @ByEricPratt

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