In every “RTW” questionnaire that I send out, there is always a question or two about who their rivals were. Youth, HS, college, any level. And every time I see it, I get stumped trying to think of who would be classified as my own HS rivals. It’s pretty cut and dry who my youth rivals were. First rival ever was a kid named Jacob Hammond from Fort Madison. That lasted from 1st-6th grade. Then there was a kid named Nate Burden from New London who I split multiple wins with in 3rd grade. In 4th grade, I met Shea Stamp from Lisbon for the first time, first round at districts. He was for sure, one of my biggest rivals I had in my entire career. We met up from 4th-8th grade. My biggest youth rival is a guy who probably doesn’t even remember me, for he never remembered me when we were kids either. Probably because he blocked me out of his memory because I annoyed the snot out of him in the same manner Donkey annoys Shrek. His name was Matt Vasey from DM Lincoln. He was my rival because we met at least 5-6 times, all at either USA or AAU State. Man, was he a good wrestler.
When I think about my HS career, I have a more difficult time thinking of people who meet what I would consider to be the general criteria for what a rival entails. To me, in order for a pair of wrestlers to be considered rivals, they must have met multiple times, split wins, had results or outcomes that stuck with them for one reason or another and generally met up when the stakes were high. I mean, there was Adam Reid from Fort Madison, but things were lopsided in his favor. I want to say that he beat me 5 times compared to my 2 wins over him… and he won all 3 Folkstyle matches. Our matches were pretty close, though. Same with Joe Storm… I beat him twice in 8th grade, but that loses all significance when you consider that he beat me in 2 crazy-intense matches our Senior year. The Dubuque Senior duo of Nathan Specht and Matt Davis were rivals of mine that spanned from 4th grade all the way until my Sophomore year in college with Specht. Matt and I had to have met 10 times, splitting 5-5 or so. Nathan and I met 5 times, with him winning one, which was our Senior season at the Manchester West Delaware Freestyle tournament, in which I placed 3rd…behind Matt Davis and Nathan Specht. What a duo those two were. Out of my 4 wins vs. Specht, a couple of them were undeniably flukey.
There are two guys who I would consider to be my rivals in HS.These guys fit the criteria, cut and dry. One of them was Ryan Hagerty from Muscatine who I later became practice partners with at Loras College. The other was Clay Eaton from Washington.
First time I ran into Clay was at a tournament at Washington. It was my Sophomore, his Freshman season. I won a back and forth match by the score of 7-6. There were a lot of people watching that match and cheering Clay on, for that was his home crowd. That day always stuck out to me, for I met a girl who ended up becoming my girlfriend of a couple years that day. She may have been the only person in the building besides Drain and my exchange student that was actually was rooting for me, and not avidly rooting for Clay. Mepo wasn’t exactly a very well-liked squad to begin with, add to it, the fact that Clay seems very well-liked in his home gym and yeah. I wasn’t very popular that day… or the next time that I wrestled him a year later, which was also in Washington. But the stakes were higher with this one… this was the finals at Sectionals and I was nearing the end of my most frustrating season that I ever had. In that match, I started out with a 4 point lead and lost in OT. He scored a TD in the last second of the 3rd period to send it to OT. And holy cow did Clay ever have the crowd jacked up at the end of that one. I gassed out, bad and after he scored a takedown, he let me up and as I struggled to find the energy to drag myself up to my feet, he slightly motioned towards me to “come on, let’s go!” The crowd went into a frenzy when he did that… I was so exhausted at that point, that it felt like I was trying to wrestle while being underwater and after running a marathon. You know how things sound when you are at the swimming pool and swim under water? You are under water, but can still hear the muffled screams and yelps and what-not outside the water? It sounded like that. The only thing I could easily decipher within the muffled screams was what my dad was screaming at me. That was clear as day. Everything else was like a nightmare. I could barely see Clay, for my vision was cloudy and the noise was foggy. And the moment I began dragging, the crowd got more and more into it. That Washington fanbase has always been very supportive of their guys. Clay took me down in OT as if I were a wrestling dummy, hanging to the wall by a singlet thread. Just pushed me over, basically. That was the finals and I was ranked 10th in the state. Clay was not ranked at the time, so it was a big win for him and secured a preferable first round matchup for him.
A couple days later, my cousin sent me an article from the Washington local newspaper. At least I assume that’s what it was. In the article, the main match that was discussed at length was Clay Eaton vs. Joshua Swafford. They interviewed Clay and his coach, Jay Huff about the match and they both made comments about how they both considered me to be a good wrestler, but knew that if he kept pushing, he would have a good opportunity to win the match, for I had a reputation for gassing out in matches. My cousin showed me this article in an attempt to pump me up or piss me off, but it accomplished neither. They were in no way insulting me as a wrestler…in fact, they said I was good. And if they did not consider me to be a guy who had a tendency to “gas” in a match, then they probably were sleeping through my previous meetings with Washington wrestlers. Ya see, earlier on in the year, I lost two matches in the same day to the same guy at The Mediapolis Invitational and in both of these matches, I was winning by 10 or more points. I lost one of these matches by points!!! These were both against Clay Eaton’s teammate, Jake Hotchkiss, who wrestled at the weight class above Clay which was 145 lbs. There was a lot going on that led to meltdown matches such as those and most of it, I didn’t understand, nor did anyone else. It was around this time where I began having terrible anxiety-induced adrenaline dumps, where I literally felt like I couldn’t move after 3 minutes of wrestling. I can not put into words how frustrating this was, for I didn’t struggle at all to get through 2-hour long, hard practices without as much as taking a water fountain break the entire time. I was in shape and I knew it, but would just die after 3 minutes. Everyone kept trying to diagnose me with asthma. It wasn’t asthma. It was anxiety. That was in a time where the field of “sports psychology” was in its infancy stages. Washington guys were the last people on Earth you ever wanted to run into if you had these struggles. They were well-coached and their conditioning was second to none. The most well-conditioned HS team I have ever encountered or seen, to this day. Jay Huff was an AWESOME coach. Another thing that led to these episodes was the fact that I was cutting way too much weight to get to 145, let alone 140 where I cut down to collide with Clay. I came into the season weighing 170 lbs. and was pretty shredded on full-feed. I literally starved myself for days on end to get to 145 lbs. and was likely close to jeopardizing my health permanently in cutting to 140 lbs. It was the most idiotic decision I recall ever making in high school. Cutting to 140 lbs. when I was already starving at 145, so I could be in a sectional and district bracket against Hotchkiss’s teammate who (and no offense intended to Hotchkiss) was a better wrestler than him. Hotchkiss had one of the best motors I’ve ever heard of…but Eaton was the better, technically superior wrestler and he didn’t have too bad of a gas tank himself. It would take a total moron to consider cutting to 140 lbs. a good idea. I was a total moron. I should have gone up to 152, not cut down a weight to wrestle more difficult competition. Dumb. I perceived what Huff and Eaton said in that interview as the truth and a compliment…Because that’s what it was.
So districts arrived. Top 2 from Sectionals qualify for districts where they are paired with another Sectional. Top 2 there qualify for state. I was very familiar with the other guys in our bracket. One of them was a very talented wrestler from Solon named Matt Kidwell. The guy who placed behind him at Sectionals was a guy who I felt that both Clay and I would have no struggles with. We had several common opponents that year and it was one of those deals where guys that Clay and I were beating easily, were beating this guy badly. I figured that it was a 3-way race between Kidwell, Clay and I. I was wrong…and I never would have guessed that this would have been the case due to Clay freezing up. I figured it would have been me. Clay lost his first match against a guy who I would have picked him to beat 9 times out of 10. And I lost to Kidwell first round, which set up a wrestle-back match between Clay and I. We had another back and forth match and Clay won by a point or two. I was eliminated. Season over. Kidwell dominated the other guy in the finals, which meant that Clay did not get a wrestle-back either. We were both eliminated. He and I were both just utterly heartbroken and to this day, I think we were just as skilled as anyone there, but just couldn’t put it together at the right time.
After losing the wrestle-back to Clay, it was the most heartbroken I ever was after losing a wrestling match. I sat out in the concourse with West Burlington and club teammate of mine, Freshman Chris Johnson who was also heartbroken because he fell short of qualifying for state that day. All I could do for what seemed like hours was just bawl…With an exception of Chris and my dad (who was very comforting to me that day), I didn’t speak to anyone or acknowledge what was going on around me for a long time. I just sat there, drowning in a pool of self-pity, confusion and indescribable frustration. I felt like I was in a “self-pity trance,” until I noticed an equally heartbroken Clay Eaton walk by me. He was followed by one of his coaches who was trying their best to get him to cheer up. I over-heard a portion of their talk before I decided to “tune out” and mind my own business. But some of the stuff the coach was saying to Clay along with his responses reminded me a lot like the conversations that long-time Mepo Assistant Coach, Shawn Timmerman and I had with each other that entire season… in fact, he gave me a similar speech just minutes before that. Coach Timmerman was very important to me. You’ll hear more about him.. Every one of my coaches at Mepo were great and had a significant impact on my life, but Shawn spent a lot of time with me individually, which wasn’t an easy task, for coaching me was frustrating in itself. When Clay walked by me again, he stopped to say something to me and still had tears in his eyes and said, “hey Swafford, keep your head up. You are a great wrestler. I wish it would have been us two going to state next week, but maybe next year, I guess. I’ll be rooting for you.” And he meant it. I could tell. It was the first time Clay and I ever spoke to each other. I just kind of got myself out of my sobbing fit and nodded my head and thanked him. When you think about the competition you face sometimes, it’s easy to consider them soley as inconveniences who are just in your way when you are trying to reach your goals. It is easy to dehumanize your competition as mere beings who don’t have thoughts or feelings of their own and serve only one purpose; to make your life a living hell and to crush your dreams. This was one of those notable times in life where it was presented to me plainly and clearly…my opponent cared every bit as much about the outcome of his season as I did and his personal struggles were relatable to my own. It’s refreshing when you come to these realizations for if you have your dreams crushed, at least it was at the hands of someone who cared deeply about the same things and had the same dreams as you and it wasn’t just some forgettable “blip” in their life.
Clay and I grew apart in weight the next year and I rooted for Clay any time I got the chance. After I won my quarterfinals match at state the next year, Jay Huff and Clay were a couple of the first people to congratulate me, along with Kidwell, ironically. Clay is one of the toughest guys I wrestled in high school. And he wasn’t a world-beating multi-state champion or anything. In fact, he qualified for state and did not place. That never changed my opinion of him as a wrestler, though. Clay Eaton achieved a lot in his career, but was talented enough to accomplish much more than he did. He was right up there with everyone. I know this better than anyone, for I got him at his best. If he would have been at his best every match and if things would have just worked out for him, he could have been a state champion.
Great guy. You would think that the person who handed you the most heartbreaking loss of your career would provoke an array of negative feelings, but I don’t know how anyone could say or feel anything negative about the man unless they are just being irrational. In every conversation I have ever had with him, I have been treated with the utmost respect and I mean it when I say that it’s an honor to write this article on Clay Eaton.
Who or what encouraged you to give wrestling a try?
My ability to lay a brick from anywhere on a basketball court. Went to Snow Valley basketball camp one summer and realized how bad I was. Went to wrestling camp later that same summer and never looked back.
Do you have any family who wrestled or wrestles currently? Parents, children, brothers, etc.? How did they do?
I’m related to a bunch of Naigs from northwest Iowa who have added a lot more hardware to the family tree than I ever did! My son just wrestled at Super PeeWee State this past weekend!
(EDITOR’S NOTE: My younger brother, Justin wrestled one of these Naig’s from NW Iowa. Jacob Naig from Emmetsburg. Ironically, this is one of Justin’s biggest HS rivals for they split wins against each other… Justin defeated Jacob in the semis at state as a Freshman and Jacob defeated Justin in the finals at state the next year. I never knew Eaton was related to the Naig’s until now. Crazy).
What were your youth results? Any rivals there?
I didn’t start until 7th grade. I made it somewhere low on the podium at AAU state in 8th grade.
What was your record in HS?
75 – 30? Not sure exactly, but not a ton of matches. Southeast Iowa was solid when we went through. Looking back I am surprised at how many quality matches we got in at small duals and tournaments in our area.
How did you place at state every year?
I didn’t. Qualified junior year. I got more out of wrestling than it ever got out of me!!
What were some of the most notable adverse challenges or moments you experienced in wrestling and how did it turn out?
I missed most of my sophomore and junior season recovering from football injuries. Went to state junior year with less than 10 matches under my belt! It didn’t turn out well for my wrestling career, but over time it has helped shape me into the kind of man who is better qualified to help people find a way to give their best physically and mentally despite whatever challenges they are up against. I love underdogs!
How would you describe your wrestling style?
I was solid on my feet and I worked hard to have more gas in the tank than anyone I stepped on the mat with.
How many guys in high school did you go back and forth with or exchange wins with?
I didn’t have a lot of back and forth. You (Josh Swafford), pretty much. You and I had a good go at sectional and districts one year!
Who was your most influential coach?
Jay Huff was and still is a great coach. Chad Jensen, Mike Gaul, and Matt Hoover also helped to shape me and the rest of the guys I wrestled with into much tougher wrestlers than most would have guessed we could be!
Was your team competitive in HS/college?
Not really. Some solid guys, but not a solid line up in HS or college. First time I was part of a successful team was when I was coaching. I didn’t realize how much fun I was missing out on. Competing as a wrestling team is rewarding… winning is way more fun!
Who was your most influential wrestler that you looked up to growing up?
Mark Ironside. That guy had a motor. I worked hard just trying to be more like him.
Washington was THE most conditioned team that I ever wrestled… which was a nightmare for me having the adrenaline dumps I did, for I couldn’t coast at all… for you guys would come back from huge deficits if people tried taking half-measures on you. What was your workouts and training like at Washington?
We went hard! The staircase from the wrestling room in the basement to the top floor of the old high school had a lot of blood, sweat, and tears shed on it over the years!
Describe the crew you wrestled with at Central.
Great group of guys, worked hard, and had a lot of fun. Not tons of success as a team, but a number of the guys did turn out to be successful coaches.
Who are your favorite current wrestlers?
Alex Marinelli. The guy is tough on and off the mat.
What was the most upset you ever felt after a loss?
My senior year was the first season I didn’t have to deal with an injury. I was 35 – 2 with my only losses to Alex Grunder from Wilton and Nathan Van Dyke from South Tama heading into districts. I lost in the final seconds to Jacob Craig from Mount Vernon. That was a tough match and I didn’t end up qualifying that year.
If you could go back and change one thing about your wrestling career, what would it be?
I would take the pressure off, work hard, and just have fun wrestling. I worried too much about outcomes. As a coach, I loved working with kids who focused on the process and could shake off a loss and be ready for the next match.
What was your best wrestling memory or accomplishment?
My best wrestling memory was seeing the BIG smile on my son’s face the first time he got his hand raised on a wrestling mat. I love wrestling! Fun to see my kids get in on that same feeling.
Who were some of your most notable competitors in high school? College?
I got to scrap with a number of solid guys in high school. To name a few… Nick Cole, Alex Grunder, Nathan Van Dyke, Justin Scott, Jeff Wiele, Rob Hoback, Eli Sanders, Andy Fry, Jacob Smith, TJ Bevans, Matt Kidwell & the one and only Josh Swafford :)!
In college I had the privilege to be a takedown dummy for a number of the Iowa Conferences finest wrestlers, HA! I remember Troy Fabry from UW-LaCrosse showing me that I had a lot to learn.
Did you wrestle all year or was it seasonal for you?
Seasonal. I was involved in many other sports and activities.
How would the guys from your day stack up against the guys today?
The technique has changed over time, but they would certainly find a way to be competitive and would do just fine.
Did you wrestle after high school?
One year at Central. Sophomore year I took a semester of college in Wales and then started coaching when I got back.
What other sports did you play?
Almost all at some point in my life!
What are your favorite sports teams?
What are your hobbies other than wrestling?
Anything outdoors. I like to run, fish, and kayak when I can make some time.
How has wrestling shaped you as a person to this day?
It has molded me to be the type of man who will find a way. I can keep a smile and a positive attitude in the face of adversity thanks to my faith and to the life skills this sport passes on!
What do you do now?
I teach Physical Education at Highland Elementary in Riverside, IA.
Are you still involved with wrestling?
I help with the youth program in Washington. My oldest son is in 2nd grade this year and loves it.
Any advice for upcoming wrestlers?
Have faith! Have fun! Just because something is hard, doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy it!
Any chance we see you wrestle again at an Old Timer’s tournament?
Will you have a 35+ division at the inaugural Rico Nationals?!?
Would you like to give a shout out to anyone you wrestled with, against, coached, etc.?
Brent Van Weelden, Derick Ball, and Shawn Ellingson – Couldn’t have asked for a better group of guys to coach with!
Fletcher Green – The kid worked his butt off in the practice room and was just enjoyable to be around. Can’t think of a more deserving guy to win a state title.
Chris James – I was an assistant for Coach James at Fountain – Fort Carson High School in Colorado. The guy got more out of kids than any teacher/coach I have ever been around. He had a knack for seeing the best in people and then drawing it out of them!
Do you have anything to add?
Thanks for all you do for our sport! Your passion for wrestling has always shown, as a competitor and now as a writer. Keep up the good work!