Special to Mat Talk On-Line
Byron Tucker's journey....
|By JONATHAN D. DUTY
Progress-Index, Petersburg VA
Byron Tucker made probably the most important decision of his life after his junior year at Dinwiddie High School in 1994. After excelling for three years as the Generals' top wrestler, Tucker made the controversial decision to transfer to Western Branch High School in Chesapeake with hopes of reaching his first of many major goals; a Group AAA championship. Tucker accomplished that goal by finishing his senior year with a 38-0 record and a state title at 152 pounds under his belt. Six years later, Tucker has reaped more benefits from that tough decision than he ever could have dreamed. Quickly after winning the state crown, Tucker was offered a chance to wrestle in the Big 12 Conference at the University of Oklahoma. He took another chance, and again, isn't sorry he did. After four years of battling personal problems and the nation's best opponents, Tucker realized his second major goal; a NCAA Championship. Tucker finished the 2000 season with a 34-0 record and a national title at 174 pounds. He is quickly becoming one of the more respected athletes in the amateur wrestling world.
Life at Dinwiddie High School
Tucker was racking up the wins at Dinwiddie during his three years. He advanced to the state tournament each year, but never won the big one. "I look back at Dinwiddie and I think the good thing was the friends and family I had," Tucker said. "We had a good wrestling coach who taught me what he knew and made me realize that I had to work hard for what I wanted." Tucker's father, Cleveland - who is a resident of McKenney - remembers the state tournament during his son's junior season. "Man, Byron was right there," his father said. "He was just as good as some of these other wrestlers. Those matches could have gone either way. I remember a coach walked up to me and said to bring him to Western Branch and they would take care of him." After a discussion, Byron and his father made the decision to transfer to Chesapeake where he wrestled for Western Branch his senior year. Cleveland Tucker rented an apartment in Chesapeake where the two lived. "There is more to wrestling than meets the eye," Byron Tucker said. "I was one of those guys who needed more. For me personally, I wanted to be the best I could, and moving was the best thing for me. Nothing against Dinwiddie, it is a great school. The coaches were great. I just felt for what I wanted to accomplish, I needed the best situation."
Life at Western Branch High School
Walking the halls at Western Branch really wasn't on Tucker's mind his senior year. He was there for one reason and one reason only. "I knew I could achieve my goals there," Tucker said. "There is so much to wrestling that is a mindset and is mental. I needed that. I needed a fresh start. I needed to learn to work my mind. Western Branch provided that." Moving from the Central District and Region to the high-powered wrestling area of the Southeastern District and Eastern Region would be a big step to most. Not to Tucker. "I really didn't realize the big difference in the caliber of wrestling," Tucker said. "I was focused on one thing. I wanted to wrestle my match each time and I didn't care who I was wrestling. My objective was to win." Tucker did win. "I can remember the local paper down there [Chesapeake] did a story about Byron," Tucker's father said. "They called him 'snap' because he was so quick to pin his opponents. He pinned everybody in the first 20 seconds or so. I can remember his coach telling him not to pin his opponents so fast." Tucker reached the state tournament his senior year with an unblemished record and mowed through his opponents for the state championship. Then he got the call.
The big step
Tucker was recruited by Oklahoma Coach Jack Spates, one of the highly respected coaches in the country. "Here is a kid that had a limited knowledge and background of wrestling," Spates said. "But, he was explosive and so quick. He put himself in a position to learn extensive wrestling and ability from a strong staff. I knew he was going to be special." Tucker moved to Norman, Okla., and quickly had an impact. As a true freshman, Tucker finished the 1996 season with a 24-10 record, placed third in the final Big Eight Tournament and won a match at the NCAA Tournament. During the season, he was ranked as high as ninth in the nation by Amateur Wrestling News at 158 pounds. "I felt good about my first year," Tucker said. "It was different being here [Oklahoma]. But, I felt good about my chances."
The mental problem
Even though Tucker was piling-up the victories his sophomore and junior seasons at Oklahoma, he was being criticized by the wrestling media for not being able to come through when it mattered. In three years, Tucker advanced to the national tournament three times. In those three seasons, Tucker failed to make All-American status (top eight in weight class). "I was finding out it was a mental thing," Tucker said. "My critics were saying I was choking at the national meet each year, but they didn't know that I was having the same problems throughout the whole season. "I was having problems blocking out the things I should block out," Tucker said. "Some of the pressures I put on myself and some of the distractions off the wrestling mat were really getting to me, so I knew I needed a break."
The year off
Tucker used his red-shirt year in 1999 to get away and take a breath. "I really needed that time to realize who I was, and what kind of wrestler I wanted to be," Tucker said. Spates said Tucker's problem was a common one. "Wrestling at this level is very hard," Spates said. "You have to put everything you have into your training, eating and wrestling to become the best. It happens a lot and Byron just needed that time off to get back to where he wanted to be." The time proved good for Tucker. "At the beginning of my senior year, I was so excited for each match," Tucker said. "I knew who I was. I knew what I needed to do, and I knew no one was going to stop me from reaching my goal." Spates was impressed with Tucker's mental gain. "He came back a new wrestler," Spates said. "He addressed his mental short comings, and became one of the most dominant wrestlers I have ever seen."
Silencing the critics
Tucker mowed through his competition in the Big 12 the same way he went through his opponents at Western Branch. "No one could stop me," Tucker said. "I wanted that gold so bad that no one was going to take it from me this time." Tucker, who was ranked first in the nation all year, won the conference title for the first time and was seeded No. 1 at 174 pounds at the national meet last March. In three days he disposed of four nationally-ranked opponents without a problem setting-up his final match with second-seeded Josh Koscheck of Edinboro University. "I was so excited at the tournament," Tucker said. "I took every chance to appreciate every second of the tournament. I had fun doing everything." On March 18, 2000, Tucker realized his second major goal. In front of 17,000 fans at the Kiel Center in St. Louis, and an ESPN television audience, Tucker easily defeated Koscheck to finish the year 34-0 and more importantly, win a national title. "Man, it was a great feeling," Tucker said. "After the ref[eree] raised my hand, I waved to the crowd and I hugged Coach Spates. It was just so great."
The next step
Tucker hasn't stopped wrestling. In the summer of 2000, he placed fourth at the U.S. National Meet and also took fourth at the U.S. Olympic Trials. Tucker recently traveled to Japan and won the 167.5-pound title at the University World Championships. He is working on his next goal. "I am working to make the U.S. World team," Tucker said. "That is my next goal. But, I am taking it one year at a time. I don't want to get too far ahead of myself. I am not sure what is next after that. If I feel that I am not at the top of my wrestling, I need to walk away." For now, Tucker just enjoys playing his guitar and concentrating on his studies. He is on pace to get his degree in botony from Oklahoma in May. "I realize where I came from," Tucker said. "I will never forget that. I have made a lot of decisions in my life. I am just waiting for the next big one to come along."
Jonathan D. Duty can be reached at 732-3456, ext. 262.