How sad, Cliff Ramos said to himself. Someone had to take that child's mother in hand and explain to her it was hopeless. In his 30-odd years as a wrestling coach, Ramos had heard of tough cases before, including a high school kid who fought on one leg, compensating for the loss of limb with strength and feral cunning. But the son of the woman on the phone that morning was way past the pale of bad luck. He was so far out there on the hardship graph that Ramos could do nothing for him. All he could think to do, by way of help, was to let his mom down easy.
"She called me to enroll Kyle in juniors and then started to describe him," says Ramos. A taciturn man in his early fifties with salt-and-pepper hair and the build of a lifelong athlete, he is the coach and architect of a championship squad at Collins Hill High School in Suwanee, Georgia. "I cut her off quick, saying that whatever his challenge, our youth coaches could more than handle it." But Anita Maynard came back at him, insisting he had to hear this, and she finished what she had to say.
Well no, as Ramos saw for himself later that day, Kyle meant to wrestle with no arms or legs. He'd been born with a preposterously cruel congenital insult: the spontaneous (and still barely understood) amputation of each of his four limbs in utero. But here he was, all 65 pounds, a gorgeous, tow-haired 12-year-old boy with a certain aura. Ramos knelt to say something nice to Kyle and was mesmerized by the seriousness of his gaze. He decided, then and there, to take him on personally, though he knew the idea was risible; no one in the several thousand years of the sport had won without upper limbs. Legs you could work around, but hands? Come on now. That's why they call it grappling.
As for Kyle, he had no notion of what he was getting himself into, and it wouldn't have much mattered if he had. From birth he'd been a kid you couldn't say no to, insisting on doing everything the other kids did, and making life miserable until you let him. A few nights later he got down on the mat with Ramos, who tucked his own arms into the top of his track suit to simulate Maynard's impairment. So grateful was Kyle for the chance to compete that he made two silent vows to Ramos. The first was that he would never embarrass him by getting pinned in a match. The second was that he'd work like a young man possessed to get his coach a win.
Although he weighed next to nothing, Kyle was strong through the trunk and could clamp down hard with his stumps, which ended between the elbow and shoulder. Ramos and Kyle's father, a former wrestler named Scott, improvised a series of holds for Kyle and taught him some basic rolls. But whatever they managed to contrive in practice went to hell in his middle school matches. He got beat, and beat badly, that whole first year by a string of novice wrestlers, kids who smacked him around the circle, then danced off to catch their breath. On the car rides home, Kyle would convulse in sobs, convinced he was shaming his family and coach. He wanted so much to emulate his father that it killed Kyle to let him down. On his worst days he'd moan about wanting to quit, but Scott, a hard case, wouldn't hear it. "No one named Maynard walks away a failure, and besides," he'd lie, "I lost every bout my first year as a wrestler too. If you can just get through it and take your lumps, you'll dominate next fall."
But the next fall came and the losing went on, lancing fresh holes in Kyle's spirit. He raged at his father, who rode him but good, making him watch videos of his errors in matches, then fix them ad nauseum in the basement. On the playback, Kyle saw the camera rattle and dip because his father was screaming so loud. "You fight only well enough to lose," Scott said. "I'll keep on you till you get that out of your system and learn what it takes to be a winner."
That spring the county championships were held nearby, bringing much of the town of Suwanee out to watch. Kyle, who competed in a low weight class, got a bye when his semifinal opponent fell sick, and passed into the 75-pound finals. There, he met a polished kid who would go on to wrestle varsity in high school for one of the elite teams in the region. But as skilled as he was, he wasn't ready for Kyle, who tore after him from the opening bell. Nose to nose in the center ring, Kyle seized the boy in a barrel roll and flipped him on his back. Too shocked to flee, the boy grabbed him head-on, and again Kyle tossed him to the mat. The large crowd jumped to its feet, ignoring the other match, screaming for the limbless hometown kid who'd won its heart while losing all season. The first period ended and his opponent regrouped, but in the second period Kyle came on even harder, rolling the kid over a total of eight times to win by mercy rule. The ref waved his arms and raised Kyle's stump; the place went bedlam.
"I looked in the stands and saw my folks going crazy and my sisters and grandparents hugging, and this feeling I'd never felt before hit me," he says. Now 19 years old and engine block–thick through the chest and shoulders, he sits in his dorm room at the University of Georgia, where he's a freshman and the star attraction of the wrestling team. "I knew then I wasn't just put here to wrestle or be an example to other [handicapped] kids. No, I was here for one thing, and that was to win, and I was going to go to any lengths to make that happen."