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.”In conjuring the life of an amputee wrestler, you can land pretty quickly on the shores of folklore, describing a kid who could have been invented by Gabriel García Márquez. It’s a question less of fact than of size and scale. Most of us proceed in steps so small that we can’t remember the route that brought us here, to this place and this time and this self. But Kyle Maynard’s path moves in leaps, not steps, and it would be easy to lose him in the myth, to treat him like a shorter Paul Bunyan. To do so would be to miss the point of him, though, which is that courage isn’t an option but a duty.
Begin, then, with the miracle that led things off: the fact that Kyle lived at all. Sometime before birth, likely the first trimester, he was stricken with a condition called amniotic band syndrome (ABS). In layman’s terms, the inner lining of the womb rips, and loose strands of membrane encircle the fetus, choking off blood to its limbs. Nobody knows why this happens; heredity has been ruled out, but no unified theory has emerged. ABS is rare – one in 3,846 babies is born missing all or part of an appendage – and severe cases like Kyle’s are overwhelmingly likely to miscarry or end in stillbirth. (Quadruple amputees are so rare that statistics don’t even exist on how many there are.) To compound the mystery, Kyle’s parents were healthy, and when they went in for a sonogram, it showed no damage.
“Scott was in the army at the time, finishing his tour at Fort Myer, and we went to the V.A. hospital to have it done,” recalls Anita, a tall, trim blonde with a year-round tan and the pep of a former majorette. “The technician thought he saw something, so he called in the doctor, who looked things over and announced that Kyle was fine. And then six months later came this beautiful white-haired baby who, by the way, had no arms or legs. The news just crushed us – I mean, really plowed us over – but we were first-time parents who had to go raise our child.”
In lieu of dialing lawyers or taking to bed in depression, the Maynards searched for other cases and managed to come across two. The first was a three-year-old boy in Maryland who fed himself and raced about on his stumps. The second was a man in Fort Wayne, Indiana, where the Maynards settled to be near Anita’s family. He was a fully functional adult who earned a living as a graphic artist and drove a modified van. Heartened to learn that life was navigable without limbs, the Maynards laid down an iron rule: Kyle was to be treated as a typical child, with no breaks or allowances thrown his way. As early as six months, he was put on the floor and strongly encouraged to crawl. At 18 months, they strapped a spoon to his arm and told him to use it or starve. “We didn’t mean it literally,” says Anita, laughing, while glancing over at Scott. “Well, I didn’t, anyway, but I’m the softy. He’s the hard one, or thinks he is.”
In the basement rec room of their brick colonial in this sprawling Atlanta suburb they moved to in 1997, the Maynards are gathered on a nippy Sunday, the sounds of a televised ball game in the background. On the couch with his mother are Kyle’s three sisters, one blonder and more beautiful than the next. Much like their brother, they are soft-spoken kids with a streak of Midwestern shyness, and seem a little in awe of the attention Kyle’s gotten in the past 10 months or so. There was a segment on HBO’s Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel last year, an hour-long appearance on Larry King Live, and a front-page story in USA Today, plus a book deal, speaking engagements, and an Abercrombie & Fitch shoot. The spotlight baffles the girls, as it does their parents: No one here has the least idea why people find Kyle – or his family – special. They have managed so seamlessly to mainstream him that they’ve forgotten why it was necessary to do so.
“People think we pushed him toward sports and all, but that was Kyle’s doing,” says Scott. “From the age of five he’s been a rabid fan, and all he ever talked about was playing football. So when we moved here, I thought, shoot, let’s do it; let’s get him into peewees and see what happens. And he did really well at it, playing nose tackle on defense, and if you ran it up the gut there, he’d bring you down.”
But kids stomped on his bandaged feet, which point backward and can’t be shod. (Kyle’s legs end where the thighbone begins, and the left one is longer than the right.) Anita feared that without an after-school activity, he’d sit at home and mope, so she acceded to his desire to wrestle, hoping he wouldn’t get hurt. “In the good-cop/bad-cop deal we had going, Scott was the drill sergeant who cracked the whip, whereas my job was to surround Kyle with other kids, make sure he was social at all times,” she says. “Our mantra with him was, ‘Normal, normal, normal,’ because we never knew any better.”
Nor, as it developed, did Kyle. A rambunctious kid who was constantly underfoot, driving his mother crazy – “At 13 months he would crawl in the broom closet and yank my vacuum wands down” – he excelled in school and was early with milestones, learning to read and write by preschool. Bringing his arms together, he could hold a brush or pencil in the crook. (Implausibly, his handwriting is stellar, and he cleanly types 50 words a minute.) He had a yardful of friends who made room for him at play, installing him in goal during their street hockey games and at lineman for rough touch football. The only time he ever felt odd or excluded was when doctors, in their ignorance, stooped to meddle. During a bad year while he was in kindergarten, he tried out prostheses after a specialist told his family they’d change his life. Ugly and painful, they did just that, leaving him stuck in his noisy wheelchair and dependent on an aide. When he threw off the extensions before school one day, Kyle’s pals let out a roar. “They love him the way he is,” reported his teacher that afternoon when Anita came to pick him up. “With arms and legs – or whatever you call those things – he doesn’t seem to be like Kyle.”Still, to judge Kyle Maynard by his competence is to sell him short. Let others applaud him for fitting in, cobbling together an honorable life from such unwieldy parts. He could care less about breaking even; his goal, his fixed mission, is to go where no one, limbed or otherwise, has gone before.
On a bitter morning in the middle of January, the tail of a storm dropping the windchill to freezing, Maynard meets me at the student field house, having steered his motorized chair a long way through the gusts. (On a campus so large it takes up much of the town and requires students to drive or catch buses between classes, Maynard, who is carless, must plan his day around the big blocks of time he needs to get places.) He is dressed, as usual, in a T-shirt and shorts, laughing off the unseasonable cold that has fellow students bundled as if for ice fishing. We head for the weight room, which, like everyplace else here, is full to bursting with tanned blonds. When Kyle wheels in, every eye in the room trails him to the stretch mat. Two floor attendants help him set up, tying plates to the chains he uses to bench.
As today is a light one (he has a rematch tomorrow against a kid who outwrestled him last fall), Maynard begins with low-end weight, doing flat-bench flys with 250. At 120 pounds, he can bench press three times his weight, and in early March he traveled to the Arnold Classic in Ohio to shatter the modified bench pressing world record for a teen by lifting 360 pounds. I watch, dumbfounded, as he glides through sets, easily firing up 15 reps, then popping off the bench for dips. When he’s done he clambers down and scuttles to the pec-dec station. Here he sets the pin at 230 and grunts through short-stroke sets, snapping the stack with perfect form, then guiding it down slow to rest. When you stand to one side, your view partly obscured, it’s possible to forget that Maynard has no arms, to find the big-shouldered kid with quartz features the benchmark of male development. What’s harder to lose sight of is his age; he’s impossibly strong for 19.
“That’s what comes from losing,” he says, catching a breath between chest work and triceps. “I got so mad at being manhandled that I said, ‘Quit, or stop whining and do something.’ There are two words I live by – ‘no excuses’ – and so I started with two-pound plates and slowly worked my way up.” It took him a while to find his form, because nothing in the gym is set up for him. But between his father and Coach Ramos, they figured out how to simulate bench press by hitching chains to his stumps. (The thick chains are rigged to padded cuffs, which in turn slip over Kyle’s arms.) “And by the time summer passed I was definitely stronger, or at least strong enough to get my own shots in.”
Though it was several months, still, till that first win at county, he’d become a bantam wrestler no one wanted to fight, bashing opponents with his cudgel stumps and battering them with his head. He worked out maniacally after school, and often had the weight room at the top of Collins Hill High to himself. One day Ramos poked his head in late and saw Kyle bent over, pouring sweat. “He was probably a ninth-grader then and far down the roster, but I thought to myself, There’s a winner. Anyone who works that hard with no one watching is going to be unstoppable one day.”
From way back in boyhood, Kyle’s fantasy of fantasies was to become a varsity wrestler. He idolized the starters on Collins Hill’s powerhouse squad, thrilling to see them at the mall or pictured in the local daily. Under the direction of Cliff Ramos, Collins Hill High has become the premier program in the state of Georgia, finishing in the top three each of the past six years and cracking the nation’s top 50 last fall. There are about 65 kids on its active roster, and a number of them go on to scholarships at Division I or Division II colleges. Kyle spent three years waiting his turn, competing on the very good junior varsity team and handling himself ably at 95 pounds. Finally, as a senior, he wrestled his way onto the varsity team, certifying his status as a god on campus and catching the eye of national media. Not all the attention was celebratory, though. “I got letters and e-mails from around the country saying, ‘C’mon, people let him win,'” says Ramos. “It never occurred to them that a kid with no arms could overpower guys his size. But they don’t know Kyle, or anyone like him, because there is no one like Kyle.”
If you think a limbless teen can’t outpoint his foes, you’ve never seen Maynard scamper side to side, darting for a hold. Wrestlers may start matches on their feet, but bouts are won and lost on all fours, and Maynard is already down there, waiting. Moreover, his foes’ weight takes up full-length frames, but Maynard’s is concentrated in his trunk, giving him advantages in strength and balance. These are offset, of course, by a long list of deficits, prime among them the lack of hands to grasp and control opponents and legs with which to take them down. “I do what I can with the moves I’ve got, but a good wrestler can usually negate them,” he admits. “Where I’ll have three or four counters, say, a guy with arms and legs will have a dozen. And the real trouble comes when he sees me on film and can prep for the limited things I do.”
What no one can properly train for is Maynard’s motor, his tireless, pit bull drive to dominate. Few, if any, two-minute stints of peak exertion are more taxing than a round of wrestling, and a high school match has three of them, with no rest periods. Giving away length and skill in bouts, Maynard made up for it by being relentless and went 35-16 as a 103-pound senior. (He also kept his vow to Coach Ramos by never getting pinned.) Along the way, he beat champions from other states, then suffered narrow losses in the state tournament. Still, he managed to land a spot at nationals. There, he was mobbed by thousands of fans who’d seen him on HBO, swarming his mat while he stretched for matches and begging him to sign their programs.
“He was almost like a rock star – we had to have our own guards just to get through the arena,” marvels Ramos. “It stunned some of his teammates, who came up to me later and said, ‘Kyle’s good but he’s not that good.’ Can you imagine a higher compliment? They’d completely lost sight of the fact that he was wrestling with no arms or legs.”If he sets aside red-state, blue-state issues, one of the first things a northerner notices down South is how comparatively gracious its teenagers are, treating guests not with reflexive irony but a sunny brand of formal respect. On campus, jocks and frat boys hold doors for you, and sorority girls stop when asked directions, smiling as you repeat them back. Though his family didn’t move to Georgia till he was almost 12, Maynard is an exemplar of Southern manners, meeting your gaze warmly and giving smart answers to questions he’s had put to him many times. Even around his parents – the ultimate stress test for kids – he’s unfailingly courteous and even-tempered, letting slide their mild attempts to run his life. He’s on the road two weekends of every month, earning big money on the lecture circuit, and is waiting to take delivery on the ultimate SUV, a chromed-out International MXT with specially modified pedals (price: six figures; approximate wheelbase: one and a half Hummer lengths). Additionally, he signed a lucrative deal to write his autobiography. I learned most of those details from his family, however; Maynard views such proffers of fact as a crime akin to bragging.
But on the day of his four-school round-robin tournament, a different Maynard shows up. He is surly, fire-eyed, monosyllabic; no one, not even his teammates, goes near him. While they banter and stretch, checking the smallish crowd (the men’s basketball team is hosting Kentucky, siphoning off much of the student body), he wanders over to the edge of the mat, doing freakishly hard drawbridge lifts. (Lie flat on your gut, pull your legs up off the ground, and raise your chest off the mat. Now repeat that 30 times, then call an ambulance.) As he blasts out reps, foes from Clemson, Mercer, and Newberry gape at his show of strength. Even those who have seen Maynard wrestle before nudge the guys next to them and whisper. In a combat sport that hinges on bravery and the willingness to give and take pain, the sight of a limbless kid without fear is enough to scare off competitors. One time in high school, his opponent tapped out, resigning before the match even really started. That hasn’t happened in college, but there are lots of ways to duck him; one is to flunk the morning weigh-in and come in over 125.
That, or something like it, is what happens today. Maynard’s foe, the kid from Newberry College who narrowly edged him last fall, has shown up five pounds overweight and will compete in the next bracket up. The wrestler who fills in for him is a wiry teen whose thighs are about the size of Kyle’s arm-stumps. From the start, it’s abundantly clear that he wants no part of Maynard, shuffling out of reach or fending him off with stiff-arms to the head. Over and over, Maynard charges after him and finally grabs his leg, using it to shove him from the circle. This earns him a lead and changes the kid’s tactics; in the second round, he gets on the mat and grapples. But even born with four limbs, he can’t lock up Maynard, who takes him down with a shoulder to the jaw. Maynard is safely ahead now but keeps on grinding, whacking away at his foe’s ribs. By the end of the bout, the boy can hardly stand. If this were anyone but Maynard, you’d call it a walkover.
I catch up to him in the hall outside, where he has wheeled off to decompress. He seems strangely down after a lopsided win, and shrugs when I point it out. “I’m bummed that the first kid came in heavy. He’s the best in my weight class, and I trained hard for him.”
“Well, a W’s a W, right?”
He shoots me what, for him, is a filthy look. “It’s not about padding my won-lost record; it’s about competing at the highest level. Otherwise, why practice three hours a night? I can win whenever I want to at video games.”
Kyle confides that he’s thought about transferring to a top-tier, Division I school. Because of Title IX, college wrestling at Georgia and its Southeastern Conference rivals has been downgraded to a club-level sport, meaning the athletes themselves pay to play it. Maynard and his teammates must fund everything from plane tickets to school tuition. (It isn’t, of course, the only sport thus affected; on campuses around the country, baseball, tennis, and soccer have been lopped off budgets entirely.) Maynard is among the lucky ones on his team, earning a half-scholarship in academics because of his A-minus record in high school. Still, he hungers to take it to the next level, defying all odds and the advice of friends who tell him, politely, to stay put. Cautions Ramos, his old coach at Collins Hill, “There’s only so many ways you can get around the problem of having no arms and legs. I’ve had better wrestlers – with all their extremities – try Division I and fail.”
We head back into the wrestling theater, where the crowd has grown. While we were out, Maynard’s team fell behind to a very good Newberry squad. Crestfallen, he slides out of his chair and scoots to the edge of the mat. He is down on all fours, screaming encouragement; the veins in his forehead bulge. I return to my seat in the pullout bleachers, beside an elderly man with two grandkids. Clad in red sweatshirts and UG Bulldog hats, the young boys are emphatic fans, hopping up and down at each fall. While one of them explains the point system to me, the other nervously chews his sleeve, groaning at Georgia’s mistakes. “C’mon,” he mutters, “circle, circle! There’s your shot now, take it!” But things get worse, not better, for his ‘Dawgs, who drop match after match for an hour. Then, near the end, Georgia makes its run, winning at the higher weight classes. For the nail-biting finish between superheavies, the crowd gets up on its feet. “Suck it up!” yells the young boy. “You’re not tired now – be like Kyle!”
On my last night in town, I meet the Maynards for dinner at a mall near their home. In Suwanee, Outback Steakhouse is considered glitzy, and on a weekend evening the line for a table rivals that at Spago or Nobu. As we pace out the wait, something notable happens over and over. Strangers approach and, with the deference of monks, ask if they can speak to Kyle. “You changed my life,” says a blue-haired lady visiting from Maine. “I watched you on Larry King, and you so inspired me. I’m coping with a lot of health issues myself.” Following behind her are two hockey players from Canada’s University of Guelph, who are in town for a semipro game. “Dude, you fuckin’ rock,” says the shorter of the two yobs. “I said, if that guy can get up and train each day, there’s no excuse not to go a hundred miles an hour and skate through fuckin’ brick walls.”
Maynard’s parents, devout Christians, wince through smiles. “We hear that a lot, though usually with less cursing,” his father says once we’re seated. “Maybe they were delirious from hunger.”
I ask Kyle how he copes with the attention, which, as near as I can tell, is constant. His website is clogged, his cell phone keeps ringing, and wherever he goes, he’s buttonholed by people who stop to tell him their stories. As a young man famous for surmounting hardship, he’s become a kind of lodestone for the disadvantaged, or in some cases, the merely unhappy. That kind of onus can oppress a kid who’s six months past his prom, and who, in his first year of college, is juggling a full course load with a varsity athlete’s schedule.
“Well, no, it’s great that people get hope from my story, and if it helps even a couple of ’em, that’s amazing. But – ” he pauses a moment, and I lie in wait for his first harsh utterance all week, “the truth of the matter is, it feels hollow sometimes. I don’t really deserve all this.”
The chatter around the table stops dead. “What do you mean?” asks Anita.
Kyle fusses with his shirttail, picking the words carefully; it’s clear he’s been brooding on this a while. “Look, there’s hundreds of thousands of wrestlers in the country right now, and out of all of them, I’m maybe above average. And for this kind of spotlight – going to parties at Hef’s mansion and winning an ESPY and all that – I feel like I should be great. Hands or no hands.”
“Isn’t that a little unfair?” says his father. “You’ve done a lot of things in a real short time that nobody in their right mind thought were possible.”
“But that’s exactly my point,” he counters. “Just because I’ve done ’em means that anyone else could’ve, if they were in this chair. And as far as being a hero, I don’t think so. That’s the guys in Falluja, fighting and dying.”
This launches a discussion of sensible goals, the mere mention of which makes Kyle bristle. He has already game-planned the next 10 years, culminating in a career in on-air journalism as a news anchor or sports-talk host. That much, his parents stand behind; it’s the step before it that scares them stiff. After graduating, it is Kyle’s avid intention to become a steel cage fighter, competing on the Ultimate Fighting circuit à la his idol and mentor, Randy Couture. (Kyle met the reigning light-heavyweight champion at one of his matches in Las Vegas. They get together when possible, usually at Couture’s bouts.)
That no one has entered this savage sport without limbs to kick or punch with doesn’t faze Kyle. Any wall can be scaled or jumped over, he says, if you put in work and embrace pain. “Whenever I get tired or my lungs start burning, that’s when I kick up the jams,” he says. “Because pain, to me, is just another word for weakness leaving the body.”
Well, certainly that’s one view. Another is that pain is vital information, like a yield sign at an on-ramp. You can blow right past it to get places faster, but you can also get crushed by an 18-wheeler doing 70 in the slow lane. In his haste to silence the mean-spirited and stupid – the folks who called up HBO and said, “Bullshit, he can’t do that” – Kyle has put himself in harm’s way, letting indignation call the shots. As a high school senior, he broke his nose four times, but refused to get it set or go see a doctor who might rule him out of regionals. He’s torn a pectoral muscle benching 410, has chronic spine problems that he ignores in order to wrestle, and rarely gets back from practice before midnight, with three hours of homework ahead of him. There’s also the little matter of his autobiography, which the publisher expects from him early this summer at some 80,000 words.
Still, there’s more than just masochism at work here, or the supernormal drive of the disadvantaged. When you stand next to Kyle Maynard or see him on television, something very potent comes across the wire, and it’s more complex than courage or hope. The word that springs to mind is a quaint one: nobility. And even that term isn’t equal to the task. He makes you want to be better – not a better person, but a better, truer version of who you are; stronger, braver, and ready to meet the world on its terms. It’s easy to see why he drew a crowd of 15,000 for a speech at the Junior Olympics, or why corporate executives fly him in to talk at their sales conventions. He isn’t merely the sum of his mastered shortcomings; he’s a winner with the humility of a fighter who lost a lot once and learned some hard lessons along the way. Anyone can talk when he’s on top of the world, but it’s the guy who got there from a long way down that can really teach you things you need to know.
In the past couple of decades we’ve developed ways to calibrate life’s unfairness. We no longer speak, say, of the paralyzed as crippled or the brain-damaged as retarded, instead using such blocky constructions as “-challenged” or “other-enabled.” Clumsy though the words are, they represent progress, an earnest attempt to view the impaired as full-blooded fellow creatures. What we haven’t yet done is to coin new language for those who are clearly superior, those men and women whose dynamism advances our entire species. Call it genius or merit or inborn goodness, what they have in spades is the power to go forward, to test the bounds of what’s known. We are lucky to have them, and luckier still to know them, and the least we owe them is a name. Until someone has a better idea, I humbly submit the term “Maynards.”
The next day, on my way out of town, I stop at Collins Hill High to see Coach Ramos. It would be hard to overstate his fondness for Kyle, or the part he’s played in the boy’s life. In the fall of 2003, he mass-mailed tapes of him to local and national media; a copy made its way to HBO, and soon the land-rush started. I find Ramos alone in the wrestling room, laying down mats for varsity practice with a craftsman’s slow precision. He walks me over to the Wall of Fame, where the stars of the past decade are pictured. Here are his state champions and finalists, kids who lettered for two and three years and went on to wrestle in college. But the boy most prominently featured is Kyle, photos of whom are clustered in a small shrine.
“I’m a pretty tough fellow – just ask some of my guys here – but there were times during practice I’d have to turn away because I was all choked up,” says Ramos. “What he did defied physics, let alone wrestling – you can’t just take someone and throw him on his back if you don’t have arms to do it – but every day he did the impossible. He put us on the map, brought all this attention to a small-town school in Georgia, and made every kid work harder by example. I’ve been at this 29 years, and there are days I come in here and don’t really have much energy. Then I look at that wall and see his picture up there and think, What would Kyle do?”