Wrestling: Sportsmanship at its best


By Phil Anastasia

Jackson Baker said it was no big deal.

Some coaches asked the senior at Penns Grove High School to do something for another wrestler. He said he would do it.

Simple as that.

But don't tell that to the folks at Mainland Regional High School. Don't tell that to the administrators and coaches and wrestlers and family and friends of Mustangs' sophomore John Phillips.

They know Baker did something special on the night of Feb. 13 in losing a junior-varsity "exhibition" bout against Phillips, an enthusastic and popular 16-year-old who has cerebal palsy.

"I've been around sports a long time," Mainland athletic director Mike Gatley said. "That was one of the best things I've ever seen."

Mainland coach Clayton Smith said it was "awesome." Penns Grove coach John Emel said Baker created an indelible memory for everybody who was in the gym that night. Susan Phillips, John's mother, said she never will forget Baker's "sportsmanship."

John Phillips knows it, too. He said that after the bout, he "Facebook Friended" Baker and congratulated him for his performance.

"He's a great guy, on the mat and off the mat," Phillips said of Baker.
Gatley said Phillips is "one of the best kids we have at Mainland."

Phillips, who has some paralysis on his right side and is a special education student, is a big fan of professional wrestling. He decided to join the Mustangs' program this season.

"He was with us all year," Smith said. "He did as much as he could (in practice) with his limitations. But the big thing he wanted to do was to wrestle in a 'real' match."

Smith said that when Phillips would attend a home match and ask to wrestle, the coach would approach the opposing coach. He said he asked "time and again" if the visiting team might have a wrestler who could handle the unique challenge of facing Phillips on the mat.

"We knew we had to find the right kid," Smith said. "We were nervous. We knew there was a risk. A couple times, the other team might have a rugged or street-wise kid and we knew that wouldn't work."

The Feb. 13 event was Mainland's last home match. It was Phillips' last chance to wrestle this season.

And serendipitously, it was against Penns Grove.

"As soon as (Smith) asked me, I said, 'I have the perfect kid for the job,'" Emel said. "It was a no-brainer. I knew Jackson could handle it."

Baker said he was in the locker room after weigh-ins when Emel said he needed to talk with him.

"I assumed it was something bad," Baker said.

Baker met with Emel and Smith. They explained the situation. He said he would do it.

"I was like, 'Why not?'" Baker said. "It was a chance to help somebody. I thought, 'What if I never got the chance to wrestle?' Now I can give that same opportunity to somebody else.'"

Emel said the bout was "like the last match" of a tied varsity event. Everybody in the gym was riveted. Wrestlers and people in the crowd were using their smart phones to video the action.

Baker, a 145-pounder, said that Phillips basically was "wrestling with one arm" but showed great effort. Baker said he wanted the bout to be "authentic," and feature a lot of action.

Phillips scored a takedown, then Baker escaped. Baker scored a takedown, then Phillips escaped. Finally, Phillips scored another takedown, turned Baker on his back and registered a pin in the first "real" bout of his life.

"It was so thrilling," said Susan Phillips, who witnessed the bout with her husband John.

Gatley said the scene took his breath away.

"I can't even put into words how John reacted," Gatley said. "To see him have his hand raised by the official and then shake hands with Jackson, it was absolutely stupendous."

Smith said there were adults in the gym with tears in their eyes. Wrestlers from both teams were cheering. Emel said Baker had provided not just Phillips but everyone else with a memory that will last a lifetime.

"This is something we will all look back on later in life," Emel said. "It's what sports is all about."

Baker is a team captain and a member of the National Honor Society. He has a 98.3 average in his classes. He ranks 6th in a class of 113.

He also plays soccer and runs track. He hopes to attend to the United  States Naval Academy after a year at Valley Forge Military Academy.

Baker said he was congratulated by everyone that night, and by a lot of people back at Penns Grove in the following days. At first, he didn't think he deserved praise for doing the right thing.

But lately, he said he's come to realize that night at Mainland might have marked the best bout of two wrestlers' lives.

"I think it's something I'll always remember," Baker said. "When I look back and ask myself, 'What have I done? What have I done to help people?' I'll know they asked me to do something for somebody and I did it."

Contact staff writer Phil Anastasia at panastasia@phillynews.com or @PhilAnastasia on Twitter.