Thirty years later, memories of hazing still sting
“Breathe. Don’t panic. Whatever you do, keep calm. Just breathe.”
Of the cascade of thoughts that tumbled through my mind, as I lay prone, arms in front of me, flat on my chest, my body compressed inside a wrestling mat, those were first and foremost.
It was 1973, a typically chilly Long Island winter. Our Bellmore-Kennedy wrestling team was enjoying its customary winning season, running the table en route to yet another Nassau County championship.
As student-manager, I had a front-row seat at all meets and tournaments, save for the New York state championships, from which the Cougars brought home a gold medal in each of the two seasons I toiled for the team.
But as I shared the celebration of our team’s feats, I also suffered.
Surely not on the scale those young football players experienced at summer camp two months ago. But I also was a hazing victim.
After spending a lunch hour in the wrestling practice room, I was preparing to leave for a class when a handful of wrestlers stopped me at the door, grabbed me and held me down at the lip of the wrestling mat.
Soon, I was trussed up inside the mat, unable to move and barely able to breathe.
A wrestling mat is bulky and difficult to lift. It takes several people to hoist a rolled-up mat onto carts to be moved to a storeroom.
Imagine, then, being rolled up inside one, with the wrestlers laughing and tossing pencils, waste paper and other things at me.
A specs-clad, scrawny 5-foot-10, 120-pounder, I carried the reputation over the years as somebody who didn’t fight back, who took such harassment lying down.
In this case, I literally took it lying down. I wasn’t claustrophobic, but that day I learned what claustrophobia was like. Humiliation? Plenty of that, too.
Exercising patience, I kept as calm as I could, breathing deeply until finally, a half-hour later, a more mature team member came to my rescue.
Though the whole school knew about it in a flash, I didn’t say a thing. Not to my typing teacher, to whom I simply said I was late. Took a zero for the day in that class.
Not to my parents, both of whom wielded influence within the Bellmore-Merrick Central High School District and could have caused much trouble.
Not to the coaches, the principal, not anybody.
Not just out of respect for team unity, not just wanting to preserve our run toward another championship, but mainly not to face further … um … sanctions from the wrestlers for having ratted them out.
At least one seemed to appreciate my silence.
“I enjoyed watching the guys roll you up in the wrestling mats,” one grappler wrote in my yearbook the next spring. “You are a great manager and statistician with a lot of team spirit. You are one of a kind.”
Had I known then what I know today — and with the Mepham scandal now on the nation’s radar — would I have chosen differently? Would I have said something to a coach, a teacher, a parent, an administrator?
Tough call, knowing that students’ kangaroo-court “sentences” for reporting such hazing might be far worse today than in 1973.
Still, one can only hope that hazing remains harmless — and that nothing remotely close to what happened at that Mepham summer camp ever happens again.