CHAMPAIGN – The folks in the Quad Cities love their successful wrestlers. They proved it to Illinois'' Matt Lackey in early April.
After Lackey went undefeated to win the NCAA 165-pound title, an open house was held in his honor at Moline High School. Hundreds showed up to help Lackey and his family celebrate.
"I was nonstop shaking hands, talking and signing autographs for a solid three hours," Lackey said.
They''ve only been able to hold one other party like it in Quad Cities history. Iowa''s Pete Bush won the 190-pound title at the 1982 NCAA meet. Nobody else from Davenport, Moline, Bettendorf or Rock Island has won an NCAA championship, though current Illinois coach Mark Johnson (a Rock Island native) did make the U.S. Olympic team.
"I wouldn''t trade it (the Quad Cities) for anything," Lackey said.
Fans from the area have followed him to matches, read all his articles and stayed involved. The payoff came with Lackey''s 38-0 dream season.
For the rest of time, when folks talk about great athletes from the Quad Cities, Lackey''s name will have to be on the list.
"I don''t want to say I''m a hero," Lackey said. "It wasn''t a surprise that there were that many people there. I figured that might be the case. I''ve had an amazing amount of support throughout the years with people following me. My mom''s always calling me and telling me, ''This person said hello.'' "
Lackey''s hometown is small enough that a top athlete doesn''t get lost in the crowd.
"If somebody''s doing something above and beyond the call of duty, you know about it," Lackey said. "It''s nice for that to be the case."
At Illinois, Lackey joins Johnson''s growing list of national champions, becoming the seventh in nine years. All of the NCAA champions get their photos on the wall of the wrestling room. Lackey''s much-awaited picture was supposed to go up this week.
"That''s cool," Lackey said. "They''re there for recognition and motivation."
The photo, the banner up at Huff Hall and the championship ring are all perks for winning the title. He has been on his favorite radio show in the Quad Cities and been introduced as a national champion at Wrigley Field. His goal accomplished, Lackey now is able to enjoy it.
That wasn''t the case during the season. He put himself under pressure by announcing in the preseason he planned to go undefeated.
"Your goals are better attained when you right them down and tell others," Lackey said. "It holds you responsible for what you say and makes you want to work harder. That''s part of my goal-setting process is to get them out there."
But to go undefeated, Lackey needed to avoid a bad seven minutes. He couldn''t be sick, or hurt or uninspired. Every match had to be treated with respect.
"During the process, I wouldn''t say I liked it or disliked it," Lackey said. "I was more in a workman-like frame of mind. I went out there and I got it done. Now that I don''t have that pressure on me anymore, I can look back on it."
And he can look ahead. His college career over, Lackey has started training for the Olympics. He''ll wrestle in the 74 kilo (162.8 pounds) freestyle weight class. Next week, he competes in the USA Wrestling world team trials at Indianapolis.
"I''m going to take it in more short terms," Lackey said. "Right now, I have a year until Athens and that''s what I''m going to focus on. I''m going to do whatever I can to get better and see where I''m at."
At 22, Lackey is young by international wrestling standards. The timing of the Beijing Games in 2008 might suit him better. But Lackey isn''t sure he will be wrestling five years from now.
"I think I''ll always be evaluating where I stand," Lackey said. "If I still have the desire and drive to do it, then I will. I want to know when to be able to hang it up."
You can reach Bob Asmussen at (217) 351-5233 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.