The shooting pain in his left arm was real, but for a few delirious seconds Saturday night, Danny Bickell wondered if he was living in a dream.
Bickell stood on the winner's dais, ready to accept the award for winning the 112-pound county wrestling title. His eyes were closed. His ears no doubt were soaking up the warm cheers the crowd rained on him. His heavily taped arm hung awkwardly by his body.
If Bickell was having trouble believing what he had just done -- winning a county title with a dislocated elbow that reduced him to a one-armed wrestler -- he surely had plenty of company.
Bickell's contribution to the Howard County Wrestling Tournament went beyond thepoints he scored and the inspiration he offered his victorious Oakland Mills High School team.
Bickell gave everyone lucky enough to be in Atholton High School's gym a glimpse into something more special, something more meaningful than team scores and championship trophies.
He elevated sports and the competitive spirit to a higher level. Watching Bickell shut out Hammond's Chris Williams, 3-0, in the semifinals, then come back 10 hours later with a stirring 7-2 victory over Centennial's Paul Badawi to win the title, was like watching tiredsports cliches spring to life.
We read about athletes taking risks and overcoming pain in the pursuit of goals. But how often do we get to see, up close, a Danny Bickell take the kind of chance he took, fight through the excruciating pain he felt each time an opponent grabbed his bad arm, yet somehow discover resources of emotion, poise and intelligence he probably didn't know he had? How often do we get tosee a teen-ager show these kinds of guts and reap this kind of glory?
Bickell took a scary trip into the unknown, bringing hundreds ofpeople along for the ride.
This was no cocky kid daring someone to beat him with one arm tied behind his back, although essentially that was the challenge the top-seeded Bickell issued once he decided toenter the tournament after injuring the elbow in practice Wednesday.
This was a kid exposing his vulnerability to everyone. If disaster was to occur on the mat, if the arm was to be bent into some grotesque position, if Bickell's distinguished career was to end with a painful loss by default, it would be witnessed by everyone.
And make no mistake, no one was more frightened Saturday morning before the semifinals than Bickell. "I've got one arm. I'm scared to death. It hurts. And I knew the other guy was going to be grabbing it," he said. "But I wanted to leave my senior year -- and possibly the last time I wrestle -- wrestling. I didn't want it to end on a practice mat."
The two days leading up to the tournament were a nightmare for Bickell, beginning with the moment in practice when teammate Mike Maughan threw him to the mat. Bickell landed awkwardly on his left arm. The sickening pop told the story.
"All I could do was cry," Bickell said. "I kept saying, 'I can't believe it. My season is over. I can't believe it. My season is over.' "
Coach Dan Ricker took Bickell to a doctor, who X-rayed the arm and set it in a cast that night. "The X-ray was one of the most disgusting things I've ever seen. I remember thinking 'That's not my arm,' " Bickell said. "The forearm and the biceps were no longer joined."
Bickell, his parents and Ricker spent the next two days mulling over one question -- should he wrestle? At first, Ricker and Bickell figured the best approach would be for Bickell to make weight at the tournament's Friday weigh-in. Then, since he had a first-round bye, he could pick up the team points for advancing to the semifinals, then withdraw.
But while he was feverishly working off two pounds in the weight room at Atholton Friday, Bickell made the decision to go for it. Around that same time, he made another decision. He had Ricker cut off his cast so he could make weight. Even then, tournament director Ed Boxwell considered not allowing Bickell to wrestle with the injury. After Ricker produced a doctor's noteconfirming Bickell's fitness to go, Boxwell relented.
Bickell woke up a nervous wreck Saturday morning. Ken Hovet, the coach of the Oakland Mills football team, met Ricker and the team at Oakland Mills, where Hovet taped Bickell's arm. It left his elbow looking like a softball, but secure as could be under the circumstances.
Bickell wonthe all-important semifinal over Williams -- a freshman -- by relying on the guile that got him to the tournament with a 23-2 record. He dangled the arm like bait for Williams, who lunged at it repeatedly but couldn't take him down. Williams brought tears to Bickell's eyes several times when they tied up. But Bickell, who had pinned Williams quickly in their dual meet match last month, survived to win, 3-0.
The finals promised a tougher test against the more experienced Badawi. It also was too much for Bickell's mother, who kept her head downduring the match, refusing to watch.
What a match it was. Bickell, with the crowd clearly behind him, stunned Badawi and himself with a takedown in the first-period. He made it 4-1 with a second-period takedown. His escape from the bottom to start the third period left Bickell with a 5-2 lead and grimacing in pain since Badawi had grabbed the arm as Bickell pulled away. Ricker pumped his fist several times,fighting back tears as he watched Bickell, and prayed for the clock to keep running.
Remarkably, Bickell had Badawi on his back twice in the third period and even attempted to pin him. "Instinct took over. I blocked out the pain. I tried to lock up a cradle, but I couldn't lock my hands," he said.
When it was over, Bickell cried as he had done during each match, only this time the tears were ambiguous. Both pain and joy filled him.
Lost in Bickell's courageous -- some might say foolish -- decision to wrestle was the intelligence he exercised in recognizing his limits.
Bickell knew going into the tournament he was easily the class of the league. He still had the smarts and skill to win a title, even in his condition. And he proved it by working the clock beautifully, while not taking chances on offense and blending smart defense with superb balance.
Bickell also went into the county meet knowing this was the end of the road for him. There will be no regional tournament, no trip to the states. No matter how talented he is, a one-armed wrestler has no business competing at that level. Bickell won't tempt fate again.
But he will always havethe memory of stretching himself to a limit he hadn't seen in himself. And he did it with such grace that the county's coaches named Bickell the tournament's Most Outstanding Wrestler.
How could they have voted any other way? This tournament belonged to Bickell.
TEAM SCORES: 1. Oakland Mills, 233.5; 2. Hammond, 176; 3. Wilde Lake, 171.5; 4. Howard, 150; 5. Atholton, 112; 6.Glenelg, 103; 7. Mount Hebron, 77.5; 8. Centennial, 74.5.
INDIVIDUAL RESULTS OF FINALS:
103 -- George Proctor, Howard, pinned ScottCooper, Mount Hebron, 1:13
112 -- Danny Bickell, Oakland Mills, dec. Paul Badawi, Centennial, 7-2
119 -- Kalev Freeman, Oakland Mills, dec. Andy Arnsmeyer, Glenelg, 3-2
125 -- Adam Seidman, OaklandMills, dec. Shane Igoe, Mount Hebron, 8-6
130 -- Mike Maughan, Oakland Mills, dec. Jerroyd Goode, Wilde Lake, 12-8
135 -- Bobby Farace, Wilde Lake, dec. Brian Dunbar, Oakland Mills, 7-6
140 -- Joe Salinas, Oakland Mills, pinned John Finney, Howard, 2:56.
145 -- James Burrell, Hammond, dec. Jay Turner, Wilde Lake, in OT, 7-5
152-- Ricky Matthews, Hammond, pinned Marcus Myles, Oakland Mills, 1:04.
160 -- Nathan Casella, Wilde Lake, dec. Shamus Gillen, Centennial, 11-5
171 -- Ben Casella, Wilde Lake, dec. Dustin Blackwell, Oakland Mills, 6-2
189 -- Dominique Pierre-Toussaint, Howard, pinned Pat Brennan, Hammond, 3:23
HVT -- Monte Spencer, Oakland Mills, pinned Justin Stoddard, Glenelg, 5:08.