Greg Bulger's connection to wrestling this winter was supposed to be minimal at best. All Bulger, who teaches at Howard High and coaches the boys lacrosse team there, was going to do originally was break out the mats and supervise the team's weightlifting until the new coach, Sean Alkire, could get to the high school from his teaching post at Bryant Woods Elementary.
But before he knew it, Bulger's tie to wrestling became more than tangential. Through his son, Tyler, a sophomore on the squad, Bulger, who stayed on as Howard's assistant coach, has gotten back in touch with the sport he gave up on as a youth.
"I went out for wrestling and got beat up pretty good and I decided, 'I don't want to do this,' " Greg Bulger said. "I always regretted not sticking with it and seeing how good I could have [been]. I've tried to instill that in my boys in any kind of athletics because I quit a lot of stuff and regretted it."
As a kid growing up in Ocean Township, N.J., and in the midst of one of the state's most tradition-rich wrestling programs, Greg Bulger walked away and stumbled around for a while.
You don't need to know the gory details, but, like a lot of guys his age, Bulger got mixed up in substance abuse issues, and they cost him things, the most valuable of which was time.
"There's a lot of things that I did in my life," Bulger said. "I took the wrong road often early in my life. It really dug me into a big hole. My kids know my story, but I try to keep them from falling into that hole where they have to try to push their way up."
That's where wrestling comes in. From outside the wrestling room at Hammond, where Tyler and other Howard County grapplers were preparing for the state championships this week, Greg Bulger thought about the sport's redemptive qualities as well as its ability to teach.
"It wasn't easy because I didn't do the work early on and I believe that these kids in here who are busting their butts in the wrestling room are learning a lot of lessons, so that when they get into the real world, they can say, "I've been there already. I've done this. I've busted my butt to become the best wrestler I can be,' whether they become a state champ or not," Bulger said. "They've learned how to get where they want to go. That's harder in other sports and that's what drew me to this sport."
And it brought two of his five kids in as well. His oldest son, Evan, is a cadet at West Point and wrestles on the freestyle club team there. Greg Bulger says Evan, as a wrestler, is "a scrambler. He was frustrating to watch. I'm sure he was frustrating to wrestle, too."
Tyler, whose first match today in the 103-pound class in the 1A/2A division is against Kyle Draine of Elkton, is more of a technical wrestler, his father says.
"He's pretty straight-forward, straight-on, very technical and basic kind of wrestler. That's all I ever got to be," Greg Bulger said. "He's been wrestling for a long time. He's got the technique down and now it's just a matter of getting the mat time and getting in the weight room especially now that he has matured physically."
Said Tyler, who is 30-5 this season: "Last season, I was really light for my weight class. I weighed in at 92 pounds. This year, I gained the weight, so I'm a regular 103-pounder. I'm about the same weight as the other guys up there. That's an advantage from last year. I've done a lot of weightlifting and offseason wrestling after my freshman year, which also really helped with my progress."
More than the progress Tyler has displayed, Greg Bulger is pleased with his son's willingness to work harder than ever and his commitment to the task, all of which demonstrate that the sins of the father aren't always visited on the son.
"Everybody has to learn that the bottom line is when their head hits the pillow at night, they have to be responsible for what they did," Greg Bulger said. "I think wrestling teaches you that. It's so evident when you walk off a mat at the end of a match where you did well and where you didn't do well. You really can take a great personal inventory coming off the mat."