January 7, 2008

34-year winning streak halted

BRANDON, Fla - "The Streak," arguably one of the greatest in the history of sports, started 34 years ago.

Before "Rocky" hit the big screen, another underdog story was developing in this one-time bedroom community.

Sign of the times: A look at 1974
Former Brandon wrestling coach Jim Graves admittedly did not know anything about wrestling prior to his appointment to head coach in 1971. But what he was able to start January 28, 1974 was one of the most remarkable streaks in history.

A look at other events of 1974:

  • Jan. 19 - UCLA's winning streak snapped
  • Feb. 8 - Skylab 4 returns to Earth
  • March 8 - The Brady Bunch is cancelled
  • April 8 - Hank Aaron hits 715th HR
  • April 24 - Carrie is published
  • June 15 - Red Lion Square disorders
  • June 26 - Derek Jeter is born
  • Aug. 9 - Richard Nixon resigns
  • Sept. 8 - Evel Knievel fails Snake River
  • Oct. 30 - The "Rumble in the Jungle"
  • Nov. 13 - Amityville murders take place
  • But on Saturday night, when the Brandon High wrestling program put its national-record streak of 459 consecutive dual match victories on the line, more than a 1,000 fans, a dozen media members and an ESPN camera crew witnessed history.

    For the first time in 34 years, the Eagles lost a dual match. "The Streak," which spanned 12,396 days, six presidents and 34 Super Bowls, was finally put to rest.

    Homestead South Dade, the No. 3-ranked team in Florida, stunned the Eagles by taking a 22-3 lead and never losing their grip. Brandon pulled to within six points with two matches to go, but as South Dade fans chanted "Beat the streak!" senior 235-pounder Tico Baez sealed the 32-28 victory with a major decision.

    Each team received a standing ovation following the final of the aptly-named Jim Graves "Challenge the Streak" Tournament. Brandon's run of consecutive wins is over, though it'll likely never to be topped or forgotten.

    "What this streak has done in this town, this school, is given it a cornerstone, a gem, a diamond to look at - to hold up," said Brandon coach Russ Cozart. "Our wrestling program has gone from a coach who knew nothing to one of the elite programs. This is a great wrestling spectacle."

    Make that a sports spectacle. The Patriots are chasing perfection following a 16-0 perfect season.

    Brandon racked up 36 consecutive perfect seasons. The Eagles make the 1972 Dolphins look like a flash in the pan.

    The streak started on Jan. 28, 1974 when the Eagles beat Robinson, 32-17. Months later, Richard Nixon resigned.

    South Vietnam surrendered. The Streak stayed alive.

    Ronald Regan was shot. The Berlin Wall was opened. Brandon's winning streak was still intact.

    A Brandon dual match win was as much a guarantee as taxes and Florida sunshine. In the early days, the "streak" was used to spark publicity for the program. As the years went on, victories climbing, it became the wrestler's fuel their motivation. Brandon wrestlers felt like a family. Each winter, "The Streak" was the family's cherished heirloom, passed down from one team to another.

    "I told the guys all the time, it's not just you that you're working for," Brandon junior Eric Grajales said before last Saturday's loss. "It's your teammates, it's the past, it's everyone on our wall. Every state champ everybody. If you're not going to work for yourself, you have to work for them."

    They worked for Jim Graves, 63, who was the school's third wrestling coach in three years when he took over the program in 1971. "I knew absolutely nothing about the sport."

    In the first few years, there were no mats, no singlets. Wrestlers ripped mats of the gym walls, taping them together and grappling in a cramped weightroom or auditorium stage.

    Graves brought to practice filmstrips, which taught wrestlers fundamental moves. They learned together, going to camps and clinics. After their lone losing season (3-10 in 1971-72), the Eagles built the foundation of the streak with a 12-1 year. They were self-taught and, out of necessity, self-promoters.

    Former wrestler Roger Schultz mimeographed a picture of a wrestler onto a flyer, which was copied and posted on doors all over the school.

    Brandon Wrestling: By the Numbers
  • 12,396 Days the streak lived
  • 459 Consecutive dual match victories
  • 66 Individual state titles
  • 18 Team state championships
  • 7 Consecutive team state championships
  • 2 Head coaches at Brandon High
  • With each year, the program's reputation grew. And so did Brandon's youth wrestling program - the heartbeat of the streak. It started with a handful of kids in the late 1970s and now goes 30-40 deep.

    The non-profit organization and champion building ground has spawned more than 150 national titles. Several wrestlers have moved to Brandon from around the country to train in the youth program, to become part of the streak. The Grajales family built a home in the town so their sons, Cesar (a four-time state champ) and Eric (two-time state champ), could be here.

    "Florida is not a wrestling state," Cozart said. "Back in 1980 when I got here, the big sports were football and baseball. It was very hard to get kids out. But now I don't have to advertise. This community has become a wrestling community. It's known for it."

    Opposing coaches have credited Cozart & Co. for raising the level of wrestling around the state and putting Florida wrestling on the national map. More than a dozen reporters - including one from USA Today - covered the Graves Tournament, which drew more than 1,000 fans each night to the "Eagles Nest."

    Nobody is claiming the sports culture has completely changed in the state; football is still king. But the attendance for Saturday's final was more than the combined crowd last month at the four-day Tampa Hoops Classic, which brought some of the top high school boys basketball players - and teams - from around the nation to the University of South Florida.

    Cozart created the Jim Graves Tournament five years ago, "to get beat." Hillsborough County sets Brandon's schedule each year, limiting them from "going to Miami and taking on the best teams."

    So last weekend, Miami's top team - Homestead South Dade - came knocking on Brandon's front door. They were hungry. They were talented. They were ready to etch their names forever in wrestling lore.

    Record setting winning streaks
    459 - Brandon (FL) High School Wrestling
    289* - Christian Brothers Academy (NJ) X-Country
    159 - Passaic (NJ) High School Basketball
    151 - De La Salle (CA) High School Football
    103 - Univ. of North Carolina Womens Soccer
    88 - UCLA Mens Basketball
    47 - Univ. of Oklahoma Football
    33 - Los Angelas Lakers, NBA
    31 - Argentina, international soccer
    21 - New England Patriots, NFL
    21 - Chicago Cubs, MLB
    17 - Pittsburgh Penguins, NHL
    : All time streaks
    * - active streak
    "We broke that history," Baez said. "Even the guys that weren't supposed to win, they overcame their fears and won the match. This means the world to me. We'll never forget this. Never."

    The Eagles sat stunnned, then wiped away tears. They would have liked to forget that night - that realization at 9:02 p.m. Saturday their streak, 34 years in the making, was over.

    They received a large ovation from the crowd, which included Graves and dozens of former Eagles wrestlers from the past. Their day jobs are as engineers, salesmen, roofers and models. But on Saturday, they were family.

    Cozart handled his first defeat in decades with class, shaking the South Dade coaches' hands, taking the blame for the defeat and defending his kids, who "gave me everything they had. "

    In return, Cozart gave his team Monday off, a rare break in an unrelenting workout regimen.

    The Brandon wrestlers are eager to get back on the mat.

    "I wouldn't be surprised if we started another streak," Grajales said. "It might not ever last as long, it might not be as known, everyone might laugh at us. (The streak) is still out there. Even if we aren't continuing it, it doesn't mean anyone is gonna touch it for 50 years."

    Joe Smith covers high school sports for the St. Petersburg Times.


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