Lawrence High sophomore Andrew Denning carried 10 more pounds than a year ago with him on Thursday’s van ride to Wichita for the state wrestling tournament, but his mind felt 10 tons lighter.
A year later, Denning looked back after Wednesday’s practice on a frightening period in his life. Four days after shocking the area wrestling community by winning the 6A regional title at 135 pounds in 2010, Denning was riding high when the fathers of a pair of his wrestling friends showed up at practice and told him they needed to talk to him in the coaches’ office.
The conversation centered on Denning’s father, Darin, the man who started teaching his son the nuances of wrestling at age 5, the father who never had missed one of his son’s tournaments.
During that conversation, Andrew was reassured that everything was going to be fine, that he had nothing to worry about, and that his father was being life-flighted to St. Luke’s Hospital in Kansas City, Mo., for double-bypass heart surgery.
No matter how many times he was told his father’s life was not in danger, Andrew’s 14-year-old ears kept hearing the same two-word combinations looping in his head like a bad jingle that can’t be muted: “Life-flighted.” “Heart surgery.” “Double-bypass.”
“I was very worried,” Denning said. “It scared me, scared everybody. The doctor said it was just a routine surgery, but to us, it felt like it was the end of the world.”
As it turned out, for Darin it was more of a beginning. He said he has lost 60 pounds, eats a far more nutritious diet and hits the gym four days a week now.
“From my faith, to my health, to my family, it’s made a big change, all for the better,” Darin said. “The doctors saved my life, and I had to make those changes. I told Andrew I wasn’t going to miss this again. I promised him.”
He’ll be heard loudly and clearly during his son’s matches this weekend.
Darin had gone in for his yearly physical, one test led to another, and he was sent to a cardiologist, who found he had 98-percent blockage in area, 96 percent in another. He remembers the words he told the doctor: “You’ve got to be kidding me. Let it be Monday. Give me this weekend.” And what the doctor told him: “No, sir. You won’t make it that long.”
He had the surgery Thursday morning, and that afternoon Andrew was on a bus ride to Wichita.
The team stayed in a hotel, two wrestlers to a room. The boys shared one key, the coaches took the other for bed checks. Past midnight, Randy Streeter, an assistant to coach Pat Naughton, keyed the door of the room Denning shared with classmate Hunter Haralson.
“Hunter was sound asleep,” Streeter said. “Andrew was sitting on the end of his bed, too many thoughts, too many emotions.”
Streeter told him that things would turn out well, that his father would want him giving himself his best shot at a medal. In relating a personal story, Streeter let him know things could be much worse. Streeter shared that when he was a high school wrestler, he had lost his father in a car wreck at the beginning of one season. To this day, Denning greatly appreciates that visit. Still, his racing mind kept sleep at bay.
Darin insisted from his hospital bed that his wife, Cris, go to Wichita on Friday to watch their son Andrew wrestle. Their daughter, Kaylee, a nursing student at Kansas University, stayed behind to be with her father.
“I told my wife there was no way he was going to be of right mind, and if he saw her down there, it would ease his pain, let him know I was going to be OK,” Darin said.
As a wrestler, 145 pounds of pure guts, Andrew inflicts more pain than he endures. He carries a 27-5 record into the tournament and is ranked fourth in the state.
Last year, despite sleep deprivation, Denning was one victorious match away from being one of the six wrestlers in his weight class to earn a medal. He won two of his four matches.
Denning is one of 10 LHS wrestlers who begin today competing in the two-day tournament. Ben Seybert and Cameron Magdaleno are the only seniors, which bodes well for Lawrence High joining schools such as Derby, Garden City, Goddard, Junction City and Manhattan in discussions about the state’s top Class 6A programs.
“If everybody wrestles the way we’ve been practicing, we might be able to win a state title,” Denning said.
Regardless of how he and his team fare this weekend, his father, well known in the Perry-Lecompton area for the 10 years he devoted to instructing youth wrestling, already is as proud of him as a father can be of an athlete.
“I rode him, unfortunately, harder than every other kid in the room,” Darin said. “I told him I expected him to be the leader and set the pace out there. I didn’t have to have that conversation with him very long. He went out and did it. He’s pretty much a straight-A student, a quick learner.”
Then Darin paused and shifted to that wistful tone teachers tend to use when they note their pupils have surpassed them.
“If I’d get on a mat with my son right now, he’d tie me up in a pretzel,” Darin said. “He’s far better than I ever was. He’d hurt me.”
Andrew will stick to facing wrestlers from his own generation. He’s more interested in making his father proud than taking him down.