March 29, 2007

Rinaldi Leaves Legacy

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It was a humbling scene that took place during Saturday night’s parade of All-Americans on March 17 at the Division I Wrestling Championships in Auburn Hills, Mich. In a final hoorah for collegiate wrestling’s elite, the growing sport said goodbye to arguably its most dynamic and most impressive class of grapplers since 2002. Included in that bunch was the face and voice of the sport, Missouri’s Ben Askren, who ended his career with two consecutive NCAA titles and an 80-plus match win streak, leaving no doubt that he leaves as college wrestling’s greatest pound-for-pound student athlete since Cael Sanderson. Wrestling also said farewell to Minnesota heavyweight Cole Konrad, who also won two-consecutive titles. Add to that list four-time All-Americans Johny Hendricks of Oklahoma State, Sam Hazewinkel of Oklahoma, Nick Simmons of Michigan State and it’s easy to say the talent standing on the raised mat inside the Palace was nothing short of special — within it members of a class of 2007 that will be missed and remembered for ages.

Although most members of the media and wrestling fans alike will most likely remember the class of ’07 for the previous names mentioned, one person standing towards the back of the stage who has always seemed to go easily overlooked was that of Cornell senior Jerry Rinaldi.

When people reflect on Rinaldi’s career on East Hill, they’ll most likely struggle debating whether or not he’s had half the impact that two-time national champion Travis Lee ’05 or four-time All-American Dustin Manotti ’06 had on the Red program. They’ll say he never won an EIWA title, never beat his respected rival Phil Davis of Penn State and that he won every match by just enough to get by. Then, they’ll choke on their own words and realize that all he’s done his whole career is win. They’ll tally up his accomplishments and notice that he’s a two-time All-American and a four-time first-team All-Ivy performer that ended his career in a Red singlet ranked fifth on the school’s all-time wins list, having his arm raised 118 times. Unfortunately, for those who value an athlete’s worth to a program on solely wins and losses, they’ll do nothing but scratch the surface as to how important Rinaldi has been to the program. That’s why they’ll never understand the importance of Rinaldi’s salute to the Cornell faithful on that Saturday night when the 197-pound All-Americans were announced to 18,000 people packed inside the Palace for that night’s final collegiate wrestling action of the year.

We’re kind of spoiled as a student fan base at Cornell — we come to East Hill and expect our Joe Nieuwendyks ’88 and Ken Drydens ’69 to take us to the frozen four before we even set foot on campus. We expect our lacrosse teams to be ranked in the nation’s top-10 and perennially compete for a title. As freshmen coming to Cornell, these are sports that we know are established as athletic department gems.

Although there is certainly value in this culture, what we’ve missed over the past four years is the evolution of the Cornell wrestling program turning into one of the nation’s most prestigious and elite powers. And just in the past four years, that’s the mark of something truly special — to see, to hear and be a part of a changing of a guard. There once was a time not too long ago where Cornell returning three All-Americans was unheard of. Now, All-America plaques are something these student athletes collect and stow away in their trophy cases. While it used to be a program goal just to produce one All-American, the expectations now are exponentially higher. The goal these days are individual national championships. In two years, the goal will be a national team title.

When Rinaldi was recruited, he was lured to Cornell on a promise and a proposition. The promise was that Cornell wrestling would be something special by the time he graduated. The proposition was that it was his responsibility to make it that way. For most recruits, that would be an intimidating task. After all, Rinaldi was a blue-chip recruit that won a New Jersey state title his senior year by way of dramatic upset. Nobody expected Rinaldi to dominate on a national level in high school, so who knew how he’d perform in college against the nation’s best, while competing in the shadows of wrestlers like Lee, Manotti and Joe Mazzurco ’06.

Still, the question is what is Rinaldi’s legacy to Cornell wrestling?

The answer is quite simple. You can construct a building and cement a program’s foundation with wrestlers like Lee, Manotti, Clint Wattenberg ’03 and Tyler Baier ’05. But once you start getting those high-profile recruits like the sophomore Troy Nickersons, sophomore Adam Freys — not to mention the rest of the team’s current underclassmen — you need to have a model for success for each of them to follow after the Lees and Manottis leave campus. There has to be someone, some leader, that gives the program something more than a model for athletic talent alone — these recruits already have that. With Rinaldi being the only departing senior starter on the team, he leaves as the headliner of Cornell’s last class of blue-collar recruits with chips on their shoulders. With Rinaldi, you never doubted the toughness, never doubted the durability, never doubted the humility and most importantly — never doubted the personality and make up of a wrestler that never complained about his draw, never complained about his result and was always pushing to max out at that next level. Next year, the high profile recruits of the program will become upperclassmen (eligibility wise) and expectations will again be significantly raised. After finishing 12th at nationals this season, it’s easy to say that Cornell had a down year after finishing in the top-10 three consecutive years. However, it’s also very easy to say that in sport, just like the weather, there is always a calm before the storm.

All it took was one small fraction of time — just a tiny acknowledgement, a point to the crowd and a half-cracked smile. It was Jerry Rinaldi’s salute to the Cornell faithful and to a group of fans that know what he means to Cornell wrestling. He was a leader of few words, but one that led by example. The old adage says that you can lead a horse to water, but that you can’t make it drink. Well, Rinaldi has led his horse to water. The only question now is … next year, will Cornell wrestling drink?

Tim Kuhls is a Sun Senior Writer. That’s Kuhls Baby will appear every other Thursday this semester.