BLANCHARDVILLE – Ben Meyer can be considered a winner every time he sets foot onto a wrestling mat. Appropriately, in his final career match, he left the mat a winner as well thanks to a very considerate opponent.
Ben, a senior on the Pecatonica/Argyle wrestling team, became one of the few lucky wrestlers to end his career with a victory– and by fall nonetheless– when he pinned Black Hawk sophomore Dean Schlittler in 1:34 to win the fifth-place match in the 195-pound division at the WIAA Division 3 regional wrestling meet in Lancaster on February 9.
What made that match so special– besides the fact that he may have been the only wrestler in the entire state that day to receive a standing ovation for placing fifth at a regional meet– is that Ben is autistic and Schlittler knowingly sacrificed the victory that day so Ben could go out a winner.
“It was his last year and I wanted to make it a great one for him,” commented Schlittler, a soft-spoken young man who has posted just 10 wins in his two seasons with the Warriors’ wrestling program. “My record wasn’t going to get any worse.”
It wasn’t the first time Schlittler allowed Meyer to beat him in a match (he did it twice during his freshman season– once by technical fall in a dual meet and another time by pin at a tournament), but it turned out to be a special time for the Warrior wrestler to do it.
“As a senior, I felt he needed that win more than I did,” said Schlittler. “It just seemed right.”
Amid the raucous atmosphere of that jam-packed gym at the tightly-contested regional meet where three of the top Division 3 teams in the state of Wisconsin– Lancaster, Mineral Point and Iowa-Grant– were battling it out for the team title, the Meyer-Schlittler match became a memorable one for everyone involved, especially Ben’s parents, Chuck and Nancy Meyer, who got to see their son go out a winner.
There weren’t many dry eyes on the mat or in the stands when Ben’s hand was raised in victory. Even the radio announcers, seasoned veterans of the sport who had seen just about everything, were choked up with tears calling the match on the air.
Ben has that kind of effect on people.
Wrestling/setting the scene
Being autistic, Ben has a variety of social, cognitive and learning disabilities, which makes competing in a sport as physically and mentally demanding as wrestling difficult to say the least. But, that hasn’t stopped him from giving it his all on the mats.
Encouraged by his dad, who was once head coach of the Pecatonica/Argyle co-op and currently serves as a volunteer assistant with the program, Ben took up wrestling in middle school.
With the help of youth coach Tyler Terrill and current high school coach Ike Campbell, he kept pursing the sport through high school despite his limitations due to autism.
“Ben’s pretty strong. He doesn’t know his own strength. If he could do the moves, he would be pretty decent. He just doesn’t have the flow you need to wrestle,” said Chuck Meyer.
At first, Ben was just happy to be participating along with his team, but when his senior year approached, his parents and his coach noticed a change in his attitude. He not only wanted to compete, he wanted to win. After all, he was selected to be a captain by his teammates and he took that role to heart.
“All the kids love him. He keeps everyone relaxed when things get tense,” said Campbell. “I don’t know if it was being a senior and a captain, but he took it more seriously this year.”
Ben even had high hopes of making it to the state tournament, according to his dad.
“He had some big goals,” Chuck laughed.
Unfortunately, his only wins during the regular season came from forfeits and byes while all of his contested matches ended with him getting pinned in the first-period usually in under a minute. He ended the year with a 7-11 overall record
Ben kicked off the Lancaster Regional Meet doing singing the national anthem at the request of the host school. His anthem’s have giving him plenty of notoriety at meet’s around southwest Wisconsin and have made him somewhat famous in the wrestling community.
In his first match of the day, he was pinned by Lancaster’s Connor Flynn in just 42 seconds, ending his state dreams and dropping him back into the fifth-place match where he would meet his friend Schlittler in his final prep match.
The two wrestlers traded points with one another early on. Schlittler wasn’t going to just lie down and give up. He was going to make Ben ‘earn’ his win.
At the same time in the center mat, the much-anticipated 195-pound championship match between Mineral Point’s Robby Chubb, who would go on to win a state title his year, and Iowa-Grant’s Derek Peat- who would take third at state, was taking place on the center mat, but once Ben got Schlittler on his back, all eyes were on their mat.
“(The Chubb-Peat) match was one of the biggest matches of the entire day and all the attention was on Ben and Dean wrestling on the other mat, which was just amazing to me,” said Campbell. “I stepped back and started to tear up. It was an emotional moment.”
With his dad yelling him instructions from the coaching chair and his mom doing the same alongside the mat, Meyer went chest-to-chest with Schlittler and secured the pin at the 1:34 mark bringing the crowd to their feet.
“The official knew him and he accentuated the hand raise a little bit. It was a good moment,” said mom Nancy, who still tears up months after the match.
The crowd still on their feet as Ben started to leave the mat, so Chuck talked him into giving a final curtain call.
“I said you got to turn around and wave to the crowd, so he turned around and waved to one side of the gym and it got louder, then he turned to the waved to the other side and it got even louder,” remembered Chuck. “It would have been a neat place to be even if it wasn’t my own kid.”
But, it was his kid and Dean’s kind gesture meant the world to him. Chuck knows in his heart that as many people were on their feet cheer for Dean as there was cheering for Ben.
“I can’t say enough about Dean. He did an excellent job working with him. I talked to him afterwards, but I couldn’t say much, so I just shook his hand. It was a big, big deal for me, and it was a big deal for Benjamin. He reveled in the moment,” admitted Chuck.
The only thing that could made the scene more perfect, according to Chuck, would have happened if Ben had taken off his shoes and left them on the mat– an old-school wrestling tradition that marks the end of a wrestler’s career.
Instead, like he’s wont to do, Ben did it his way.
“He left his shorts on the mat,” laughed Nancy.
After his victory, Ben receive rock star treatment the rest of the day as many wrestlers, coaches and fans came up to him to congratulate him. A cheerleader from Mineral Point even gave him a pin necklace to commemorate his win.
“You can’t compare the family aspect of wrestling to any other sport. It’s a family atmosphere that carries across school lines. The coaches and kids support each other,” said Nancy. “People know Ben. He has followers. He has a big family thanks to wrestling.”
Ben did make it to the state tournament this year– as a spectator, not a competitor– and while he was their he continued to draw a crowd. Chuck noted that all four of Lancaster’s state champions came up to them after their matches just to say hi to Ben.
“They called him by name and gave him high-fives. That was pretty cool of them,” said Chuck.
Learning Experience for all
In a tournament earlier in the year, a referee questioned whether Ben should even be out on the mat competing giving his autism and limited athletic abilities. Unfortunately, that referee didn’t see what many others in the wrestling community saw in Ben. Inspiration.
“The fact of him being autistic has had an effect on our younger kids. They see him working hard in practice and they say, ‘whoa he doesn’t have all the talent that I have, but I’m slacking off and he’s trying as hard as he can,’ that’s a big thing for those kids.” said coach Campbell.
While his autism may handicap him on the wrestling mat, it has not slowed him down in life. Ben, 18, has had full high school experience just like any other teenager, whether its singing the national anthem at his high school basketball games, playing in the pep band or being selected Prom King by his class his junior year.
One of the things that has aided him most has been wrestling, which not only kept him physically active but also helped him to overcome some of the sensory issues that come along with his autism. The acceptance and encouragement he has received from the wrestling community has had profound effect on Ben’s life.
“It was okay for Ben to be in Ike’s program where for some other coaches it might not have been,” said Chuck. “The education goes both ways with him. I think Ben educates people, and people educate him as well. Ike would say he learned a lot from Ben.”
The Meyers abide by the African proverb that it takes a village to raise a child because, admittedly, Ben would not be where he is today without the help of many people.
“There’s no way we could have done it by ourselves, and there’s no way we can continue to do it by ourselves,” said Chuck.
“All the people who have gone out of their way to help Benjamin achieve more. There’s no way he would be where he is today without those people helping him.”
People like Dean Schlittler, who in losing to Ben also left the mat a winner that day.