Bender: My international wrestling incident

"I was so naive. I hadn't realized that wrestlers are the biggest gossips ever placed upon this Earth. The internet was in its infancy, but it wasn't necessary."

Tony Bender

It's funny how the state wrestling tournament stirs up memories, “funny” being the key word when it comes to this story.

Already, I've heaped pressure on myself. We've all been at parties when someone says, “I've got the funniest joke ...” Then, 10 minutes later, it feels like a hostage situation. I'm the most impolite listener ever. I'll just drift away. It embarrasses my family, but anyone that boring can't be my friend.

Feel free to walk away anytime. But don't.

It was 1997 in Hettinger. By then, Randy Burwick and his assistant, Theo Schalesky, and the championship program they'd built, had me enthralled by the human drama of it all.

I love that town. The exceptional athletes I watched, the lifetime friends I made. As Randy and I reminisced at this year's state tournament, I confessed to leaving a chunk of my heart behind when I left. He smiled. Nodded. “I know.”


Hettinger-Scranton Coach Randy Burwick consoles a wrestler after a tough match Saturday, Feb. 18, 2023, during dual wrestling action at the state wrestling tournament in Fargo.

I've known Wrestling Hall of Famer Kayle Dangerud, a championship coach with West Fargo, since he was in grade school. Loved the kid. His mom, Ginger, worked for me at the Adams County Record.

That year, Kayle, a returning state champ at 145, moved up to 152. Waiting there was Justin Haas from the Ashley-Wishek program, the returning 152-pound state champ. He'd racked up a winning streak, a devastating path of carnage so dominant I feared for Kayle's well-being.

Justin epitomized what his coach, the great Gary Hoffman, was all about. Brute strength, impeccably conditioned steamrollers. Kayle was regarded as one of the finest technicians ever to step on the mat. There was a December showdown looming, a tournament in Linton.

That's how it started.

I'd describe Kayle's personality even then as pretty zen, so I decided he might need some extra motivation, and I went to the florist to order the frilliest balloon they had. The accompanying note read something like, “Looking forward to seeing you in Linton.” For the exact verbiage, check with Ginger. She still has the evidence in a box of memorabilia.

The balloon was delivered to Kayle at school. I imagined the look on his face, the ire of his teammates, the steam rolling out of Burwick's ears, and smiled with self-satisfaction.

I thought that'd be the end of it.

Uh-uh. Ginger, one of the sweetest people you'll meet, stormed into the office — as much as Ginger ever storms — and broke the news to the staff. Naturally, I was surprised and offended by the audacity of Justin Haas. The nerve.


I was so naive. I hadn't realized that wrestlers are the biggest gossips ever placed upon this Earth. The internet was in its infancy, but it wasn't necessary. Word spread across town, across the region, to every Class B school in the state.

This snowball was out of control. I'd created an international wrestling incident.

I didn't dare say a word. Thank God for florist-client confidentiality.

As the tournament approached, I developed the flop-sweats. What if Kayle lost? I hadn't considered that. It was entirely possible. This Haas kid was a monster. An unrepentant balloon-sender. His deeds were spoken of in hushed tones. Like Beetlejuice, you dared not say his name aloud three times.

By then, Kayle had taken on a steely eyed look you see mostly in serial killers.

He remembers gripping Justin for the first time in the championship. “I'd never felt that kind of strength before.” It was close, Kayle and Goliath, but I believe Kayle had a 3-2 lead as time waned in the last period, forcing Justin to take a chance that Kayle countered. If memory serves, it was a 5-2 win.

I've never felt such relief. They'd have run me out of town.

Former West Fargo Coach Kayle Dangerud, left, with his trouble-making friend Tony Bender on Saturday, Feb. 18, 2023, at the state wrestling tournament in Fargo.

I don't recall when I confessed or exactly when I talked to Gary Hoffman about the epic match, but I remember what he said clearly. “What surprised us was how strong Kayle was.”


After their Linton showdown, Justin pulled Kayle aside. “Hey, I didn't send that balloon.” Of course, he didn't. He was a well-mannered kid from a good family. It'd take a real jerk to do something like that.

Whatever the gate was at Linton, I think I deserve a cut, though.

It ended anticlimactically. Justin was upset along the way in the state tournament, and Kayle took the championship.

It's always good for a laugh when I get together with the Dangeruds, but someday Justin Haas is going to burst through my door and kick my ass.

And I'll have it coming.

Opinion by Tony Bender
Tony Bender writes an exclusive weekly column from North Dakota for Forum News Service.
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