By Brian Jerzak
Athletics can do amazing things. Among others, as an adult, they give people like me who are WAY past their athletic prime a way to stay involved, they entertain, and for kids, give them something in which to strive. For some kids, athletics can do more than that. Sometimes athletics gives kids a chance to succeed when he otherwise would have not. Sometimes sports can form unlikely friendships that change both parties for the better.
Jacob Gentile was born Valentine’s Day 2002. He was premature and born six weeks early. He weighed three pounds twelve ounces.
“He was placed on oxygen for a week,” said Annette Gentile, Jacob’s mother. “He is legally blind in his left eye.”
Because of his sight, Jacob has always struggled in school. The 14-year old is often separated from the rest of the kids to work with specialists.
“He struggles with reading and writing – it is hard for him to see,” Annette said. “He is reading at a fifth-grade level now. He gets very frustrated.”
Jacob’s mother felt wrestling was something her son should try.
“Because he was so little, football and basketball weren’t an option for him. His dad wrestled and my father had wrestled,” Annette said. “Wrestling has always been a part of us, so I thought he should try it.”
Young Jacob took to the sport almost immediately, and it gave him a way to fit in with his classmates.
“He wants to be in the mainstream classes,” his mother said. “He is in special ed., but when he is in wrestling nobody looks at him differently. All the kids get treated the same no matter if you are a first-year wrestler or an eighth-year wrestler.”
“Coming from a divorced family he wasn’t very confident with himself. He – as all kids do from divorced families – blamed himself,” continued Annette. “We have reiterated to him that it was not his fault; he didn’t do anything to do that.”
Jacob was struggling to find his way in multiple areas. That started to change when he got on the mat.
“Wrestling made him more confident that he can do it himself,” said his mother. “This is something he can do and is something he can be good at.”
As far as results go, Jacob had his best year this season, but success came slowly.
“He didn’t win very many matches the first year,” said Annette, “but the coaches at Minnetonka – especially Al Plante – were so encouraging. Even though he lost, they never made him feel like he failed. I don’t care if the kid got pinned 75 times in a row Al would still say ‘I am proud of you.’ To this day, Al will go to some of Jacob’s matches and after the match go up to him and encourage him. He makes the kids want to go to practice.”
Dustin Mitchel is Jacob’s middle school coach.
“He is always there for the kids – even at school,” Annette added. “He is a great mentor. Jacob has said ‘if I ever have any issues at school I can just go to Coach Mitchel.’ They just made Jacob feel like he was wanted. It made him feel like he was valuable.”
Plante, who works with a youth wrestling program and Mitchell who works with middle school kids in Minnetonka, have been critical in Jacob’s development as a wrestler and a young man. So has a fellow Minnetonka wrestler – junior Aaron Moore.
“I was talking to one of the other wrestling moms and mentioned Jacob was struggling in school and with his confidence,” Annette said. “She recommended Aaron. I reached out to Aaron, and he said, he would love to do it.”
“Jacob is a good kid, and it can be tough to get through some of the challenges he’s had to face,” Moore said.
“They have talked a few times. Jacob really respects Aaron,” Annette said. “Now, Jacob and his dad have gone to a few wrestling matches to see Aaron wrestle. Jacob has always told me that Aaron comes up to him and says ‘hi buddy, how are you. I can’t wait until you get up here (to varsity). You’ve got to gain some weight to get up to varsity, but you can do it’. He has just been very encouraging.”
Moore is not a stranger to the kids in Minnetonka’s youth and junior high programs.
“I’ve always been sort of a big play toy to all of the younger guys. They climb me like a jungle gym and try to take me down in a herd every time I am around.”
Moore came to realize to the kids he was much more than a big play toy.
“I didn’t really have perspective on how much just roughhousing with them meant. It was something I just did. I started to realize these guys watch everything the high school guys do, say, don’t say and how much they mirror what the older kids do.”
Moore, who placed fifth in Class AAA at 285 this season, and the 85-pound Gentile might look like an odd pair, but the relationship has benefited both parties.
“Aside from practice time when I go in, with Jacob it is mostly high fives, way to goes and how was your match? He comes to our matches,” Moore explained. “I emailed him and gave him my cell phone if he ever wants or needs it. In a weird way, it helps me put my own performance pressures and my own mindset and struggles into perspective.”
Moore has quickly learned he has a responsibility to those kids.
“The little guys ask me questions like ‘can I write down everything I eat in a day so I can get bigger.’ It kind of took me off guard. They look at me and others and watch every single thing we say and do. You have to have an appreciation that what you say or do can really be impactful to these guys.”
Moore and Gentile – although nearly 200 pounds separate them – have wrestling and similar experiences with peers in common.
“My middle school coach knew I had been picked on pretty decently when I was younger,” said Moore, “so I didn’t have any issues with checking on Jacob. Checking in on him is a kindness that I was happy to invest in.”
Jacob handled his bullying situation on the mat.
“He was in fourth grade, and he was getting bullied on the bus,” Annette recalled. “One night he had wrestling practice. He told me, ‘those kids are right over there.’ Jacob picked one of the kids who was bullying him to practice with. He took the kid down. Later he told me, ‘guess what mom? I never got picked on again.'”
Still twenty pounds under the minimum weight to someday wrestle varsity, they are working with him on nutrition. He also has been working on his strength by both using weights and by doing yard work.
“He will have to decide what he wants to do,” Jacob’s mom said. “We are not going to force him into anything, but he loves wrestling. I love to see his smile after practice or after matches.”
The smile was especially touching to his mother earlier this season. Jacob was down 10-2 with under a minute to go. He was able to flip his opponent over and get the pin with just seconds to go.
“The grin on that kid’s face, I wish I had a thousand pictures of it,” his proud mother said. “Even when he loses he is always smiling when he is done.”
That grin has to do with the caring of many people from his coaches to an unlikely sidekick – Moore and the realization of his status with the kids and his understanding of the impact he can have.
“It doesn’t cost anyone anything to give a high five and a ‘hey how are you doing’ and ‘better luck next time,'” Moore said. “We all need that once in a while.”