At the Kiel Center in St. Louis, Mo., Quakers senior Brett Matter edged Boise State's Larry Quisel, 4-2, replacing DiBatista as Penn's most recent wrestler to win an NCAA title. Almost 60 years before Matter, DiBatista established a bar of achievement so lofty that it will never be surpassed. Say what you will about records being made to be broken, but his achievements cannot be topped -- equaled, perhaps, but not bettered. That's because from the day DiBatista first stepped onto the mat at Lower Merion High School to his final match at Penn, he never lost. Not once. He wrestled in 82 matches for the Quakers, first on the freshman squad and then on the varsity, winning all of them. Better yet, no opponent ever held him to the mat for longer than 15 seconds before he escaped. In 1940-41, his first season of varsity eligibility, DiBatista stunned the wrestling world by beating 29-year-old Al Crawford of Appalachian State, an AAU veteran and former international champ. The next year, he defended his 175-pound title by defeating Iowa State's Leon Martin. In '43, he copped Outstanding Wrestler honors at the EIWA tourney and was a safe bet to win his third NCAA championship. But World War II intervened. "The Easterns were held at Penn in the Palestra, and I won for the third year in a row," says DiBatista. "But they cancelled the national tournament because of the travel restrictions during the war." Still, the cancellation hardly puts a damper on the career accomplishments of DiBatista, a member of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame. At Lower Merion, he won the 155-pound title in 1938 at Pennsylvania's first-ever state championship tournament. Recruited by both Penn wrestling coach W. Austin Bishop and football legend George Munger, he prepped a year at Franklin & Marshall Academy -- where he won a national prep school title -- before coming to Penn. At Penn, the 5'7 1/2" DiBatista carried 190 pounds on the football field as a fast blocking guard on Munger's famous single-wing offense, routinely playing in front of 70,000 fans at Franklin Field. But he found his true calling on the mat. "Bill Medcraft, who came out for football and didn't make the team, was an excellent wrestler. He couldn't make 175, he weighed 225. I didn't want to go 175 because that meant I had to pull weight. But the coach talked me into coming down to 175." As unbelievable as it sounds coming from an undefeated wrestler, DiBatista actually believes he would have had an even easier time at heavyweight, where many of the wrestlers in those days were just lumbering football players. Meanwhile, 175 was one of the toughest classes in the country. "Most of the all-around athletes in those days stood about six-foot, 180 pounds. That was a good height and weight in those days, for football, basketball or any sport. So you had your better all-around athlete pulling five pounds or so and wrestling at 175. Heavyweights were generally heavy and awkward without that much skill." Regardless, DiBatista had little trouble at 175. Only once did his match end in a draw, when Iowa State's Martin artfully stalled -- in an era when stalling was called infrequently -- to avoid DiBatista's notorious arm-drag takedown. After three three-minute periods plus overtime, the score stood at 1-1. But the ref awarded DiBatista the bout, and the 1942 NCAA title. The 1941 match, however, played out much more dramatically. "In the finals I met this fellow Crawford. He toyed with everybody he wrestled. He would sit on them, spin around on them, let them stand up and then take 'em down again -- everybody enjoyed his wrestling because he was so colorful. He just played with everybody, and then he'd pin 'em." A 29-year-old freshman -- unlike Penn, Appalachian State had freshman eligibility -- the flamboyant Crawford was supposed to walk all over DiBatista. As an Eastern wrestler, the 20-year-old was relatively unheralded, but he knocked off champs from the Big 10 and the Big 6 to reach the finals. In a bygone era when some coaches were also refs, renowned Quakers coach Bishop was busy refereeing another match during the 175-pound final, leaving Lehigh's legendary Billy Sheridan in DiBatista's corner. "He said, 'You know, you're lucky. To take second place in this tournament is very big for an Eastern wrestler.' He was my coach, and he'd already decided I wasn't going to win." On Sheridan's advice, DiBatista tried uncomfortably to run away from Crawford, drawing a slew of four-letter words from the frustrated veteran. But referee Cliff Keen -- himself a wrestling icon -- not only refused to caution Crawford for his inappropriate language, he slapped DiBatista with a stall -- in those days worth a two-point takedown. Amid a chorus of boos from the action-hungry fans, DiBatista -- who, amazingly, had battled a cold all week -- decided to ignore Sheridan's advice and wrestle his own style. It worked, and he stunned Crawford, 7-3, for the title. In the locker room, a fuming Crawford came searching for DiBatista. "In comes Al Crawford, yelling, 'I'm going to beat the crap out of you! You ran away from me!'" But longtime Penn trainer John Brennan, a wisp of a man at barely 125 pounds, blocked the shower entrance. "[Brennan] said, 'You're not going to get to him unless you get through me!' And Al Crawford looked at him with disdain and then threw his hands up and walked away." The next day, Crawford -- in school only to win an NCAA title -- dropped out. DiBatista, meanwhile, came home to find himself splashed across the sports sections of all the Philly papers. Now 79, DiBatista -- who spent years as a teacher and coach at Lower Merion while also earning a reputation as one of the country's top collegiate officials -- currently lives in a retirement community in Media, Pa. An Internet-savvy neighbor recently put a surprise in his mailbox -- a print-out from the Wrestling Hall of Fame Web site of the biographical recording that plays from a phone beneath DiBatista's plaque. It begins: "His string of victories ran the gamut of state high school, national prep school, regional AAU and National Collegiate championships. His string of defeats ran the gamut of? well nothing at all?" The photo at the Palestra may be dusty, the accomplishments a little more forgotten with each passing season. But the records of Dick DiBatista will never be surpassed.Comments powered by Disqus
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