The Old Lion: An Open Letter to Sharon & Family

Posted on August 30, 2016 by Travis Conley | 1 comment


Through an incredible story I'm about to tell you, I met this man briefly four years ago at the Kansas State Sunflower Games, 2012. As a former high school state qualifier wrestler, former professional wrestler and as a current Brazilian Jiu-jitsu competitor active in high level tournaments all over the country and world, still, nothing could prepare me for our fateful meeting on that July summer day. I was there to wrestle in the Folkstyle and "Take-down" divisions. Through some mistake I was accidentally left out of the later. Upon finding out, I talked with the tournament organizer and told him to get me in it, and that I just wanted matches and competition.  I told him to just put me anywhere, with anyone, I didn't care.

"I'll get you a match. I know someone who will do a match with you," he strangely said. Some time later he comes back and tells me the guy is a big boy, something around 300 lbs. and he wanted to do Greco-Roman rules only. "Okay," I said, thinking it was a little odd. I'm not so sure he thought I'd agree. I had always been very intrigued by Greco-Roman style. I had never done it, but I basically knew the rules. I was excited for this exhibition!

Before long this old man came up to me and asked if I was Travis. I said yeah. He said he had recently been sick, that he was an old guy and to take it easy on him. He said a bunch of other stuff too, that I can't remember. I was perplexed. He walked off and I turned and said to my buddy that was with me, also confused, "I think that is the guy I'm having a match against?" Neither one of us could believe it.

Rocky Starmer was his name. I wasn't sure what to think as the time for our match drew closer and closer. My internal dialogue was spitting out: "Was this really my opponent? He is huge! How old is he? Is this a joke, or am I going to get crushed? Is this really going to happen? Is this guy good?" We exchanged some more words and friendly banter, not real sure how to take each other, both of us nervous. I could tell Rocky was unsure, but I didn't know if it was part of his bluff. He had mentioned he trained for the 1980 Olympic team?, but I didn't know what to believe! "Who is this guy?"

The time finally came, an announcement was made across the gymnasium loudspeakers that there was a Special Exhibition Greco-Roman Match, all other matches going on ceased at this point. All eyes on us. I walked out onto the mat in my blue 1996 Kurt Angle edition freestyle singlet, looked up and a mountain of a man was standing across from me in an old, dark green Army singlet...a rugged, weathered man. Someone's grandpa. As I looked him up, tilting my head back to take in the whole view of this titan, I could see a very large, heavy scar running vertically straight down his chest, running into the top of his singlet "A heart surgery scar?" ...we shook hands and the match begun. I had no time to process what I had just seen, it was on.

We locked up and I could feel his great strength, I could feel the size difference. We were jockeying for position, pummeling our arms into each others, with Greco-Roman rules any leg attacks or grabs are not allowed, all upper body maneuvers. We pushed each other back and forth a bit, still both unsure of each other. Then I felt Rocky start into a throw, I was able to plant into it and block as he committed fully, taking himself all the way to the mat. Slip throw, it's called, no points or any change, just a restart. Rocky was slow to get to a knee, taking big breaths and thinking it through. The entire crowd, hundreds of people were now silent and glued to our mat, watching. This is when I started to really think about the situation, what was happening in the moment. This was a lose-lose for me. If I beat this old man, what's to come of it? Is he going to have a heart attack or worse? He has a fresh open heart surgery scar! This is not good! If he wins, he's an old Olympian and he's going to toss me on my head! This guy is a mountain man, how am I to proceed?



Back up onto his big, size 15 feet, the ref blew the whistle again. We locked up, same sequence, feeling each other out, trying to anticipate the other's next move, or get the other to move...nothing. Then, again Rocky went all out, he bellowed out, indicating maximum effort, everything he had... but he was just too slow, and again I countered. I looked at him as he was down and I was now entirely terrified, I didn't want to continue this. I could see no possible good outcome! This time he was even slower to rise, he paused on one knee, head down, for what felt like an eternity. The entire gymnasium froze, everyone on the edges of their seats, engrossed in this bizarre match, waiting for what was to come next...I remember thinking to myself, "Please stay down, let's not do this." The ref checked on him again, asked if he was okay and tried to help him up but Rocky motioned him off. Rocky was hurting physically, gathering himself, but I could sense the battle going on in his head...years ago he served in the United States Army, he was named to the All-Army Wrestling Squad and was training for a position in the 1980 Summer Olympics Wrestling Team when the United States decided to boycott the Olympics in Moscow. Rocky was good, but his body wasn't what it used to be and he was trying to negotiate with it, this one more time. With guys like this, it's always "one more". A feeling you can only get when you've experienced wrestling, stepping out on those mats and going toe-to-toe with your opponent, max effort, everything he has and is versus everything you have and are. The feelings, the glory of dominance, victory and bitter defeat all by your own hand. Throw and pin or be thrown and pinned. Pushed to your absolute limits. He had lived a life of a gladiator up to this point, the old lion was out for one more kill to show he was still king...

With a big sigh and one final burst of energy he popped up to both feet and signaled with his hand as he said quietly, "I'm done." No more. He was calling the match. "I've got nothing left. I can't do it anymore." As the ref faced us to the crowd and raised my hand to indicate victory, I hadn't scored any points, I hadn't done anything and I most certainly didn't feel like I had won. I felt bad honestly, I felt great empathy for Rocky, but also great pride and joy for him and for what he just created, for him suiting up the way he just did. I immediately took Rocky's hand and raised it instead of mine, pointing to him and showing all the people, saying, "This is the real winner." The applause was loud and continuous, and it just steadily grew louder...they the crowd felt the same as I: What a warrior. Respect. I looked all across the gymnasium, not a single person was seated. They were giving Rocky a standing ovation. An incredible moment I can never forget.

I talked briefly with Rocky after the match, in fact he watched me win the folkstyle division later that same day and raved about my technique and how I wrestled. He told me I was special, that not many bigger guys move the way I do and that I would be perfect to do Greco-Roman. He wanted to train me, "I have to train you" he said. He told me about his two little grandsons that he coached to National Championships in Greco. He took great interest in me, and I don't think it was any coincidence that it was an Olympic year either. I remember watching those London Games, the Greco-Roman Wrestling, just a few short weeks after this and talking with him on the phone. My dad and I made the drive down to Parsons, KS where Rocky lived and coached, and I trained with him for a day. That's when he revealed how sick he was...the open heart surgery scar, kidney failure, infection, etc. His dialysis port in his stomach, it had popped out and got infected during our match and he nearly died...he told me the match saved his life. Sharon, his wife, just shook her head.

For the next four years, the match, Greco-Roman Wrestling and Rocky all fell away as I continued on my goal, chasing a Jiu-Jitsu World Championship Title. I did think about that fateful meeting and Rocky from time to time, but until this recent Summer Olympics, Rio 2016 it was in the back of my mind. Watching the Greco portion I began to think about it all again so I picked up the phone and gave him a call. No answer. Rocky R. Starmer of Altamont, KS had died in December of 2014 at 56 years old, just two years after our match.

Now I don't know anything more about Rocky than what I've just said, but I was deeply saddened and shook to hear the news. Even though our paths had only momentarily crossed, I felt it. As with any death, we feel guilt or remorse, having wanted to have done more, seen or talked more, or shared feelings with the person no longer with us. With Rocky, I felt like I had known him a lot better and longer than I actually did. We were both wrestlers, Kansas born and bred. I felt bad so much time had gone by...It is a profound thought, how subtly serious and fleeting life is and these exchanges we have within. For Rocky and I to meet, him at his point along his path and me in mine, to have the match we did, for it all to play out the way it did, I knew from that very day it was a special exchange.

In awe of his spirit and attitude, I remember thanking Rocky several times.  Past even the twilight of his wrestling career, he was the old lion out for one more hunt, knowing every time now it could be his very last, yet in that process he taught me, the younger lion cub an invaluable lesson I'll always have and cherish. The truth is, our lives are all about these exchanges we have with each other, big or small, long or short...all of them matter. Be thankful for the people brought into your life, and especially the ones you are surrounded with. You never know what impact you have on someone, or what impact someone has on you. Its what we choose; to take from them, give back, leave or forget them. Every moment counts. Be kind and giving. Be memorable. As short as our meeting was, I cannot forget Rocky, whoever that man was. He still leaves me thinking to myself now, the same thought I had on that day back in July four years ago, "Who was that guy?"


To Sharon: I'm so sorry for your loss. I couldn't not tell this story. I hope it's made you smile as it has me :)
To Rocky: Thanks for the match, Coach. R.I.P.

Posted in Friendship, Inspiration, Journey, Warrior Spirit, Wrestling


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1 Response

Biagio Mazza
Biagio Mazza

September 01, 2016

excellent post buddy. great story

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