Thursday, September 18, 2008

Me and Steve

This article was written for a National amateur wrestling publication and will appear sometime this winter.

At first glance thin-framed film actor Steve Buscemi might seem like an unlikely wrestler but his connection to the sport is actually quite strong. Buscemi spent six successful years on the mat for legendary Long Island wrestling coach and mentor Harold Earl of Valley Stream Central, a suburb just outside of New York City. He remains grateful for the life lessons he learned, and for the wonderful relationships built that continue to this day.
Steve Buscemi is an accomplished actor having appeared in over 115 films. He is also a gifted writer and has directed 4 films, including “Trees Lounge” which he also wrote. (“Trees Lounge” takes place in Valley Stream, NY and if you look carefully you can see him perform a pretty good “duck under”) He is married to choreographer, artist, filmmaker and photographer Jo Andres and lives in Brooklyn. They have one son, Lucian.
Buscemi has achieved status as a cult type figure because of his remarkable talent and preference for independent film. He is best known for his work in Fargo, Con Air, Armageddon, Big Fish, Spy Kids, Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs, The Sopranos (he directed some episodes), most of the Adam Sandler films, and numerous voice roles in animated features like Monsters Inc, Charlotte’s Web and Igor. He has received numerous awards, and recently started his own production company with actor Stanley Tucci.
Steve and I met in seventh grade in 1969 when we both joined the soccer team at Valley Stream Memorial Junior High School. We became fast friends. When winter came I invited Steve to join the wrestling team and we became partners. “I recall how honored I felt that Mr. Earl considered me good enough to practice with Rich who was already an accomplished wrestler,” Buscemi says.
Steve spent a lot of time at our house. One Christmas we both asked our parents for unicycles, and we rode them to school together. It was quite a sight to see two skinny kids riding unicycles down the streets of Valley Stream in the middle of winter.
Steve was on the small side and so did not begin his high school career until 10th grade when he was second string behind me at 98 pounds. I finished that year second in the Nassau County tournament. As a junior Steve wrestled first string at 105 lbs. and had a good year on a very competitive team.
As a senior Steve came into his own. He had pretty well perfected his trademark reverse cradle. His secret was in his long arms, which enabled him to lock his hands and finish this difficult move. That year he finished fourth in the league tournament, and fell just shy of making it into the county tournament. Highlights of his senior season included pinning the eventual county champion with a reverse cradle and he used a simple half-nelson to pin a county place winner in a dual meet that same year. That win gave Valley Stream Central the edge and they won that crucial dual meet.
Buscemi was a three sport man. He played soccer, wrestled and ran track. “I really miss that whole time,” he said when we spoke recently. “I wish I could go back there again.” Buscemi recalls being especially energized when his performance made a difference for the team. That kind of selflessness has made him a respected actor and film director. He appreciates the team dynamic.
Referring to the nervous energy felt just before a match Steve says, “I feel the same nervousness when I am in a performance, but once I get out there, it goes away.” Coach Earl was known as a technician and placed strong emphasis on drilling moves. Steve remembers having “too much fun” as my partner in my dad’s grueling practice room. “Those practices were brutal and goofing around made it all bearable,” he said. I have to agree, and there were times when we were laughing so hard we got in trouble.
“It was a privilege to wrestle for Harold Earl in his prime. I took it for granted at the time, but it was really very special,” Buscemi says. Steve especially looked forward to the “matside chats” my dad would give after practice. He would comment on politics (he remembers the old coach sharing his disappointment with Spiro Agnew and then Richard Nixon during the turbulent Watergate years), and the unique dangers that girls, smoking, and cars posed to wrestlers. All of Earl’s wrestlers remember those talks with fondness.
After graduation Steve remembers running into Coach Earl in Valley Stream one day in 1977 as he had just begun taking acting classes in New York City. “I was embarrassed to tell him what I was up to, because I was not sure how he would respond” he says. “ I told him I was pursuing acting and he got a big smile on his face and was so positive about what I was doing. He seemed genuinely happy for me. And that proved to be a great inspiration.”
Steve and I still talk and get together from time to time. I am a pastor now and Steve showed up for service one Palm Sunday with his son Lucian as they were on their way to Pittsburgh. Our church folks did not recognize him at first, but after service he was found out, and graciously greeted some fans.

Rich Earl is the son of legendary coach Harold Earl of Valley Stream Central on Long Island in NY state. Harold Earl is a Lifetime Service recipient in the National Wrestling Hall of Fame and coached at Valley Stream Central from 1951 to 1981.
Rich Earl was a New York State Champion in 1974 at 112 lbs. His brother Jim won that same title in 1973. Rich wrestled for Lehigh and Jim wrestled for Penn State in the late 1970’s. Rich has been pastor of Mountainside Assembly of God Church in Coal Township, Pa. since 1998.

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