Travis DeWalt told himself he wouldn't get nostalgic. He wouldn't get emotional.
And then the buzzer echoed through the cavernous Lakeland Center. Spencer Baxter, a gifted athlete and brilliant senior student at Gulf High School headed for the University of Florida, watched the referee raise his opponent's arm in victory. Baxter had given everything he had but lost by the narrowest of margins. His eyes filled with tears as he embraced DeWalt.
"I wanted to send you off with one more state championship,'' Baxter cried.
DeWalt buried his face in his wrestler's chest. Up to now he had focused on the match, not the end of an era. "I didn't want this to be about me,'' he said.
How could it not?
The state championships last Saturday marked the end of DeWalt's remarkable 12-year coaching career at Gulf High. He took a program that hadn't won a single match in three previous years and built it into one of the most respected in Florida. "I liked it that we had nowhere to go but up,'' he said. "That kind of fit my personality.''
His 2010 team brought the county its first state wrestling championship. He won eight conference championships, coached five individual state champions and 25 state medalists.
It's hard to think about Gulf High without DeWalt. As a student there in 1990, he became the first wrestler in Pasco County to win a state championship. He went off to college in Iowa, became an All-American, coached a few years and returned home.
He won by making it cool to be on the wrestling team. In his first year, he organized community support and took his team to Russia for 10 days of competition. Every year his team traveled, places like Chicago and Dallas. They wore the best equipment. DeWalt created a wall of honor for state champs, his name still at the top. He demanded his athletes study and understand what it means to be a good citizen. He welcomed them into his home, comforted them during personal crises and, in one particular case that earned widespread acclaim, took a freshman who had been expelled from every class and turned him into a model student. Ladarious Jackson graduated in 2011 after winning back-to-back state championships.
DeWalt set an example for physical fitness. Even today at 41, even after operations on his knees, hands and back, he starts every morning at 4 and runs 5 miles at 5. Then he lifts weights at the gym for an hour. "You can't demand it of the kids,'' he says, "unless you're willing to do it.''
He teaches language arts and supervised the yearbook staff for six years. The past three years he has served as the school's athletic director, duty that added to the many hours spent away from home.
That really started to get to him last year after his father-in-law, Joe Macaluso, died from cancer at age 59. "Forty-two days from prognosis to death,'' DeWalt said. "That was September and I'm still having trouble with it. We were so close.''
DeWalt decided this would be his last year to coach. He would spend more time with his wife Diane, a social worker, and his children: Robert, 9, and Helena, 4.
He hopes to land a position as an administrator, either as an assistant principal or in the district office. Either way, it seems he'll be leaving Gulf High. "That just sounds weird,'' he says. "This school has been such a big part of my life.''
One of his former wrestlers, Michael Calafiore, will fill his big shoes. Calafiore is on that wall of honor, Class of 2007. He teaches history at the school. He stopped by Tuesday afternoon to check on some equipment. About the same time, another teacher called on the phone. He wanted DeWalt to know that he'd just read in the newspaper that Lincoln had been a wrestler. DeWalt, of course, already knew.
"You can't escape it,'' DeWalt said after hanging up. "People will have to learn different things to talk to me about.''
He then fielded the inevitable question. What about the International Olympic Committee's decision to remove wrestling from the Summer Games beginning in 2020?
"It's disheartening,'' he said, "but it won't hold up.''
Wrestling was part of the original ancient games in 708 B.C. and the first modern Olympics in 1896. "It's mentioned in the Bible,'' DeWalt said, opening his to Genesis. "It has cultural value.''
He recalled how he and his athletes felt wrestling in Russia.
"If you could bottle that and sell that feeling,'' he said, "there would be no drug addicts.''