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Brandon High wrestler Eric Grajales ends high school career at 218-0

TAMPA — With a minute left in his final high school match, his arms and legs entwined with an opponent desperate to become famous for beating him, Eric Grajales wasn't thinking about winning.

He wasn't thinking about his fourth straight state championship or his final undefeated record of 218-0.

He was thinking: This is actually kind of sad.

"I waited for this my whole life,'' he said, "and that last minute, it was a little hard for me. It hit me that this was coming to an end.''

Then it was over, the final 60 seconds a blue blur, and the referee raised his arm high, an exclamation point on one of the finest high school sports careers ever.

The end of a journey.

• • •

Eric Grajales and his brother, Cesar Jr., were born in St. Petersburg, but they were raised to be champions in Brandon.

Their father, Cesar Sr., had wrestled on legendary Brandon coach Russ Cozart's first state championship team in 1982.

Cozart left a lasting impression.

"It's the best program in the country,'' Cesar said.

Cozart orchestrated a national-record win streak of 423 matches that stretched 34 years before ending last year. He has won 19 state championships and has produced 52 individual state champions.

This year, the Eagles won seven of 14 weight classes at state, breaking their own record.

This is why Cesar Grajales Sr., who owns a successful auto repair shop on U.S. 19 in St. Petersburg, and his wife, Leslie, drove their kids across the Howard Frankland to train at Cozart's wrestling club all those years. It is why they eventually bought an empty dirt lot about a mile from the high school and built a new home on it so they would always be in the right school zone.

Saturday night, after Eric Grajales carved out his own little piece of Eagles history by claiming the 135-pound title, about 150 friends partied at that house. The wrestling team arrived in a stretch Hummer to a rousing ovation, and they feasted on a catered pasta bar.

• • •

From Philadelphia, Cesar Jr. worked the cell phone Saturday night, trying to follow his little brother's quest.

Cesar Jr. was Brandon's first four-time state champion, with his only two losses in four seasons coming at out-of-state tournaments. He now wrestles at the University of Pennsylvania.

Eric followed in his path. It's always been that way.

Eric was 2 years old when he wriggled free from his mother and wobbled over to try to join his big brother and dad on the mat at a youth wrestling tournament.

Leslie snatched him up and put the dreaded sleeper hold on him.

"She would have to strap him into the stroller, and he would sit there and wouldn't stop screaming until he turned purple and fell asleep,'' Cesar Sr. said, chuckling.

Eric competed for the first time at age 4. He has won so many championships that his dad has lost count, but the medals and trophies fill a room in their house.

Eric is the top-rated 135-pound wrestler in the country and last summer competed for a spot at the U.S. Olympic Trials.

Cozart describes his baby-faced pupil as happy, smiling all the time, bubbly even. Except when he's on the mat.

"If you're going to wrestle him, you can either roll over and let him pin you right away, or you can just try to survive,'' Cozart said. "Those are pretty much your choices.''

Eric's whole life has been spent competing, always looking to prove himself, hoping to match up, insisting on perfection.

"He was always the youngest one, but he never wanted anyone around him to look at him that way,'' said Cesar Jr. "Let's just say he didn't play the role of little brother well. He never saw it that way.''

He was fiercely competitive, as was the whole family, including sister Melissa, another standout athlete who played softball at Brandon.

"But Eric was the worst,'' Cesar Jr. said.

Monopoly. Hearts. Tiddlywinks.

"I admit it: I had a chip on my shoulder,'' Eric said.

• • •

One day, he hopes to wrestle at the Olympics.

In the fall, he will wrestle at the University of Michigan on a full scholarship.

"I'm ready to move on,'' he said.

His state titles and 218-0 record won't mean quite as much in Ann Arbor.

That's fine, he said.

He will start a new journey.

Brandon High wrestler Eric Grajales ends high school career at 218-0 02/23/09 [Last modified: Friday, February 27, 2009 9:01am]

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