Pinning down life: Wrestle

Courtesy of Lelund Weatherspoon

Sarah Muller

Editor’s note: This is the third story in a four-part series following student-athlete Lelund Weatherspoon.

Third grade Lelund Weatherspoon shifted in his seat as his stomach continued to do anxious flips. His mind couldn’t stop thinking about his need to prove he could fit into his athletic family.

“I’m going to be sick,” Weatherspoon groaned.

His coach, who was driving Weatherspoon to his first wrestling match, pulled the car over, allowing him to throw the door open and vomit. Wiping his mouth, Weatherspoon returned to the car and felt some relief.

A win to Weatherspoon would mean validation. He would prove that he was qualified to continue competing, to exceed his brothers and fit in.

Having joined the wrestling team a few weeks earlier, Weatherspoon only knew a few moves. As he stepped onto the unfamiliar mat, the single thought that crossed his mind was the obligation to succeed.

Weatherspoon recalled watching his older brother wrestle and remembered how easy it looked from the crowd. Weatherspoon was intimidated when it finally came his time to face an opponent, but his talent came naturally.

“It just all flowed to me,” Weatherspoon said while describing his first match, which he won.

Thus began a sequence of weekends dedicated to traveling and wrestling that soon consumed Weatherspoon’s life.

In the middle of 10 siblings, Weatherspoon was always teased by his older brothers. Even childhood games, such as tag, released the family’s competitive nature.

“There’s no sympathy,” Weatherspoon said. “If you lose, you will hear about it, how bad you lost, and [the siblings] will add [details] to the stories.”

The siblings coach each other by trading blows and picking on one another, all in an effort to push their athletic abilities to the best they can be. Weatherspoon, the first sibling to go undefeated in wrestling, maintains the rushing record in football at his high school in Jackson, Mich. and most state titles in wrestling in his family.

Because of his success, Weatherspoon’s two younger brothers both look up to him and itch to surpass his achievements.

“Recently, my little brother said he looked up to me as a role model,” Weatherspoon said. “That’s a big accomplishment to me. I did the same thing with my two older brothers. At the end of the day, they want me to be better.”

Entering high school, Weatherspoon knew he couldn’t continue all the sports he was pursuing because wrestling and basketball season conflicted. While he yearned to play both, Vincent, Weatherspoon’s father, made the executive decision: Weatherspoon would continue to wrestle.

“He’s short, No. 1,” Vincent Weatherspoon explained. “The competition there is nothing like an individual sport. You get more noticed.”

Weatherspoon agreed with his father’s choice.

“I’m only an eighth grader trying to decide what I want to do with my life,” Weatherspoon said. “He knew what’s best for me at the time. I’ll listen to [him] because I’ve been listening to him my whole life.”

During a tournament in the eighth grade, Weatherspoon was exhausted and begged his mother to let him stop competing that day. However, Vincent Weatherspoon was persistent.

“I’ll do it just to make you happy,” Lelund Weatherspoon responded reluctantly. “I did it. Not with the best results, but I did it.”

His father continues to coach Weatherspoon, and the two have been able to hold a healthy relationship with their tension remaining on the mat.

“He was following suit because I coached the other children also,” Vincent Weatherspoon said. “[I] push them to make sure they do their best. [Our family doesn’t] believe in bench warming. I told [Lelund] he has to do this and beat out everyone you can to get you to starting position.”

Weatherspoon’s No. 1 cheerleader was also on the sidelines.

With a handful of peanuts in his pocket and his jacket on, Lee Weatherspoon, Weatherspoon’s grandfather, was always ready to watch him wrestle.

“I don’t know what my father and [Lelund] talked about,” Vincent admits. “They would have private conversations … that I was not involved in. [Lee] saw a natural fight in [Lelund].”

Come game time, Weatherspoon would push Lee’s wheelchair to the first match, park him on the edge of the mat and wrestle while Lee would silently watch. When Weatherspoon won, he would turn to his grandfather for his reaction. Lee would give a slight nod of approval and wait for the next match.

“[Watching me wrestle] made him happy,” Weatherspoon said. “Every chance I got to perform in front of him… it was great.”

During the AAU tournament his freshman year, Weatherspoon didn’t have a desire to wrestle because his body was worn and torn from days on the mat. However, he changed his mind, and he won. 

Little did he know, it would be the last time his grandfather would watch him wrestle, as he died soon after.

After the death of his biggest supporter, Weatherspoon returned to wrestling and found a nostalgic surprise.

While warming up, Weatherspoon would glance over to the corner of the mat, expecting to see Lee, but the space remained empty.

Weatherspoon pushed his emotions aside and remained focused. After the introduction of one meet, a banner was unrolled in memory of Lee, causing tears to swell in Weatherspoon’s eyes.

“That’s when it settled in,” Weatherspoon said. “Wow. He’s gone. He can’t watch me wrestle anymore.”

Weatherspoon ducked his head and was restless to wrestle because he didn’t want the feeling to linger. He knew his grandfather was there in spirit and acknowledged him by not only winning his first match following his death but winning state his junior year.

Right as the final whistle trilled at the Michigan state tournament, Weatherspoon blew a kiss up to his grandfather in heaven and looked around as the feeling set in that he was a champion. He knew he could attribute his work ethic to the man who loved to sit at the edge of the mat and stoically watch him wrestle. 

“He just never gave up,” Weatherspoon said. “He would always find ways to get the job done.”

Weatherspoon not only got the job done junior year, but won the state title his senior year as well, which opened up multiple doors including one to Michigan State and Central Michigan University.

Shortly before Weatherspoon was planning to sign with Michigan State, he received a call from a recruiter at Iowa State. Impressed with Iowa State’s recent success in wrestling, Weatherspoon gave them a chance.

“He just seemed down to earth,” said Kyven Gadson, ISU alumni and wrestler who hosted Weatherspoon. “I didn’t really know much about him wrestling-wise, just from a character standpoint, he was really laid back. He just seemed like a good, genuine guy.”

While visiting, Weatherspoon felt a connection between all the wrestlers, even during practice.

“I just felt like it was a good family atmosphere and that I wanted to be here,” Weatherspoon said.

Sitting down with his uncle Dave, father Vincent and his mother Doletta, Weatherspoon weighed his options. While his uncle was biased because of his position as a professor at Michigan State, he was able to set it aside.

“Do what’s best for you,” his uncle encouraged. 

Weatherspoon desired to stay close to family but recognized both that Michigan State’s program had declined in recent years and that he needed to be on his own to progress.

During a dinner with ISU wrestling coach Kevin Jackson, Weatherspoon turned to him.

“I want to be a part of your team. I want to be a Cyclone,” he said.

Four years later, Weatherspoon is facing nationals yet again as a redshirt junior and Big 12 Champion in the 174-pound weight class.