By Jordan Press
The rest of Canada woke up to Ryerson in 1973. One year after entering the Ontario University Athletic Association and effectively joining the ‘big boys’ of Canadian university sports, Ryerson made a statement, a statement now almost forgotten.
In February that year, Ryerson’s now-defunct wrestling team walked into the OUAA championships and placed fifth.
The team’s success shouldn’t have come as a surprise. During the season, Ryerson had decisive wins over the 1972 OUAA champs from the University of Western Ontario and over powerhouse McMaster. But the real show was yet to come.
Ryerson’s wrestling team ranks among the best varsity squads to grace the university, among the least supported by students, and among the most forgotten part of Ryerson’s heritage. The Ryerson wrestling team’s flight to success took off in 1972 when two things happened: A kid named Joe Dell’Aquila walked into a wrestling practice and the wrestling team got a new coach – Pat Bolger.
Bolger was only 24 when former athletic director Bob Fullerton hired him to lead the wrestling team. Bolger was fresh from his second Olympic wrestling tournament. His success and reputation, Fuller-ton says, landed him the job.
“The acquisition may be the first step in the building of a winning wrestling team here at Ryerson,” The Eyeopener said in September 1972.
When Bolger met Dell’Aquila, he saw a potential Canadian champ if the first year business student attended every practice. “And I knew it,” Bolger says. “I mean, I wasn’t just saying it. I said, ‘I know the reigning Canadian champion and you [Dell’Aquila] will beat him.'”
Then Bolger went out and plucked away a set of brothers from the University of New Brunswick, Mike and Sean Barry. He promised them what he had predicted for Dell’Aquila and these predictions started coming true very fast.
“One of the first matches we had was against Guelph University,” Bolger says. “They were the best university team in Canada and they came in over-confident.” Ryerson beat them. “Here we are, the new kids on the block, and we were kicking serious butt. It was great,” says Dell’Aquila.
“This final success [Dell’Aquila’s national title] comes as no surprise to those who have seen any of the Ryerson wrestling team’s performances this year,” the Ryersonian commented after the season. “Unfortunately, for a great many Ryerson students it will be a surprise.
Attendance at all Rams sporting events was almost non-existent this season.” Hampering the team was also the lack of bodies to fill weight classes. “I can remember recruiting in the hallways,” Bolger recalls. “I could see somebody large and who looked fairly athletic and I would approach them and say, ‘Hey, listen. You interested in coming out for wrestling?’ And if the guy had any background at all – and even if he didn’t – I’d say, ‘Come on out. We need a heavyweight.'”
The next year, things got even better as Bolger’s boys went a perfect 10-0 in team competitions. Not only did they beat the rest of the province, but they also made a name for themselves abroad. The team travelled down to Penn State and out-pinned the Nittany Lions in tournament action.
The team never repeated their perfection, but Mike Barry and Dell’Aquila were able to capture national titles in 1975. Dell’Aquila was also named Ontario’s best wrestler – a first for Ryerson.
Then things fell apart.
Dell’Aquila and the Barrys graduated and the core of the team was gone by 1977. The only thing going well for Ryerson wrestling was their home tournament, the Ryerson Open. Bolger’s brainchild, it started in 1972 and became second only in size and prestige to the national champion-ships.
Former Ryerson president Walter Pitman – a wrestler himself – always made sure to attend. In 1979, more than 170 wrestlers competed in more than 300 matches. By the end of that school year, Bolger began to see the writing on the wall. “I had a lot more talent last year and realistically speaking, I can’t see anyone here now who has the potential to be a champion,” he told the Ryersonian in March 1979.
In 1986, Bolger left. The university was cutting athletic courses and he didn’t have a place at Ryerson. By the end of the year, Dell’Aquila captured his first national title, Mike Barry went to the national championships, the team placed fifth in Ontario and Bolger had made Ryerson into a school acknowledged for a wrestling team that got little recognition on its own campus.
At the same time, Wrestling Canada was instituting centres of excellence at various universities. Anyone who wanted to be on the national team had to go to a specific university so they could train with the best, pulling wrestlers from schools like Ryerson. In the end it forced teams to fold. Just as important was the fact that space was at a premium.
The RAC was still in the planning stages and more people were working out and participating in intramurals. Finally in 1988, the team died. “It’s not pleasant for me to drop any sport, but when it’s one you’ve been involved in and know the value of, it’s even harder,” says Fullerton.
Bolger, who wasn’t at Ryerson at the time, understood that cutting the team would help more students, but not everyone agreed with the decision. “I would have stayed at Ryerson and worked on the program, if only I had received support for it,” former coach John Park told the Ryersonian in September 1988. “Ryerson could have a good program,” he said. “They don’t have my sympathy on this one.”
Park and Bolger had pushed to get a national training centre at Ryerson to attract more wrestlers and increase the university’s reputation.
“[We were] in contention, but Ryerson didn’t want to have it because they thought because of facilities and maybe an increased expenditure that it just wasn’t right in relation to serving the most number of students at Ryerson,” Bolger says. “There would have been a lot of press, there would have been high profile athletes coming there to compete, it would enhance the tournament we had, the Ryerson Open – which was already at the top of the list. It would have really enhanced the whole program.”
Over the past few years, there have been movements to get the team going again, but so far without any luck. Bolger and Dell’Aquila say it would be great to have a team again, but they won’t come back to coach it.
Whoever does coach it will have a long and storied history to follow.
The Eyeopener said in January 1979 that “of Ryerson’s intercollegiate teams, Bolger’s wrestlers over the years have been the most successful by far.” And by far among the most forgotten.
The only remnants of the program are the blue mats in the RAC people use to do sit-ups on and a small picture of Dell’Aquila with his arm raised in victory, which hangs in Ryerson’s hall of fame.
Until someone revives the team, it will be the only picture left of a Ryerson wrestler with their arm raised in victory