Editor’s note: William Galambos will be the recipient of proceeds from Hoops Fest 11. The annual high school basketball skills competition sponsored by the Potomac News & Manassas Journal Messenger is at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Potomac High School. Admission is $5.
He weighed 70 pounds and stood barely three feet tall. William Galambos has always been a little guy: thin and sinewy with a mop of brown hair falling off the forehead of a baby face.
On videotape, he appears even smaller – almost fragile, like he has no business being out in the middle of a wrestling mat.
Only, in Galambos’ case, looks are deceiving.
He’s perfectly capable of taking care of himself. The proof is right there on film. An eighth-grader who thought he’d have an easy time beating the sixth-grade rookie gets outmuscled and finds his shoulders flat on the mat.
“I was really cocky after that,” Galambos admits, smiling at the memory.
That pin remains one of the biggest thrills of his brief wrestling career, right up there with qualifying for the Northwest Region meet as a freshman at Potomac High School and earning a letter jacket in his only varsity season.
“Wrestling is in my blood,” he said.
The sport is such an important part of his life that the 16-year-old junior has never quite given up on the idea that he’ll return to the mat one day. He hasn’t wrestled in two years, not once in fact, since a surgeon used a piece of titanium wire to fuse two broken vertebrae in his neck.
“Eventually, I’ll go back to wrestling,” he said. “That’s what gives me hope.”
Doctors, however, have advised him to pursue other hobbies. They say wrestling is too dangerous now for William. He’s already lost 15 degrees of motion in his neck. Another fracture could have more serious complications.
“I don’t even worry about it,” William said. “You gotta die sometime.”
But, he isn’t going to risk it, either. At least not until he can complete physical therapy to strengthen the muscles around his neck.
Galambos doesn’t even take chances on his skateboard.
“I don’t do any stunts on it,” he said. “It’s strictly for transportation.”
The wrestling room is off limits, too. That is a personal decision, not a medical one. The mat is a source of too many temptations.
“I’d like to be a team manager,” he said. “But sitting there and watching …”
His voice trails off. He can’t even bring himself to finish the thought.
So William has developed other interests. He’s into golf and recently purchased his own set of clubs; he’s been introduced to Hogwarts; he is eagerly awaiting the third novel by acclaimed fantasy author Christopher Paolini; and is preparing for his first trip to Europe – a three-week excursion to Belgium, Germany, England and France from July 5 to 24 through the People to People International Student Ambassador Program.
“He was so disappointed when he was told he couldn’t wrestle anymore,” said Charlisa Becklund, a student assistant prevention specialist at Potomac and Rippon Middle schools who has known William since he was 14.
“It was a crushing blow and that’s something we spent a lot of time talking about,” she said. “But he’s really turned things around for himself. He’s a very bright kid who marches to his own drum. He doesn’t have to do what other kids are doing.”
Like many teenage boys, William has an allowance and a part-time job. He watches professional wrestling on cable, rides a skateboard, plays paintball with his best friend, Tommy Wagner, and is making plans for college.
Criminal law and architecture are two potential fields of interest, but he is currently leaning toward pursuing a history degree or, possibly, joining the military.
The past may be the cause of physical and emotional pain, but the future is full of promise.
In another year, he’ll be the first child in his family to graduate from high school. In July, he’ll view the Mona Lisa at the Musee du Louvre in Paris.
“I’m a really big history buff,” said William, who is a fan of Civil War stories and military strategy but is perhaps more excited about visiting the country where Napoleon Bonaparte once reigned. “When I found out the student ambassador trip was to Europe this year, I really wanted to go.”
That in itself is a tremendous breakthrough for Galambos. After his neck injury was diagnosed as fractured vertebrae, it took him a long while to be excited about anything.
For four years, first at Rippon Middle School and then at Potomac, wrestling provided William with an alternate world that allowed him to escape from a troubled childhood. On the mat, he felt as powerful and popular as a Gryffindor wizard. He didn’t have to think about his parents’ separation, his absentee dad or the older brother whose penchant for violence eventually landed him in prison.
The videotape and a prized letter jacket are all that remain of his wrestling career. He won 35 matches in all — nearly a dozen more than he lost — and advanced all the way to the 2004 Cedar Run District finals in the 103-pound weight division.
“I probably would have won but my neck was messed up,” he said. “It really hurt. Initially, I thought I had a strained neck, but it just kept getting worse.”
The strain wound up being even worse than William feared.
There are seven neck bones known as the cervical vertebrae, and two of those – the C3, a horizontal bone stretching to the shoulder, and C4, covering the area just below the clavicle – were damaged.
Surgery to repair the cracks required a three-night stay in the hospital. The thought that he might wrestle again one day brought hope. His mother, Barbara, provided comfort.
“My dad left,” William said. “But my mom stayed all three nights with me in the hospital.”
It wasn’t until he was in recovery that William learned his wrestling days were likely over.
“At first the doctor told me I’d be out of wrestling a year or two, and I was okay with that. I figured I could come back for my junior and senior years or at least wrestle in college,” he said. “But after the surgery, the doctor told my dad I’d never wrestle again.”
The news gripped William tighter than a headlock.
Wrestling was going to be his path to college and out of the turbulent existence that his brother, Matt, and sister, Melinda, failed to overcome. He was barely a teenager, his parents were living in different counties and he was unable to participate in the one activity that gave him solace.
Frustration and anger nearly overwhelmed him. But William aspired to something more than a blue-collar existence in Dumfries and a self-destructive lifestyle of violence and crime that led to his brother’s prison sentence.
It was up to him to find another way out.
“He’s a kid who could have gone either way,” Becklund said. “But over the two years that I’ve known William, I’ve been impressed many times by his refusal to give up, even when bad things happened to him.
“He is the epitome of the resilient kid. He is not the type to ask for anything.”
TO EUROPE AND BEYOND
Self-reliance is imperative for William. He’s basically been on his own since his parents first split seven years ago. His father, Terry, is a truck driver whose job prevents him from being at home for week-long stretches of time, and, he said, his mother only has visitation rights on alternate weekends.
When he needs advice William often solicits it from Melinda because they have the most in common.
“Me and her have always been close. We rarely fight,” William said, explaining that his sister left home when she was in her teens and lived in a foster home until she was old enough to take care of herself.
“She’s the one I mostly talk to because she’s been on her own since she was 15 or 16, too.”
He’s never been particularly close to Matt, but his older brother, who is scheduled to be released from prison soon, has unwittingly served as an inspiration.
“My brother’s always been in trouble,” William said. “He’s always been the bad ass. He wasn’t [at Potomac] three days before he got suspended for fighting. That’s the path he chose. People make their own paths. I don’t consider myself anywhere close to being like my brother. He doesn’t have respect for anyone.
“He was supposed to get out in February but he likes to fight and broke some dude’s nose. He got three more months for that.”
It’s not that William is above reproach. He’s run into his own share of trouble, including, he said, one school suspension and a fascination with firecrackers. But he has a conscience and a desire to accomplish something important in life.
Next fall, he plans to get an early start on his associate degree by splitting his academic schedule between Potomac and Northern Virginia Community College. But right now most of his attention is devoted to homework, learning how to hit a golf ball with a driver rather than an iron and raising $2,000 for his summer trip.
Between night shifts at Wawa, William has also been putting the finishing touches on a presentation about Belgium – a required Student Ambassador project that is due next month.
He’s too busy to worry about what might have been. Wrestling is still in his blood, but the sport doesn’t define him the way it once did.
There may never be another pin to videotape, but that won’t stop him from seeing the world.
“He’s one of those resilient kids who has the stuff to make it through all the things he’s been through,” Becklund said. “It was a struggle with all the things he had to deal with, but he’s excited about the future.”