Andover Central senior Preston Solomon leaned in and kissed his mother on his cheek Friday night as her eyes welled with tears.
The moment was a stark contrast to the emotion he displayed after he won his semifinal at 195 pounds in the Class 5A wrestling tournament at Hartman Arena. Solomon celebrated by jumping around, his arms pumping after beating Salina South’s Tanner O’Donnell 10-4.
There was no lack of emotion during Friday’s opening matches, but Solomon’s situation is special.
“This took a lot of work, work, work, for it to pay off like this,” Solomon said. “It’s awesome. It’s a sweet ending.”
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Solomon (24-11) hasn’t wrestled since he was in eighth grade, when he broke a vertebra in his back. He was told by one doctor that he’d never play sports again.
He was furious. Football was his love and he’d play it no matter what. He admitted to feeling glad when the doctor who told him he couldn’t play moved out of state. Another doctor cleared him, and he played football his sophomore through senior seasons at middle linebacker for the Jaguars.
Wrestling? Well, he tried. He went out for the team his freshman year and then his junior year, but he couldn’t handle the pain in his back.
“He couldn’t get past the practices,” his mother, Pam, said. “The practices were hurting too much. I didn’t really want him to go back this year. I said, ‘It’s not worth it your senior year to mess up your back.’ ”
Andover Central coach Chris Saferite was thrilled, though, when Preston Solomon said he was going out for wrestling.
“That’s what I wanted to hear,” Saferite said.
Saferite had been asking Solomon since his freshman season to wrestle. And Solomon’s dad, Richard, was disappointed that his son couldn’t participate in a sport he began at 4.
But when Solomon got back on the mat, it all came flooding back. Sure, he was raw, but he’d spent so many years on the mat and he still had wrestling instincts.
Saferite points to Solomon’s physical ability, his strength, his athleticism as good reasons for his success. But more than that, Saferite notes Solomon’s inner drive.
“The drive that he has is unbelievable,” Saferite said. “He goes in every day and works his tail off. Wins matches, loses matches, he gets better every day. It’s his determination.”
Solomon isn’t shy about agreeing that his drive is what got him to today’s finals against Newton’s Dillon Archer, a 13-6 winner over Shawnee Heights’ Shannon Meck.
Two hours of daily conditioning, building strength — despite the pain — to improve the condition of his back.
“I think it’s a good quality that this back is bringing me, to push through the pain,” Solomon said. “I know what it takes to make it this far.”
His dad smiled.
“How great is that?” he said. “It shows a lot of confidence and it shows he works really hard to get where he wants to.”