SUWANEE — Cliff Ramos opened practice with some typically dry humor Saturday at the Collins Hill field house named in his honor.
“You know, a lot of years I had trouble finding a few heavyweights on the team,” Ramos said.
He paused and looked pointedly at more than 75 men — ranging in age from 18 to 60 — sitting in front of him.
“That’s not a problem with this team,” Ramos said with a sly grin.
The Hall of Fame coach, barely a year removed from being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, invited many of his former wrestlers to participate in Saturday’s event.
It stemmed from comments he’s heard from wrestlers over the years about just wanting to have one more practice. He was also inspired by the book “The Last Lecture,” co-authored by former Carnegie Mellon University professor Randy Pausch.
“He was a teacher, like me,” Ramos said. “He was battling pancreatic cancer, like me. The difference was, his was terminal. He didn’t have a lot of time left. I owned some hope with mine.
“Those two things together made me think of doing one more practice. For 14 months, I’ve been living with pancreatic cancer and, to be honest, when I found the diagnosis 14 months ago, I didn’t think I’d have much time left.”
Ramos had surgery at M.D. Anderson last October and has completed his treatment.
“I’m doing pretty well,” he said. “The last month and a half, I started improving a lot. I have some things I’m dealing with, but every day I’m so thankful to God for another day.”
Last September, when Collins Hill officially dedicated the wrestling facility to the man who started the terrifically successful program from scratch, Ramos was in the midst of his battle with the disease.
Almost 10 months later, his voice rang out with renewed strength. Ramos, who needed to sit for much of the ceremony last year, cranked out 20 pushups with the rest of the group during warmups.
By the end, everyone was sweating. They were still laughing, though.
Ramos said beforehand he wasn’t going to make it too difficult.
“It’s more of a reunion than anything,” he said. “I’m definitely not going to kill them. I’m going to tell them I’m going to, but some of them will be done after we do a pre-practice jog.”
Rick White was at Ramos’ first practice as a head coach in 1976 in Butler, Missouri.
He said things haven’t changed that much.
“My senior year, Cliff was our new coach,” said White, who was sporting a cut over one eye and laughed about it. “It, to me, is an honor, just the short year I had him.”
He and Scott Smith, who was a junior that season, flew down from Butler for the event.
Many others came from around the Southeast to participate, a few on very short notice.
“I think it’s a great testament to Coach Ramos that so many people have made an effort, especially on Father’s Day weekend, to come out,” said Jim Gassman, who wrestled for Ramos at Collins Hill before coaching with him there and later at Mountain View. “Then, to participate in a wrestling practice, it’s one of the hardest things you can do. But he always had good practices.”
The bulk of the former wrestlers came from his days at Collins Hill, where Ramos had a dual meet record of 626-80, won nine state team titles and had 34 individual state champions. There were a dozen from Mountain View and Meadowcreek, six from Greater Atlanta Christian, two from East Hall — Ramos’ first job in Georgia — and five from Butler.
Both his sons, Trevor and Taylor, participated. As did Ramos’ most famous student, Kyle Maynard.
“Back in September of last year, we didn’t know how long he was going to be here,” Trevor Ramos said. “Judging by the statistics and what you hear, knowing what the prognosis was, we didn’t know how much more time we had to spend with our dad. It’s just been an answer to prayer that he’s still here and all the glory goes to God.
“It’s amazing to see this wrestling family (today). Wrestlers are such a fraternity and it’s amazing. I knew this was going to be hard, but at the same time, I knew it was going to be really special. It’s such a blessing.”