By: Tom Rowe
Editor’s Note: Today’s article on Don Manley is the third in a series of profiles on this year’s Norwich Sports Hall of Fame induction class. The fourth annual induction ceremony is scheduled for Saturday, May 3 at Canasawacta Country Club. Reservations forms are available at the Norwich Middle School or may be downloaded from the school website at www.norwichcsd.org. All checks and reservations should be sent to: Tom Rowe, 22 Hayes St Norwich, NY 13815.
Before the present-day World Wrestling Federation (WWF), there existed a horde of individuals who traveled the globe performing as “professional wrestlers.” Although the closest they came to wrestling was their sleight of hand in making the unsuspecting actually believe they were tolerating such grievous punishment, this band of canvas gypsies mesmerized little boys as well as most adults.
The likes of Gorgeous George, Gorilla Monsoon, Haystacks Calhoun, Yukon Eric, Verne Gagne, Killer Kowalski, Bobo Brazil, Bruno Sammartino, Dick the Bruiser and scores more were household names. They graced not only our infantile televisions, but the tabloids and even well-respected magazines such as “Life”, “Look” and “The Saturday Evening Post”. These modern-day P.T. Barnums were as much a stalwart of the 1950s as Ike (Eisenhower), Mickey (Mantle), Elvis (Presley) and Marilyn (Monroe), because they embodied the comic book heroes we loved – Superman, Batman, the Green Lantern, the Flash and many, many more of those masked and caped do-gooders. But, there was one problem – they were a big fat FAKE. Entertaining, maybe? But, no doubt a fake.
Locally, however, a young teenager by the name Don Manley was compiling real grappling records, testimonials that stand to this day. Manley, who graduated in 1957, began his wrestling career as an untested freshman in 1953 – just 22 years after Frank Giltner started the program in 1935. Over the next four seasons all Manley did was post a 67-2 record en route to four Iroquois League titles, three Section 3 crowns and an intersectional championship – the latter of which was equivalent to a state crown at the time. For those reasons, he has been chosen as a member of the fourth induction class of the Norwich High School Sports Hall of Fame.
Growing up on a small non-working farm at the top of Polkville Hill – near the Burdick-Medbury Road – Manley got his first taste of grappling fever by watching older brother Bruce compete. That older brother, by some six years, captured the 103-pound Section 3 title in 1949, so he was an excellent teacher.
“I used to watch him all the time,” recalled Manley. “So, along with my best buddy, Joe Binelli, we decided we were going to be wrestlers, too.”
Stoked by that wrestling fire, Manley and Binelli talked their elementary school gym teacher at East Main Street School into getting some mats. And, thus was born the start of a great career.
“There were no pee wee programs and such, so that’s how we got started,” said Manley. “By the time we got to junior high school, Coach (Sam) Elia let both of us practice with the big guys.”
That early determination to improve his skills and the day-to-day practices with the seasoned varsity did not go unnoticed in the Norwich community. One day prior to his first varsity match, “Norwich Sun” Sports Editor Bob Van Tine wrote a very prophetic column of the “freshman sensation” on the eve of the Purple’s showdown with Oneonta.
“Don is the brother of former ace Bruce Manley and has been an ardent mat follower since he was eight,” wrote Van Tine. “This interest should start paying dividends for him and for Norwich.”
So, on Saturday night, Dec. 5, 1953, Manley stepped onto the mats to meet the highly-rated Yellowjacket senior Roger Proulx in a 127-pound bout. In what was described as “the most exciting match of the evening,” Manley disposed of his Oneonta foe 12-5 for his initial taste of victory.
“I was scared to death, because I was up against a very good senior,” admitted Manley.