Imagine a 264-pound panther with the grip of a power wrench, a chess master's cunning and the smash-mouth instincts of a middle linebacker. Imagine him in a green U.S. Army uniform. Put it all together, and you've got Dremiel Byers -- the best heavyweight Greco-Roman wrestler on the planet.
Never heard of him? That's because the best-known Greco-Roman heavyweight in this country is Rulon Gardner, the playful Wyoming farmboy who shocked the wrestling world at the 2000 Summer Olympics when he beat the great Russian Alexandre Kareline. Kareline had collected nine World Championships and three straight Olympic golds prior to the Sydney Games and hadn't lost a match to anyone in thirteen years. Gardner's win was instantly compared to the U.S. hockey team's stunning upset of the USSR in 1980. Juan Antonio Samaranch, International Olympic Committee president in 2000, had personally shown up to give Kareline his inevitable fourth gold: When Gardner prevailed, Samaranch looked as startled as if Kristi Yamaguchi had just decked Lennox Lewis.
Now there's a new star on the mat. Well, not new, exactly, but new to us. In September, Dremiel Byers went to the Greco-Roman World Championships in Moscow as a huge long shot and threw the best international heavyweights around like rag dolls. Not even picked by his own coaches to finish in the top ten, he defeated wrestlers from China, Belarus, Israel and Greece before scoring a 3-0 victory over Hungary's Mihaly Deak-Bardos to win the gold medal. Granted, Kareline was not in Moscow -- he announced his retirement after the Olympic loss to Gardner. And Gardner himself was on the shelf after a bizarre snowmobile accident last February, when one of his frostbitten toes had to be amputated. Still, Byers's win made waves. With Gardner still on the mend, Byers is now the favorite to become America's heavyweight at the 2004 Olympics in Athens.
He intends to get there. He means to win it all. And for reasons straight out of a storybook.
"That's the goal. The Olympic gold," he says. "The win at the Worlds reinforces what people have been telling me -- that I'm a heavyweight who can walk with the rest of them. But I really want the Olympic gold medal. It's something I have to do. I dream about it. My ex-wife used to say I would 'bridge up' in my sleep before rolling over. That I would argue with officials in my sleep. That comes from eating, breathing and sleeping wrestling."
Byers grew up poor in Kings Mountain, North Carolina, 35 miles west of Charlotte. He wrestled and played football for his small high school -- with only nineteen team members, he was an "Iron Man" who played both offense and defense -- then landed a football scholarship at North Carolina A&T, in Greeensboro. But in 1994, at the age of twenty, he dropped out to join the Army and help his mother financially. Most of the Byers men have served in the military -- notably Dremiel's grandfather, Theodore, who's his mentor and his role model, the man he calls Pop. For the big kid from Kings Mountain, the Army was a perfect fit, and when the Army got a look at his athletic skills, they put him into their World Class Athlete Program. Sent for coaching to Fort Benning, Georgia, Byers soon became the Army's best Greco-Roman heavyweight. Two years earlier, he had never heard of the sport. "I had only wrestled freestyle till then," he explains. "But the transition wasn't hard. In Greco, you cannot use your legs, so it's more technical, and there are more throws. Who doesn't like to throw somebody?"
Especially if you weigh 264 pounds -- 120 kilograms in metric parlance -- have a forty-inch waist, wear a size-56 suit jacket but move like a much smaller man. Byers is built like a man who could throw a tank over the Lincoln Memorial, but he steals all his moves from little guys, because those moves work for him. Like one of his heroes, Muhammad Ali, he's a big guy with uncommon speed -- and that could be bad news come 2004 for the lumbering Russians who have dominated Greco-Roman for more than a century. And for the fast-developing Cubans.
In 1997, Byers made the USA Wrestling Team, headquartered in Colorado Springs, and the Army transferred him to nearby Fort Carson, where he doubles as a supply sergeant and triples as a recruiter at youth clubs and high schools. "I let them know the Army's more than just beans and bullets," he says. "It's a stepping stone, as it has been for me. Right now my job is to win matches and medals; with all those guys who are going to be in foxholes, that's the least I can do -- win for them."
And for Pop. It is as much for Theodore Byers, his grandfather, as for himself, that Dremiel runs two and a half miles each morning, trains three or four hours on the mat and endlessly studies videotapes. "I promised my grandfather the gold medal, and I plan on getting it for him. I don't care how long it takes. After the 2000 trials (which Gardner won), the beauty of having an Olympic quest died. Now it's my Olympic obsession. Something that has to happen."
The obstacles to his dream are formidable. The U.S. Greco-Roman team (fourth at the Worlds) is deeper than ever -- but especially the heavyweights. Corey Farkas, Billy Pierce and Matt Lamb are all capable of qualifying for the one available U.S. Olympic spot at heavyweight, and Gardner's comeback after surgery now has him at 75 to 80 percent strength. The Russians have a new star in Youri Patreekov (whom Byers did not face in Moscow), and it would surprise no one if the biggest star of all -- Alexandre Kareline -- re-emerges for the 2004 Games. Byers calls Gardner a generous guy who's tirelessly helped him scout opponents, and a "friend," at least "until the whistle blows and we handle our business accordingly." He also says their goal is the same. "He and I share this: It doesn't matter who gets it done as long as America gets it done." The bigger shadow, Byers says, belongs to Kareline. "I would love it if he came back. I was one match away from him in 1999, and he retired in 2000. He's the one I would like to go for."
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For now, it's tough to compete with Gardner's glowing public image. The easygoing Wyoming hero turns deft cartwheels in stadiums everywhere, carries his severed toe in a jar of formaldehyde for anyone who wants to see it and generally charms fans. But Byers's modest grace, and his Army uniform, are sure to be assets in today's political climate. Meanwhile, there's a chance no one will get a shot at Greco-Roman glory after 2004. The International Olympic Committee, a body long known more for its susceptibility to graft than for its wisdom, plans to eliminate up to four sports from the 2008 Beijing Games -- and Greco-Roman looks like one of the targets. The ironies are rich: An American wrestler provided the greatest upset of the 2000 Games, so losing the formerly obscure sport would hurt here. Meanwhile, the rest of the world knows that Greco-Roman -- as its antique name suggests -- has been part of the Olympics at least since 776 B.C. The Greek mathematician Pythagoras was a grappler, as was the fifth-century lyric poet Pindar -- although they had nothing on Milon of Crotona, who won the ancient Olympics six times. Dropping Greco-Roman would be a little like nixing the 200-meter dash. "Talk about basic sports," observes John Fuller, a spokesman for USA Wrestling. "Cavemen could either run away from bears, or wrestle them. If you wanted to survive, you could either be a track star or a wrestler. Those were the options. Do we want to lose that?"
Dremiel Byers doesn't. He pledges to wrestle until he's 49 -- a year longer than the legendary Marine Corps great Greg Gibson -- and if it means switching back to freestyle, he might do it. He wants the Olympic gold for his grandfather, simple as that. After he gets it, he says, he'll stop traveling and take his shot at the American Dream -- make staff sergeant, get married again, have kids, go back to school, "so I'll have something to put on the wall besides a medal." He also wants "a really, really big truck." Watch him grab it up and carry it home in his bare hands, like a chunk of pot roast.
But all that's in the future. For now, Byers remembers a recent day when a gaggle of schoolkids touring the U.S. Olympic Training Center were gawking at his sheer bulk and one of them piped up: "That's the guy who wants to take Rulon's Gold medal away." Byers shakes his head and smiles. "No, no," he said. "That's not it. I'm gonna get my own gold. If it's the last thing I do."