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Grossman's training talents took him around the world

By Jim Gordillo 812-331-4381 | STAFF Jim Gordillo , 12/14/17, 8:30AM EST


The hotel was beautiful, everything seemingly made of shiny marble.

The food was great. The people there wonderful. Still, Bloomington’s Dave Grossman and his traveling companions were a bit nervous.

It was 2013, and relations between America and Iran were tense as ever. But it had been determined that the safety of the United States’ wrestling team could be ensured, so Grossman, the team trainer, had come along this time, too.

They left the security of the grand hotel in Tehran for a long bus ride out of the city. Finally, they turned off the main road and onto the long driveway that led to the Azadi Sport Complex, where they were to compete in front of 12,000 rabid wrestling fans.

In the distance, the team could see a large crowd, 300 people or so Grossman estimated, gathered outside the building. The lone security guard on the bus was as unsure as everyone else what sort of greeting was in store for them. And who knew what they’d have to say to Jordan Burroughs, who had beaten Iranian wrestler Sadegh Goudarzi in the 163-pound freestyle gold medal final at the 2012 Olympics.

“The closer we got, we could hear them chanting,” Grossman said.

Their ears, once straining to hear the words, could hear them clearly now: “U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!” The crowd pressed forward, and chants of “Jordan! Jordan! Jordan!” rose above the din, as well. The security guard gave the OK, and the bus door opened.

“They were so excited to see us,” Grossman said. “They were patting … Not patting us, slapping us on the back, wanting to shake hands. I was going around to the side of the bus to get my medical supplies and some little, old man took my hand in both of his.

“He looked me in the eye and goes, ‘I never thought I’d meet an American in my lifetime.’”

Training regimen

On the other hand, the awestruck gentleman was not the first Iranian Grossman had run into. Beginning in 1992, Grossman has been selected as USA Wrestling’s official team trainer for more than 40 international-level tournaments, including more than 20 World Championship/World Cup events. The list now includes this year’s Junior Worlds, which are taking place this week in Tampere, Finland.

And those travels have generated countless unforgettable stories — funny, inspiring, scary — for Grossman to share.

In between his world travels, Grossman, 68, is the full-time trainer at Bloomington South, wrapping up ankles with the skill of a man who has worked at several major universities and a pair of Major League Baseball teams during his long career.

Grossman, a wrestler himself at Bloomington High School in the mid-1960s, is especially attuned to the sport of wrestling and the injuries it is likely to produce. Most importantly, he knows the speed and accuracy at which a diagnosis, treatment and the decision to continue the match need to be made.

There are few the U.S. Olympic Committee counts on like Grossman to take care of its top wrestlers.

“When the committee looks at trainers, the pool, it’s huge,” said Cody Bickley, high performance manager for USA Wrestling. “There are maybe 10 total that we would consider seriously.”

And with good reason. Grossman has experience making-do, of improvising in environments outside the U.S. where, say, ice may not be available.

“When you start talking about what the value of a guy like Dave is, when we are at a world event, you’re talking about the very elite,” Bickley said. “So when the committee chooses someone, they don’t want a rookie on that trip.

“A guy like Dave not only has experience, but he understands the problems going into a situation beforehand, where he’s going to have to get creative with things.”

Even if it means packing his own toilet paper.

Beginning of a career

Coming up with answers on the fly is nothing new for Grossman now, considering how much practice he’s had since the 1970s, when sports medicine was in its infancy as a specialized discipline. His athletic background helped, however, when he found his calling.

Grossman wrestled under Kay Hutsell and was part of an extended athletic family that included first cousins Dobby, Dan and Jill Grossman, whose father Rex was brother to Dave’s dad, Rin.

At IU, Grossman changed majors a couple of times. Nothing was sticking. Until one day during a shift at the former University Sporting Goods downtown, a customer came in and the two chatted.

“I asked him what he was studying and he said, ‘Athletic training,’” Grossman said. “I said, ‘What’s that?’ He told me about it and it really piqued my interest.”

He was accepted into the IU program and began working with football coach Lee Corso and wrestling coach Doug Blubaugh. Grossman worked with the wrestling program for three years, and that’s where his connections with USA Wrestling took root.

In 1975, IU hosted the AAU national wrestling tournament, which brought nearly a thousand competitors to Bloomington. IU’s head trainer was the basketball trainer and, “he wanted nothing to do with it,” Grossman said. “He said, 'Grossman, you’re working wrestling, you take care of it.'”

Grossman knew he was going to need help and turned to several of his college buddies who were then athletic trainers at Ball State, Purdue, Ohio State and Northwestern. They stayed at his apartment with IU chipping in money for food. It is a now recognizable group that includes Pepper Burris, the Green Bay Packers’ trainer for the last 25 years and Tim Garl, IU men’s basketball trainer for 37 years.

“We were tight then, and we still are,” Grossman said.

What Grossman did not realize at the time was that the AAU tournament was a qualifier for the World Cup team, and those who made the squad stayed behind for a 10-day training session at Blubaugh’s wrestling camp. Grossman was asked to be the trainer for that, then the World Cup itself in Toledo, Ohio. He was still just a junior.

After grad school at Arizona, he ended up at Northwestern, where he worked with basketball coaches Tex Winters (inventor of the triangle offense that Phil Jackson’s Chicago Bulls would make famous) and Rich Falk and wrestling coach Ken Craft. Then it was off to Duke’s football and baseball programs, the baseball team led by former St. Louis Cardinal Enos Slaughter. He also spent some time around the men’s basketball program and its young, unknown head coach, Mike Krzyzewski.

William & Mary was Grossman’s next stop before he was called up to the big leagues in 1982, by the Chicago White Sox, who wanted him to work with their AAA farm team, as well as at their spring training site.

“I said no to the White Sox in October,” Grossman said. “I said no in November, no in December, no in January, but finally said yes to them in February, just in time to report to spring training.”

For the next four years, he was not only the team’s trainer and rehab specialist, he was also assigned the duties of “traveling secretary” as Grossman put it. That meant making sure each spring training trip for Tony LaRussa’s squad included the proper uniforms, bats and balls were packed up and that all traveling arrangements, from hotels to flights to per diem meal money, were in order.

Meanwhile, the Cubs and new general manager Dallas Green took interest in Grossman and recruited him to come work on the Northside.

“In my efforts to present better health care to my athletes with the Sox, I inadvertently improved it for all the teams in the White Sox system,” Grossman said. “Dallas had somehow heard about those improvements and asked me to consider coming to the Cubs and doing the same thing.”

The pitch worked and Grossman spent four years with the Cubs. But 50 weeks a year away from home was too much. In 1989, he was hired as a trainer with Arizona State’s baseball program, giving him and his family a chance to be together more often.

Then basketball coach Bill Freider gained Grossman’s services when the baseball coach passed away, as did a young golfer who came in with a knee problem. Grossman evaluated it, came up with a plan of treatment that sent the young man on the road to quick recovery. The golfer offered to help Grossman with his golf game.

“I said thanks, but no thanks,” Grossman said. “I’m not interested in my golf game or it getting any better. It was Phil Mickelson. And I turned him down. Ugh.”

Wrestling and the world

But it was while at ASU that his work with USA Wrestling really took off.

In 1992, Grossman was in the athletic training room when he heard the moans of an injured wrestler in the practice room across the hall. The athlete, who had a dislocated shoulder, insisted he didn’t need help at first, but eventually let Grossman treat it.

A couple weeks later, the same wrestler dislocated his other shoulder and came to Grossman straight away. After successfully reducing that shoulder injury as well, the wrestler noted that they were training to go to the World Championships in Villeurbane, France. They needed a trainer.

Would he be interested? He was, many times over.

The next year, it was Stavern, Norway. Then Sofia, Bulgaria. Moscow. France again. Poland. Australia. Sweden. Ukraine. Slovakia.

“Back then they only wrestled in eight tournaments a year, and they asked me to do four of them,” Grossman said. “USA Wrestling has a pool of 5,000 trainers and the other 4,999 got to split the other four.

“I assume they liked the way I did it. And it’s gratifying to know that the Olympic committee, the ones who make the decision, have recognized my athletic training and continue to ask me to work with their top guys. They keep asking, and I keep going.”

And it is usually some kind of adventure, from the lack of ice and toilet paper to rioting mobs angry at the United States.

That trip to Iran ended quietly with the team meeting with then-Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the locker room.

“I got to shake his hand,” Grossman said. “I nodded. He nodded. Kind of cool.”

Grossman, less so today, often surprisingly finds himself as the lone trainer, or one of the very few, at international meets. And without a word spoken due to language barriers, he has been called upon by foreign athletes to treat them or simply wrap an ankle or a wrist. And he has always been willing, as long as the wrestler is not lined up against an American.

His ability to cope with any situation, and quickly, given the limited amount of injury time a wrestler is given, is why Grossman draws the plum assignments.

“When we take Dave on a trip, he takes care of business,” Bickley said.

And sometimes, those he helps take care of him.

At the ‘92 World Championships, a German wrestler had dislocated his shoulder. Grossman volunteered to take a look at it while talking to a German assistant coach who knew decent English. He patched the wrestler up and he went on to compete further in the tournament.

“The coach came up to me, and said the world championships are in Norway next year,” Grossman said, noting he sounded like Arnold Schwartzenegger. “He says, ‘I live in Bavaria. We brew 14 different kinds of beer. I’m going to bring the beer and you and I are going to drink next year.”

Next winter, Grossman arrived in Norway, and the coach came through on his promise, sharing his bottles of warm, dark beer.

The people Grossman have gotten to know are special to him, and so are the places he’s been.

Ask him his favorite destination and there’s no hesitation: Budapest, Hungary, with the Danube River splitting the historic city and its picturesque architecture. Vienna is a close second.

Least favorite? That one goes to Siberia and the minus-40 degree weather that greeted the team in the dead of winter. He has scratched that tournament off his list for good.

Then there was the trip to Belgrade, Serbia, in 2008.

The great escape

For a number of years, the U.S. wrestling team had gone to compete in Serbia, then bused its way to Hungary for another meet on the same trip.

But that year, Kosovo, a region of Serbia, had declared its independence, and the U.S. had backed their efforts. It didn’t make the Serbs happy.

“I’m at JFK (airport in New York), ready to fly over, and I get a call,” Grossman said. “‘There’s going to be a demonstration on Wednesday morning.’ This was Sunday. ‘We think there will be about 10,000 or so, so it might get a little rowdy.’ They likened it to soccer hooligans.

“So they decided to change our hotel to something more nondescript, to help us lay low.”

The team got a police escort from its hotel to the massive facility that housed many of Serbia’s sports teams. “A bigger footprint than South,” Grossman said. On the way, the escort and bus pulled over and for the next half-hour, bus after bus of demonstrators sped by in the other direction, people hanging out windows and flags blowing in the breeze.

Turned out the demonstration would draw half a million people. The U.S. and other embassies were attacked and set on fire. All of the American diplomats made it out safely, but one demonstrator was caught inside the American embassy and died.

Then many caught wind of where the American wrestlers were, and they surrounded the facility by the thousands, holding hands and forming a barricade. It took military personnel to bust through and rescue the team, delivering them back to their hotel.

“We were close enough to it you could hear gunfire,” Grossman said. “You could see the smoke from the fires. It’s a little unnerving, when you don’t know what’s going on. … We were told something was going to happen, so have our stuff packed and be ready to go.”

“It was just like a movie,” Grossman added, hardly exaggerating.

In the middle of the night, three Serbian military squads in armored assault vehicles arrived to whisk them away. The team was crammed in and a trip that normally took four hours would take 11 tense hours instead, as the escort stopped at every crossroad to make sure it was safe to continue.

“That shouldn’t happen in sports,” Grossman said.

Wrapping up a career

Things were all quiet in the South training room on a warm summer evening as off-season activities took place on campus. Only the startling rattle of the ice maker dumping its last batch into the bin broke the silence of a nearly empty school.

Outside of a stint in 2014, when he took a six-month sabbatical from wrestling trips after getting deathly ill (pneumonia that exasperated congestive heart failure and kidney failure), this is where Grossman has spent most of his time between his unpaid adventures.

He works for IU Health, taking care of South’s athletes. He came back home at the urging of principal Mark Fletcher in 2008.

Grossman had been working in Utica, N.Y., helping a private sports medicine clinic sell its services to several high schools and small colleges and two pro teams in the area. South hadn’t had a full-time trainer in 20 years. Grossman had an ailing mother he wanted to be near, so he renewed his teaching certificate and came home.

“Dave travels with our teams and he takes care of the kids,” said South assistant wrestling coach Royce Deckard, a former teammate of Grossman’s who was the head coach when he came back. “He shows up at tournaments. He knows injuries. He knows when a kid is tanking.

“He watches out for our kids and has been a great asset to our team. Plus, he’s a good person, somebody you want working around your kids.”

Grossman knows injuries. He knows his kids so that in mere seconds, he can tell if a kid is “off,” a sign of a possible concussion that only a more thorough battery of tests can determine. He also knows wrestling.

“When I have a kid down on the mat, if he doesn’t have a bone sticking out, nothing’s deformed and he’s not bleeding, I encourage them to get up and wrestle,” Grossman said. “Wrestlers are a different breed anyway, but I’m not going to put anybody at risk.

“If nothing is obvious, I just get down in their ear, where nobody else can hear, and telling them I can’t perform magic, so if you’re going to wrestle, you have to decide we’re going to do that. And we gotta do that right now.”

It’s a bit tougher now to become a trainer, with more specialized classroom work required, and professionals now in charge of collegiate sports training programs. But experience can only come in the field.

“It’s not a job to him,” Deckard said. “It’s a passion. When we get up at 5 in the morning to go to Evansville, he’s right there going with us. Not too many trainers are willing to do that sort of thing.”

Grossman returned from Finland just before school started, with a team grateful to have him around, and probably another tale to share.

“He always has a story,” Deckard said. “He’s seen pretty much everything you’re going to see.”