When Chip takes the mat for Hilton Head High, everyone wins

January 23, 2011 

Chip Mullen makes his way to the scorer's table in his unique manner, navigating the path in a side-step sprint so he can wave his arms to pump up the crowd along the way.

"My turn," he yells at the scorekeeper, before bolting to the center of the mat.

He doesn't need to introduce himself; everyone knows Chip.

This is only an exhibition match -- it doesn't count toward the 42-24 team score by which Hilton Head High has just beaten Battery Creek High School to clinch its fourth region title in five years -- yet there is more energy in the Seahawks' gymnasium at this moment than at any other point during the night.

The crowd goes wild for Chip's matches, because it knows what to expect -- high school wrestling with a dash of WWE flair and a heap of happy thoughts.

Chip was born with Down syndrome. His intellectual ability and some of his physical traits were affected. His zest for life was not.

Chip has found a niche within Hilton Head High's athletics programs -- he's on the football and wrestling teams -- and he has made his mark, even though his playing time on the football field is limited to a play here or there after the outcome is decided and he has never won a wrestling match that counted.

"Our kids have learned a lot by having him around every day," Hilton Head High coach Mike Newton says. "I've learned a lot from him."

When Chip joined the wrestling team two years ago, he had a tendency to talk when Newton was talking and ignore instructions. Now he practices diligently -- "It's amazing how you've got kids who look for reasons to miss practice, and then you've got someone who doesn't have the same physical ability as those guys who's there every single day," Newton says -- and it shows during his matches. The execution is still a bit off, but it's clear Chip knows how to shoot a double-leg and has developed quite an array of finishing moves.

As Newton has reached out to opposing coaches to arrange exhibition matches for Chip, the effect Chip has on those around him has spread to the other side of the mat.

Effingham County (Ga.) coach Nico Guggino was so enamored with Chip earlier this year that he arranged several matches for him at the Rebels' tournament, then awarded Chip with a medal after the meet.

While fighting back tears at the Seahawks Duals last month, Guggino had this to say: "Kids like Chip were put here to make the rest of us better people."

It takes a special kind of kid to make the perfect opponent for Chip -- one willing to swallow his pride and help the Seahawks' inspirational leader put on the show his fans want to see.

On this night, his opponent is Dolphins' junior Joey Kasper-Little, hand-picked by Battery Creek coach Kyle Kimrey because of his patient demeanor.

"It builds character for whoever does it, because it's humbling and they get to go out there and do something special for someone else," Kimrey says. "It's a sacrifice, and it's very unselfish on Joey's part. Not everybody would want to go out there and get their butt beat."

Kasper-Little plays the part perfectly. He puts up a fight but proves to be no match for Chip, who racks up a big lead before scoring a third-period pin.

"When he got a grip, it was good; it was tight," Kasper-Little says. "He was ready. He was raring to go.

"It was an awesome experience."

As it turns out, Kasper-Little was part of the night's two most exciting matches. He pulled out an 11-9 overtime victory against Richard Jenkins earlier, leaping in jubilation after the winning takedown.

He walked off the mat the second time, after a loss, feeling just as much pride.

"They both felt pretty good," Kasper-Little says, "but I think it felt better when Chip won."

It's a sentiment everyone in the gym feels as that infectious smile spreads across Chip's face when the referee raises his hand, and he runs back to the Seahawks' side of the mat, receiving a hero's welcome from his teammates.

When Chip is happy, it's hard not to share in the moment.

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