Keith Haberman should be a household name in Butte and Montana.
When he walks down the street, people should say, “There goes Keith Haberman, the toughest wrestler who ever lived.”
As Haberman stood on the stage and accepted praise from his former coach, Jim Street, during Saturday’s Butte Sports Hall of Fame induction banquet, it was clear that no Butte High Bulldog has ever earned more respect from the legendary coach.
After telling a tale of heroics from Haberman to illustrate the character of his entire roster of wrestlers during the 1989-90 season, Street interrupted himself multiple times as he introduced team members.
It was almost as if Street himself could not believe the story.
Haberman, you see, is the Ted Williams of the Bulldog wrestling dynasty.
And then some.
Williams, of course, was the “Splendid Splinter.” He was the sweet-swinging left fielder for the Boston Red Sox.
He once said that he wanted to be so good that people would see him on the street and say, “There goes Ted Williams, the greatest hitter who ever lived.”
In 1941, “Teddy Ballgame” could have taken the easy way out to hit .400. Taking the easy way out, however, was not the style of Williams
This was, after all, a man who missed chunks of his career to fly fighter planes in World War II and the Korean War.
Williams entered the last day of the 1941 season batting .39955. That would have rounded up to an even .400, which would be the first time someone hit .400 or better since Bill Terry of the New York Giants hit .401 in 1930.
The Red Sox had to play a doubleheader in Philadelphia against the Athletics. The twin bill did not matter in the standings for two teams playing out the string.
So, simply by taking a seat in the dugout, Williams would have carved his name in baseball history. Nobody would have faulted Williams for taking a pass on two meaningless games.
Instead, Williams played both games of the doubleheader. He went 6 for 8 and improved his batting average to .40570.
That rounds up to a nice .406 average. That is a number that has been celebrated in Boston and all of baseball ever since, and nobody has hit even .39955 in the 78 years since “The Kid” called bravo sierra on the idea of taking the easy way out.
Fast forward to 1988. That is when Street first saw Haberman in the hallways of Butte High. He was wearing a white T-shirt.
“He looked like the Fonz in a way because he had it rolled up,” Street said. “And he had a pretty good sized arm. I thought, ‘He looks like a wrestler.’ I said, ‘Hey, you, come here.’”
Street learned the Haberman was a sophomore who was new to town. He wrestled for Billings West during his freshman season.
“I said, what was your record?’’ Street remembered. “He said, ‘17 and 1.’ I said, ‘You won 17 matches varsity last year?’ He said, ‘No, I won one.’”
Street still liked what he saw, telling the young Haberman about the upcoming workouts to get ready for the 1988-89 season.
“I said, ‘We’re going to change that record. We’re not going to have a 1-17,’” the coach said. He was right.
One season after finishing 1-17, Haberman placed second at 152 pounds at the state meet, helping Butte High win its 10th straight state title.
The next year, Haberman made Louden Swain look like a real pansy.
Two weeks before the state meet in February of 1990, Haberman suffered a broken jaw.
That horrific injury kept him out of the Bulldog lineup for all of zero days. He just wrestled with a facemask.
He wrestled like that all the way to the 152-pound state championship match, where he was set to face a wrestler he was 0-3 against on the season.
Not 3-0. He was 0-3, and it was not even close to 1-2. Haberman lost by pin, technical fall and major decision.
With 6,300 fans looking on at the Billings Metra, Haberman’s opponent was called for an illegal move, and Haberman’s jaw was hurting.
“The kid reaches back, grabs his chin,” Street said before demonstrating the move that appeared to be an intentional dirty shot meant to aggravate Haberman’s injury. “Illegal neck wrench.”
The official was right on top of it, and an injury delay followed.
“He said, ‘I’m OK, I’m OK,” Street said, talking through clenched teeth to the Civic Center crowd. “He wasn’t even opening his mouth. He’s holding his teeth together.”
That is when Haberman made his Ted Williams choice.
Had he not been able to wrestle, Haberman would have been awarded a victory by injury default because his opponent injured him with an illegal move.
So, he could have walked off the mat, and that injury default would have rounded up to a state championship.
Haberman, like his coach, was not the kind of guy to round up.
“I said, Keith, here’s the deal,’” Street said. “’You were injured with an illegal hold. If you cannot wrestle, you’ll win by an injury default, and it will be pin points. If you can wrestle, I want you to wrestle. If you wrestle, you darn well better beat him.”
Coach Street then stepped to the side of the podium to demonstrate Haberman’s response through clenched teeth.
“He says, ‘I’ll wrestle.’”
Haberman went back on the mat and won the match 13-8, and the Bulldogs won their record 11th straight state title. Butte High beat Billings Skyview by five and a half points.
“He kicked his tail,” Street said proudly.
Street did not tell the story so Haberman would become a household name in Butte, or even just among the 350 or so people in attendance.
“The reason I mention that one man, Keith Haberman, is that I had a whole room full of people who would have done the same thing,” Street said.
Nobody would question that. The 1989-90 Bulldogs — and all of Street’s Bulldogs — were filled with tough wrestlers.
However, only one person stood on that Metra mat and made that gutsy call with his broken jaw seething in pain.
Haberman, who came to town from Olympia, Washington, for the ceremony, started again to walk across the stage, and Street motioned for him to stop one more time.
The coach had something else to say. Haberman was one month too old to wrestle in Montana as a senior, Street said. So, the young man helped coach the team that went on to win Butte High’s 12th straight title in 1991.
Finally, Street let Haberman finish his walk across the stage. He got half a hug from his coach, grabbed his plaque, and walked into the night.
There went Keith Haberman, the toughest wrestler who ever lived.
— Bill Foley, who is perfectly fine with rounding up, writes a column that appears Tuesdays on ButteSports.com. Email him at email@example.com. Follow him at twitter.com/Foles74.