The essence of any sport can be determined by the number of people who play for the fun of it. Backyard football and baseball games abound. Courses overflow with golfers. Teens gather on the ski slopes to see who can one-up the other. Most sports open their arms to casual participation.
Wrestling is different. No one says, "Meet you at the park at noon. Best two out of three falls." No one dabbles in wrestling. And what that says is that wrestling's as tough a sport as there is, one that demands and tolerates nothing less than complete and unwavering commitment.
It's no wonder then, looking at his lifetime of achievement, that Robert Rich Sr. held wrestling in the highest esteem. Granted, Rich, who died Wednesday at 92, adored his football, too. He was a center, naturally, the man in the middle of the trenches, while playing at Bennett and the University of Buffalo (a Main Street education, as he called it).
There was an unmistakable pride in his voice whenever he spoke of how the decades never seemed to dull the chill in his hands after the Harvard Cup championship game played on a frosty November day. It was as if the obstacles had enhanced the value of the game itself, made the memory all the more special.
Football, squash, golf, Rich took to them all with an impassioned ferocity. But in his eyes nothing could quite measure up to wrestling and its fundamental challenges: one against one, every match a test of strength and smarts and cunning.
"He considered wrestling the toughest sport because it combined the mind and the body," said Mike Billoni, who authored the biography, "Robert E. Rich: Memoirs of an Innovator," in 2000. "He said he had to think how he was going to get an edge over the guy he was facing. And in business it was the same, how could he get that edge?"
UB was without wrestling when Rich enrolled at the school, a void he soon found unacceptable. He approached the administration for seed money and launched a program in 1934. The following year, he doubled as coach. A tradition had been launched, one that flourishes to this day.
"I think it was like $100, $150 they gave him to start the program," said Jim Beichner, UB's 11th-year wrestling coach. "He convinced them it would be worthwhile. We consider him the father of the UB wrestling program."
Wrestling instills discipline and resiliency, determination and belief, attributes that came into play as Rich built Rich Products Corp. from modest beginnings into the country's largest privately held frozen foods company. His success spilled back to UB sports as he became the school's most generous benefactor, helping to fuel its athletic growth while, of no less importance, keeping tabs on its progress.
"He stayed up with the wrestling program, he followed our guys," Beichner said. "He knew their names. He knew what they had done throughout the years, which impressed me because when I first met him I really didn't know how up to date he would be. But he would say, 'Oh yeah, how's Kyle Cerminara doing? He looks like he's doing very well.' "
Rich's fingerprints are all over the Western New York sports scene. The Harvard Cup's Most Valuable Player award is named in his honor. So is the award UB presents to its outstanding wrestler. He was past chairman of the Buffalo Bisons, understood that athletics can play a significant role in a life, a school, a community. That's why he was quick to organize area business people and ease UB's financial transition into Division I.
Rich was inducted into the UB athletics Hall of Fame in 1966, the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame in 1991. They're both lasting tributes to a man who was but a child when he walked into the local YMCA eager to learn how to wrestle.