The University of Iowa's field house was the largest gym he had ever been in. The airplane ride from Portland to Iowa City made his days in military transport aircraft seem smooth in comparison. The competition in the cradle of wrestling's civilization was the best he had even seen. Needless to say, Chuck Petersen - who, on Saturday, will be inducted into the Pacific Athletic Hall of Fame - felt a little over his head as he prepared to wrestle at the 1959 NCAA Wrestling Championships.
'It was overwhelming for a kid coming from Pacific University in Forest Grove,' said Petersen, 70, who will be among six inductees to the Pacific Hall this weekend. 'It was the biggest field house that I had ever been in. It was full of people and matches were going on all over the mats.'
Petersen's experience at the national tournament was a short one as the then 22-year-old lost his first two matches, both to major college opponents. The losses were important, however, in starting what has become a string of national tournament appearances for the Boxers over the next five decades.
Petersen shouldn't have felt intimidated by the surroundings of the national tournament or the venue. He had to win on a big stage against the big boys just to earn the invitation. But the odds were stacked heavily against the Sherwood native from the beginning.
For starters, Pacific was far from the wrestling power it is now. The program, coached by George Tallchief, was only in its fourth season of existence. Up until the 1958-59 campaign, the Badgers (Pacific's mascot until 1968) had not even won a dual match. Fortunes seemed to be changing that season thanks to Petersen, 177-pounder Jack Smith and heavyweight Wade Doerfler.
Pacific had experimented with wrestling in the early 1950s, but the sport never caught on until Tallchief, a stout Native American, put effort into building a squad when he came to Pacific in 1955. Also the school's baseball coach and an assistant football coach, Tallchief was able to bring wrestlers in based on his relationships in his other programs. By 1958, Tallchief had built the team to 15 wrestlers.
While Tallchief was skilled in coaching his other disciplines, Petersen remembers that the head coach knew little about wrestling. Much of the technical coaching fell upon Smith, a former state champion from Newberg who doubled as the team's assistant coach.
What Tallchief could do, though, was promote the program to the community. Without that promotion, the program might have died a slow death and Pacific's wrestling tradition would never have blossomed.
'He put a lot of time into it,' Petersen said. 'We went to Kiwanis Club meetings and gave them demonstrations and stuff like that. He really promoted it around Forest Grove.'
While Tallchief hocked the program to the community, Petersen made the Badgers look good on the mat.
After two years in the Army, Petersen entered Pacific in 1956 and promptly won the first NAIA regional championship in 1957 as a heavyweight. He dropped down to 191 pounds the next season and raced past Portland State's Martin Larson to win his second NAIA crown.
In 1957, the NAIA had yet to create a national championship, so Petersen stayed home. He earned the invitation to the first small college championships in 1958, but finances prevented him - or any Badger for that matter - from making the trip to St. Paul, Minn.
Chances are that Petersen would have won it again in 1959, but there was no NAIA regional for him to compete in.
The only route to the national meet was to grapple against the big boys.
Petersen's quest began at no smaller venue than Gill Coliseum in Corvallis, where Petersen and Doerfer were two of seven grapplers from Northwest Conference schools to compete at the Pacific Coast Intercollegiate Wrestling Association (PCIWA) Championships, hosted by what was then the west coast's wrestling powerhouse.
The Beavers that season, under legendary coach Dale Thomas, went 12-0-0 in duals, easily captured the conference title and went on to finish 19th at the NCAA Championships. Portland State, behind their Hall of Fame coach, Howard Westcott, had built themselves into a small college power in just three years. The Vikings took second place and walked away with the meet's outstanding wrestler and the coach's award.
Needless to say, the chances for Petersen and the rest of the Northwest Conference's entries were stacked heavily against them.
The boys from Oregon State seemed sympathetic to Petersen's cause, adopting the Badger as one of their own and cheering him on. The reality was that the Beavers didn't give him much of a chance, even after he shut out Cal Poly's Lynn Dyche to win his preliminary match.
Pacific couldn't compete with the mighty Pacific Coast Conference, right?
'Everyone thought, 'Here's this kid from Pacific. He's not going to do any good,'' laughed Petersen, now a good 30 pounds over his 191-pound weight class of the day. 'So all of the Oregon State guys were giving me support, helping me and jacking me up.'
The tone from the Beavers, however, changed as Petersen continued to win.
He edged out UCLA's Alex Felix, 3-2, in the quarterfinals and posted a decisive 9-4 decision over Washington State's Gerner Ekstram in the semifinals. That set up a date in the finals with Ken Noteboom, the Beavers' entry in front of the home crowd.
So Pacific could compete with the Pacific Coast Conference, but he couldn't hold up against mighty Oregon State, right?
The meet had been held on three mats simultaneously until the finals. Now all eyes were on Petersen and the Beavers' favorite.
The men in orange who had backed Petersen early in the tournament turned on him now.
The masses railed for Noteboom, sure he would chalk up OSU's fourth championship of the night.
But Oregon State's energy had done nothing but pumped up the Pacific wrestler for the final. Petersen needed all three rounds, all seven minutes to do it, but he beat the big boy.
Noteboom succumbed to a hard fought 3-2 victory.
Petersen became Pacific's first regional wrestling champion. His trip to the national meet at the University of Iowa was secured.
WEST MEETS EAST
Just to make it back east, however, would require some help from the major powers who didn't put much stock into Pacific's chances to begin with.
Pacific did not have much money for athletics, and travel money for a sport like wrestling was non-existent. Just traveling to local dual meets and tournaments was an adventure, with the team piling into Coach Tallchief's red Pontiac station wagon.
'We went back with Portland State,' Petersen said. '(PSU coach) Howard Westcott was a good friend of George's. George couldn't go because of the money, so he asked Westcott if he would take us with them and watch over everything.'
Tallchief made sure that Petersen wasn't alone back in Iowa. Doerfler, the Badgers' heavyweight, also earned an invitation and made the trip east, despite having lost his preliminary round heavyweight match in the Pacific Coast tournament.
How Doerfler qualified for nationals, Petersen admits, he will never know.
The flight was its own adventure as the team scraped cornfields in a number of turbo-prop planes. No problem for Petersen, who had seen his fair share of air flight after his two years in Germany with the Army.
The intimidation set in upon entering the cavernous Iowa field house, where the Hawkeyes had already built a strong tradition in wrestling. Then the brackets were announced. Petersen, the small college kid from Pacific, appeared headed for a meeting with No. 1 seed Tim Woodin of Michigan State in the first round.
Petersen found out that Woodin had been the Big 10 champion in the heavyweight class and dropped to 191 pounds for the NCAAs.
'That set me back a ways,' Petersen said of hearing the news on Woodin. 'He psyched me out to start with when he dropped down from the Big 10. I figured, 'What chance do I have?''
Despite the seedings, Petersen experienced a brief stroke of luck. Woodin was forced to wrestle a preliminary match. He dispatched Oklahoma's David Campbell with a 2:58 pin, setting up the inevitable meeting with Petersen.
For perhaps the first time in his collegiate career, Petersen found himself simply outmatched. The Spartan dragged the Badger across the mat for four minutes, before finally finishing him off with a second round pin.
Woodin proved to be a steamroller. He went on to the 191-pound final, losing a 9-5 decision to Art Baker of Syracuse. Woodin went 4-1 at nationals, winning three of his matches by pin. Petersen dropped to the consolation bracket and faced Woodin's first opponent, Oklahoma's Campbell.
Campbell kept the upper hand in a close match and Petersen's chance to become Pacific's first national champion, their first All-American, was zeroed in just two matches.
To this day, the sting of Petersen's 3-1 loss to Campbell still hurts.
'I almost beat the guy,' Petersen said. 'That's what really makes me mad when I think back on it. I was ahead of him and then I lost the match.'
Petersen never had another chance to make good for that close loss. Once again in 1960, Pacific did not compete at the NAIA regional. Petersen went to the Pacific Coast Tournament that year, but for the first time failed to win his bracket, placing third at 191 pounds.
THE FIRST, BUT
NOT THE LAST
Petersen's Pacific Coast championships and his trip to the NCAA Championships were firsts for Pacific and its toddling wrestling program. They are firsts that Petersen was not certain would ever be repeated.
'I never thought it would turn into the program it has,' said Petersen, who is now retired in Tillamook after a long career teaching and coaching at Tillamook, Sherwood and Jefferson High Schools.
Pacific wrestling lingered in relative obscurity after Petersen's departure for Tillamook in 1960 until the arrival of coach Mike Clock in 1968. Clock wrestled at Lewis and Clark during Petersen's era, and has since led the Boxers to 16 straight Northwest Conference championships and multiple NAIA National Tournament appearances.
Not long after Petersen's trip to Iowa, the major colleges and small colleges separated into their own tournaments, and Pacific's fortunes were tied into the NAIA's national championship. Jim Herold did under Clock what Petersen didn't do under Tallchief, becoming the Boxers' first wrestling All-American in 1972.
Petersen gives Tallchief a lot of credit, though, for keeping the program alive. Tallchief left Pacific in 1964 for Eastern Oregon University in La Grande. He later returned to his native Oklahoma where he recently retired as chairman of the Osage Nation.
Pacific would not return to an NCAA tournament until joining the Division III ranks for the 1998-99 season. That year, Titus Folden, Brian Springberg and Shawn Thomas joined Petersen as NCAA regional champs as the Boxers went on to win the Great Lakes Region title in their first year.
The Boxers' success at the NCAA level now makes Petersen's induction into the Hall of Fame, and his status as Pacific's first wrestling champion, even more meaningful.
'I never thought I would have made it,' Petersen said. 'It surprised me. I am honored.'