Mat Max is a Public hero5-27-09 Chicago Sun-Times Photo Studio. Headshots of prep sports writers Michael Clark. Photo by Scott Stewart/Sun-Times
Updated: February 16, 2012 7:14PM
By Saturday night, the prep career of Max Schneider — the guy who did as much as anyone to make Public League wrestling relevant again — will be over.
If he hadn’t battled a lingering shoulder injury for the better part of two seasons, Schneider could well be going for his third state championship in the Class 3A tournament at Assembly Hall in Champaign. No Public League wrestler has ever accomplished that, and the last one to win two titles was Tilden’s Jack Monroe in 1952 and ’53.
To put it in perspective, the Public League combined for four state titles between 1956 and 2010, when Schneider won his first championship. He missed much of last season with that bum shoulder, but through it all, he has been as close to perfection as you’re likely to see in the Public League or anywhere else any time soon.
Going into the state quarterfinals, he was 141-5 for his career, including 101-1 since losing in the state title bout as a freshman, and 36-0 this season.
After the heyday of Public League wrestling from the 1930s through the ’50s, the sport was in steady decline in the city. Suburban and Downstate wrestlers coveted a state-tournament draw against their Public League counterparts who were frequently overmatched and only made it to Champaign thanks to their automatic bids.
As with most Public League sports, the best thing to happen to wrestling was the elimination of the automatic bids to the state finals. Forced to compete against private and suburban schools, the city programs had no choice but to get better if they ever hoped to make the trip down I-57 for state.
There has been slow but noticeable progress. But until Schneider walked into the Lane wrestling room in late 2008 and asked coach Mark Miedona if he could join the program, there hadn’t been a true city superstar. Schneider had plenty of doubters that first year; how could a kid who’d never wrestled a match before high school compete with the state’s best who’d begun their age-group careers years earlier?
But Schneider already was an international-caliber competitor in another sport (judo), so he had the athletic chops and mental toughness to meet the challenge. He went all the way to the state final that season, pinning Oak Park-River Forest’s Ellis Coleman — a senior with a 46-0 record — in the semis, before losing 12-9 to Lake Zurich senior Kevin Fanta in the championship.
He didn’t lose as a sophomore, even though he was essentially wrestling with one good shoulder much of the year. And his only loss of an injury-plagued junior year was to Crystal Lake Central’s Joey Kielbasa, himself a three-time state champ.
It’s a story almost too ridiculous to make up. But it’s true, and Schneider hopes it will inspire other city kids to dream as big as he has.
“My legacy will be making Lane Tech more known throughout the state,” he said before practice the other day, “helping the Public League [wrestlers] realize that they have the talent within themselves . . . that they can have homegrown state champs.”
If Schneider could put one thought in the heads of the next generation of city wrestlers, it’s this: Why not me? Why not us?
With Schneider leading the way, Lane has been state-ranked in Class 3A all season, and he’ll be joined at state by junior 120-pounder Johnny McCarthy and senior 126-pounder Nick Jankowski. He’d like to believe that there will be more individual medals and team trophies won by city wrestlers at state, perhaps by Bowen, which has emerged as a Class 2A power with stars including Ronzel Darling and Dequence Goodman.
“It means a lot, revitalizing the Public League spirit and trying to bring back some pride to Public League wrestling,” Schneider said. “We have it in basketball and football. We show our athleticism, we show our talents there. But we need to do a little more for wrestling.”
Thanks to Max Schneider, now the city knows how that can be done.