the beast of the east

 

Roles: Copywriting, Content Strategy, Media Relations

Alfred "Baby J" Bannister, III was, is, and will be a presence on the national scene of wrestling. Compiling 272 verified wins in high school, Bannister set the record for independent schools.

Bannister's story was of particular importance as his success in a lesser-covered sport came around the same time that the International Olympic Committee chose to remove wrestling from the 2016 Olympic Games. Seizing on the discussion of the importance of wrestling to international athletic competition, I pitched The Washington Post using the feature article I wrote.

The school and his story received steady coverage leading up to and following his achievements.

Alfred “Baby J” Bannister’s high school wrestling career reads as a mythological story.  

As a high school wrestler, he has been a four-time Maryland State champion, a four-time Washington Catholic Athletic Conference champion, a two-time Beast of the East National Invitational Tournament champion, a two-time National Preparatory School champion, and the current record-holder for most wins in school and Maryland state history. He has amassed a 272-10 win to loss record in high school, highlighted by going 80-2 as a sophomore, 68-0 as a junior, and 62-1 as a senior. He finished his career at the National Preparatory Championships at Lehigh University as one of the top ten most prolific winners in national history.

His story paints him as a hulking brute — an uncompromising competitor who revels in victory and wallows in defeat. The reality, however, could not be further from the truth.

Alfred stands an unassuming 5’4. The soft-spoken senior wears his hair tied back, walks slowly through the hallways, and disarms teachers and students alike with a gentle smile. His calm, placid demeanor exudes a humble nature rarely seen in athletes of any level — high school, collegiate, or professional — that have been dominant in their sport of choice. His manner boldly belies the athlete who, in a locker room wrestling match, brought a lineman on the football team flat on his back despite a difference of 16 inches and 150 pounds between the two. 

As he prepares to wrestle at the University of Maryland this fall for National Championships and other prestigious accolades, reflection of development is a necessary step in correctly portraying the story of Alfred “Baby J” Bannister III. The story behind the wrestler is one of love, family, support, and hard work. 

A Learned Prodigy 

Alfred began wrestling when he was only five years old. His talent was apparent even at such an early age. His father, Alfred Bannister, Jr., distinctly remembers coaches approaching him to tell him how good his son was going to be. “Here I was sitting at my five year old son’s wrestling tournament, extremely pleased at how he was doing,” Bannister, Jr. said, “and up and come high school and college coaches who want to know my son’s name. One coach told me, ‘look, you need to take wrestling seriously with this kid because he’s going to be something special one day.’”

Alfred won Junior Championships — a meet that he was given a special exemption to enter due to his age — as a six year old. “It was at that point,” his father said, “that I began to get a picture of what he was going to do in this sport.”

Despite this, his father never demanded perfection of his son, as is so often the case with child prodigies. Alfred, Jr. recognized early on what his son wanted and committed to helping him achieve that. “'Baby J' wanted to do everything in wrestling and I supported him all the way but, above all, I wanted to make sure he had the strong support of a loving family.”

Having an older brother and a father who wrestled before him allowed Alfred access to a 24-hour network of competitive training — whether that was at a local gym or on the living room carpet. “We’d go to the gym to practice and stay until it closed and then come home, tired, but not quite done and wrestle on our carpet until 11 or 12 at night,” he said. “Most of it was practice until it just turned into me wrestling my older brother. I definitely learned to keep my emotions in check on that rug,” Alfred continued, laughing.

Alfred's positive family environment enabled him to focus on both academics and athletics. Alfred developed what Bishop McNamara Wrestling Coach and Biology Teacher Paul Wicks referred to as "an absolute focus." As his teacher and coach, he recalled Alfred having the gift to, “do whatever he wanted, because when he made up his mind about something, he was so resolute in his determination, no one was going to get in his way.” Wicks remembered, specifically, Bannister challenging his classmates to beat him on an upcoming biology test. Among the 21 students in the class — all fellow honor roll students — no one did.

Redress 

Andrew Bannister '09, Alfred's older brother, set the standard for his little brother as a dominant wrestler from an early age and an adept student at Bishop McNamara. His father explained that, “wrestling was always important for our kids, but when it came down to it education was paramount.”

Andrew’s high school career, however, lacked the storybook ending that Alfred received. Despite being heavily favored to sweep the Maryland State title all four years, Andrew lost as a senior. Alfred was in middle school at the time, sitting in the stands. “It was heartbreaking,” he said. “I don’t remember how Andrew reacted because I was crying.”

When Alfred had to choose which high school he would attend, there was little debate. Despite the number of wrestling power houses in the area, let alone conference, Alfred chose to follow his older brother Andrew to Bishop McNamara.

“People had been telling us Alfred was going to be the next great wrestler since he was five,” his father said. “And we were very excited about that, but we would have never wanted Alfred to exceed athletically at the cost of his academic maturation so it wasn’t even a thought that he wouldn’t follow his older brother after the experience he had at McNamara.”

For Alfred, the chance to redress his older brother’s loss at the state championship was all that was on his mind. “I definitely came into high school with a bit of a chip on my shoulder,” he said.

As a freshman, Alfred won the Maryland state title with his older brother, Andrew, in the stands. “It was a great feeling,” he said. “I definitely did it for him.”

Following his victory, however, came the chance to discover what Bishop McNamara could offer him. “Once I won, I could kind of relax and enjoy high school a bit more,” he said. “I definitely wouldn’t be where I am today without my friends and teachers here.”

250 

The success continued for Alfred throughout his high school career, though the pressure to win was replaced by an immeasurable enjoyment of the sport. Winning is fun, after all.

Only by his senior year was he aware that he had begun to approach the Maryland State Wrestling Association record for career wrestling wins at 249. As he inched closer to the record with every win, so too did the pressure he put on himself begin to increase. “The matches didn’t necessarily get harder,” he said. “But the amount of scrutiny I put into each and every one of my moves began to disrupt my natural flow of wrestling – and that made things harder.”

It wasn’t until his brother came home from the University of Notre Dame of Ohio over winter break that he was able to confide his anxiety to someone. “People think that the more you win, the easier it gets,” he said, “but the more you win, the bigger target you have on your back. Nobody really got that but my brother.”

Speaking to his brother, Alfred found comfort in his brother’s words. “He told me to have faith — not only in the traditional sense, but also in my ability as a person and in my friends and family.”

Andrew’s message hit home for Alfred, who finished his senior season undefeated, with WCAC, State, and National Preps titles all coming in the final weeks of his season.

A Tradition of Excellence 

Away from the wrestling ring, Alfred’s little brother, Sir Bannister, wears his hair exactly like his older brother. While everyone at school knows Alfred to be a normal, dedicated student, Sir sees his brother in the only way a little brother could: as a mythological hero.

The nine year old is a constant presence in the stands for Alfred’s matches. Over the past several months, Sir chose to grow out his hair, preferring it drawn back with a hair tie to keep it out of his face, just as Alfred does. He wears flashy shoes, mimicking the all gold wrestling shoes Alfred wears when he wrestles. He loves to talk, and runs around as if getting tired is a mortal flaw; as if he were Alfred’s little brother. Alfred laughs, remembering when he, too, followed his older brother in a similar fashion.

Breaking with family tradition, however, Sir wasn’t taken with the sport of wrestling immediately. Unlike his father and two older brothers, he preferred soccer. Soccer was more intricate and involved more of his close friends than wrestling. He wrestled to please his parents, but didn't have his heart set on it.

Until he won, of course.

As a nine year old, Sir won a tournament for 11-12 year olds and was suddenly ignited in his passion for the sport. “I’m going to be like Baby J!” he exclaimed to his father.

Remembering when a young Alfred had said the same thing about his older brother, Andrew, his father couldn't help but laugh.

Squatting down, he told his son, “Sir, the way things go around here, you may even be better.”