- Associated Press - Saturday, May 21, 2016

FORT MYERS, Fla. (AP) - At 11:30 a.m., Steve Damico guides kindergartners seated on a carpet printed with ABC’s through the ins-and-outs of colonial life, “Why did the farmers go to town?”

At 6 p.m., Syther, a pro wrestler fluent in gibberish, brushes neon green paint on his face in a men’s restroom. He’ll brawl against Big Bully Parker, among others, in about an hour. He’s pumped. “I feel good. I feel tan. I feel like I’m in decent enough shape.”

Many of us have alter egos, but Damico’s transmutation is radical. Is Mr. Damico Syther? Or is Syther Mr. Damico? It’s hard to know. Mr. Damico wears a ponytail. Syther leaves his long hair loose and wild. The pair do share traits: the even bronze from a tanning bed, their age (27 years) and a muscularity framed by exuberance.

Syther excuses himself to hash out the rumble with his rivals, “That’s more of the closed-door secret part. You get to watch it unfold.”

A few weeks earlier, students huffed and grunted as they bounced off the ropes of a 16-by-16 foot ring in an industrial space just off the interstate, east of Fort Myers. Local wrestlers used to set up the ring in a backyard to practice before Damico opened The Crypt.

There’s a banker, a bartender and a 15-year-old girl among the 10 students this evening. It’s an even split of men and women.

“Don’t quit! GO! GO! GO!” Damico barked, surveying his protégés. Damico wore a black T-shirt asserting, “Wrestling is my girlfriend.”

This statement is not exactly true; wrestling is more like his conjoined twin.

Damico traces his infatuation to a WWE wrestling show he watched at 3 years old in his Long Island living room.

“I was watching a guy, the Berzerker, trying to stab another wrestler, the Undertaker, with a sword and I was hooked.”

His dad later took him to wrestling shows. At one show, Damico, then in high school, pointed to a stocky guy in tights. His name: The Iceberg. “I know that guy,” his father recalls him saying. “He’s a teacher at my school.”

The Iceberg, a.k.a. Gary the special education teacher, referred Damico to a school run by Mikey Whipwreck, an Extreme Championship Wrestling triple-crown winner. But early on, Damico realized his 5-foot-5 stature precluded assured fortune and fame.

“Wrestling is filled with these giants. …I know that I’m not physically what you see when you watch television.”

He just craved to be in the ring.

At 16, Damico was ready to perform, though trainers coached him to add two years to his age to meet regulations. In his first show, he defeated JT Tackleberry in a Long Island community center. After the match, he couldn’t stop smiling. Damico had found his thing, the thing that makes him feel most alive.

Over the years, Syther has performed on independent circuits in the Northeast and Florida and at the debut of “Crazy Fight Wrestling League” in China. His character Syther, pronounced Sigh-ther, has evolved into a crazy and fun-loving scamp. Damico likens him to a “little dog.”

Damico wishes everyone had a passion that makes them feel as good as he does while wrestling.

“Wrestling for me, is the biggest adrenaline rush you can get. It’s every emotion coming alive, your sense of smell, your sense of sight, your sense of touch. It all heightens when I’m in the ring. For the 10 to 15 minutes I’m out there.I get to become a character that’s larger than life and my real world problems don’t have to exist.

“I get to escape.”

Fearing the day a doctor will tell him to stop, Damico doesn’t make time for check-ups. A sampling of his injuries include: a twice-broken nose, dislocated fingers, two teeth kicked out and a nagging back ache since a guy slammed him onto a bed of cinder-blocks. Still, he can’t imagine life without wrestling.

At The Crypt, advanced students somersaulted into the air and fall splat onto their backs in the ring. Body against mat. BOOM. Mat against wood. BOOM. Wood against steel. BOOM. It’s a deafening metronome.

“If this was kindergarten, right now they’re doing centers,” Damico said before calling for a break.

The similarities persist.

“These are big kindergartners here. Kindergartners, they need the patience but they also need a certain amount of you-can-do-it attitude and these people need that too,” he said. “And if there’s no structure, there’s chaos. We’re sitting here talking and they have no clue what to do.”

Large men bumbled about the fluorescent-lit gym until Damico told them to prepare for a practice match.

“I need everyone else on the mats, you can take, crisscross applesauce,” he grinned, borrowing a term from his day job. Damico kneeled at the edge of the ring, ready to critique the action, his eyes lit with glee.

Earlier this month, Mr. Damico sat before 19 kindergartners at Three Oaks Elementary near San Carlos Park. They are quietly captive to his lesson on colonial times. Only one child picked her nose. Only one child fidgeted.

“How did they get money?”

A girl’s hand shot up.

“They got nickels from the tooth fairy?”

“No,” he said, gently, before talking of the barter system.

In the tidy classroom decorated with sunflowers and charts of opposites, it’s hard to envision Mr. Damico as Syther. Mr. Damico strides with confidence. Syther scurries about like a creature. Also, he speaks gobbledygook. Yet, Syther may have helped Mr. Damico land his job.

Mr. Damico listed pro wrestler on his resume for his first job at Three Oaks: helping students with behavioral issues. He was approached for a kindergarten opening the next year. His major was early elementary education but, Mr. Damico wondered how he’d fare against the latent mayhem of 5 and 6-year-old’s.

“I was a little apprehensive, like maybe I didn’t have the classroom management skills and these kids would walk all over me because they’re young. I didn’t know if there would be screaming and crying, like who needs to go to the bathroom, who’s throwing up in the corner.”

He’s proud to report his class is controlled and “I’m loving every minute of it.”

He is 1 of 10 males among the nearly 500 kindergarten teachers in Lee and Collier counties.

Three Oaks Elementary Principal Jody Moorhead praised Damico’s teaching, “The kids are on the edge of their seats listening to him . He also runs a tight ship.”

While many people have more than one identity, inevitably, there’s spillover. Mr. Damico and Syther have silliness and strength in common. During a lesson on shapes, Mr. Damico drew a red heart on the board.

A student complained theirs did not look as good.

“We are kindergarteners,” he coached. “Is our drawing going to be perfect?”

“NOOO!!!” his class repeated.

“Are we going to cry about it?”

“NOOO!!!”

In other words, be tough. His little ones know he wrestles, but he’s Mr. Damico first. And, unlike the wrestlers, no matter how the day goes, the kindergartners want to give Mr. Damico hugs.

Before the doors open at Riverside Community Center in Fort Myers, a wrestler in a purple belly-showing top mingles with a pierced guy with red contacts. Heavy metal music sets the tone for ruckus.

Syther’s dad, his No. 1 fan, and his 20-year-old sister are among the first at the REAL Pro Wrestling show. REAL Pro hosts shows at Riverside the first Tuesday of every month. It’s run by a Publix cashier/stand-up comic from Naples.

No one’s making big bucks here. “We’re starving artists,” said Syther, who earns less than $50 a show, a testament to his skills and popularity. Some guys make nothing, he said, though wrestlers travel from as far as Tallahassee.

Syther’s 3-on-3 match-up is early on the roster. His three opponents strut into the ring. The dark music and clothes signal, “These are bad dudes.” One growls from behind a skeletal mask.

There’s a pause. Then, silence. The music begins again. Syther explodes from behind the curtains trimmed by smoke. “DOPPA!” he bellows, spinning and jumping like a dervish through the crowd of more than a hundred people. Doppa is his catch phrase. It means nothing, but an intangible connection to the crowd.

The cheers are for him though his team includes two other wrestlers. They trail behind Syther’s frenetic energy. Syther mounts the ropes and raises a fist in a bestial howl, “AHHHH!!!!!”

The crowd chants his name.

SYTHER! SYTHER! SYTHER!

Arms vaulted like wings, his head drops back in ecstasy.

Syther climbs to the top of the ropes and flings himself atop his opponents. The tall trio tumble like timber. Later, Syther stalks the ring as he faces Chris Calloway, a lanky, long-haired wrestler nearly a foot taller. He can wrestle, but lacks Syther’s dramatic flourishes. Syther’s luck turns. Calloway catapults him across the ring. Syther writhes on the mat.

SYTHER! SYTHER! SYTHER!

Syther grasps at the air as if gaining strength from their zeal. He peels himself up.

Calloway swiftly pins him to the mat. Syther’s legs flail like a flipped beetle.

1.2.3. Syther is a goner. The crowd boos. Doubled over, Syther hobbles from the ring striped in beams of twilight. The center sits on the edge of the Caloosahatchee River. Waves ripple beyond the windows.

The scene is a reminder we live in beautifully weird world where this is a way to spend an otherwise average Tuesday night, a world in which the crazy-eyed wrestler slinking from the ring also teaches kindergarten. Syther didn’t expect to be home until after midnight. As usual, he planned to wake at 3 a.m. to work out and be in his classroom by 6:30.

After the show, Syther is high from the rush. Mr. Damico, on the other hand, may be limping in the morning.

___

Information from: The (Fort Myers, Fla.) News-Press, https://www.news-press.com

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC.

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