Taylor Raphael, an Albany high schooler, had walked through a turbulent journey in the past year, battling against drug addiction and winning wrestling matches. Photo by Linda (Linjun) Fan.
Taylor Raphael stood tall on the awarding podium of Newark Memorial High School Gym, smiling at flashing cameras and cheering audience. He had won fourth place in the North Coast Section Championship and would be the only Albany wrestler to compete in the state wrestling championship. Few in the the applauding crowd knew about the turbulent journey he had taken to be there.
It was an afternoon in springtime, 2001. School was over. Taylor and another boy at Albany Middle School crept into a deserted concrete tunnel near the school. The boy, a seventh grader, a year older than Taylor, asked Taylor whether he would like to try some weed.
Taylor seldom said no to something new and cool.
The older boy crammed a quarter gram of marijuana into a pipe, and lit it up.
Taylor inhaled. A few minutes later his mind seemed to be drifting in the air. He didn’t worry about his homework, or about teachers’ criticism, or anything. It was a weird feeling.
He liked it.
Taylor started to deal marijuana in his junior year. The profits provided him pocket money, and paid for his own daily consumption. He thought it might be a good business he could keep doing for the rest of his life.
But a parent found out that her child bought marijuana from Taylor and complained to school administrators.
A security guard grabbed Taylor out of his classroom one day. Evidence from surveillance cameras showed him dealing weed. Taylor shouted and cursed.
A counselor searched Taylor’s backpack, and found half an ounce of weed inside. He called Taylor’s parents and the Albany police.
The police handcuffed Taylor, and drove him to a holding cell of the Albany Police Department. Taylor collapsed into tears in the back of the police vehicle.
There were nothing but a chair and his thoughts in the cell. The world was so unfair to him. He saw himself as a smart kid, and a good kid. Why were they making such a fuss? It was just some weed.
A few days after the arrest, Taylor was expelled from Albany High School.
Three weeks later Taylor slowly walked up the concrete stairs of MacGregor High School, a continuation school in Albany. He felt his life was screwed up.
There were about forty students at MacGregor. Many of them had problems with regular school, and transferred from Albany High School because of failing grades.
MacGregor was located in a quiet neighborhood near Albany Hill. From the balcony of MacGregor, Taylor could see the red complex building of Albany High School, which was less than a mile away. All his friends were there.
Barry Shapiro, principal of MacGregor, welcomed Taylor with a firm handshake. Having taught at the school for years, Shapiro knew how to talk to kids who had a hard time concentrating in class.
A month later in Shapiro’s class, Taylor sat in his chair struggling to stay awake, after a night of smoking and drinking.
Shapiro came to his desk. “Why don’t you take a nap on the couch in the lobby?”
Taylor couldn’t believe what he heard. He looked at Shapiro and rubbed his eyes. “What, huh?”
Shapiro said it again.
Taylor went to the couch and had a good sleep. He seldom dozed off in class after that.
He started to like MacGregor. Everybody knew each other well at the school, partly due to its small size. Teachers gave students strict guidelines, but were not demanding on their academic achievements.
Taylor got confidence in school. He finished the last month of his junior year at MacGregor. When he returned in September, he got A’s in most of his classes and made many new friends.
Taylor signed in at MacGregor High School. Several copies of news stories about him were posted on the billboard in front of him.
Taylor had no desire to go back to Albany High School, but he still kept his blue and red wrestling uniform of its wrestling team.
He had been a wrestler for six years, and won a number of medals. Nothing feels better to him than winning a wrestling match.
For Taylor, wrestling was like nothing else in his life. On the wrestling mat he was in control. There were no distractions, no one telling him what to do, just him, his strength and his own wits.
In February, 2007, three months before his arrest, Taylor was disqualified from wrestling because of his falling grades.
It was in the middle of a wrestling season. Taylor wept alone at a corner of the school’s baseball field, when he realized there was no hope for him to continue wrestling in the season.
He wished he could blame somebody else. But it was clear that his teachers and parents had tried very hard to help him.
His friends picked him up afterwards. They went to smoke marijuana. Taylor smoked until he couldn’t remember what had happened.
MacGregor students can join sports teams of Albany High School as long as they have enough grades. The good grades Taylor got at MacGregor helped him return to the wrestling team of Albany High.
He practiced hard. He was eager to win. He wanted to prove to the world that he was still the prominent young athlete they had cheered for.
He won one tournament after another in the new season, until he was ranked No.1 in the North Coast Section Championship, the biggest wrestling event in Northern California, in the 130-pound weight class.
He smoked less weed, so he could concentrate on wrestling practice. A week before the championship, he stopped smoking completely.
It was a hard choice. He had to resist the temptation constantly, especially when his friends smoked.
Several days before the championship Taylor and his friends drove to a house in Richmond. He went inside with $15 cash from a friend and returned with a gram of marijuana.
Taylor gave it to the friend. They drove away from the house, playing loud rap music in the car with the windows open, rocking and shouting to the music.
After arriving at a street corner in Albany, the friend tore open a cigar, threw away the tobacco, and carefully wrapped the weed inside. Taylor offered to help. He took the cigar with both hands, licked wet the upper side of the wrap, and swiftly sealed it up.
When the friend lit up the newly-made blunt and started to puff, Taylor suddenly walked away from him, got into their car, and drove away from the familiar smell.
He didn’t come back to pick up the friend until 20 minutes later, after the smell was gone.
Taylor wore a pink goggle while he and his friends drove around town. He salvaged the goggle from a swimming pool near a friend’s apartment.
The next night Taylor hung out at a friend’s house. Some boys were drinking alcohol.
Taylor sat there silently. I shouldn’t join them, he thought. Alcohol turns me into someone else, and the championship is just two days away.
They opened a forty-ounce. Everybody was making noise and having fun.
“Taylor, you want some?” a friend asked.
“If I just drink a little bit, it should be all right.”
He started to drink a bit. He felt good. He felt like drinking some more, and helped himself.
He couldn’t remember how he got home when he woke up in his bed the next day. Did he walk home by himself, or did his friends drop him off?
He called his friends. They told him that he was very drunk, cursed several people, and staggered home alone.
Taylor got scared. He could have been picked up by police and arrested again. He vowed to give up alcohol.
Taylor didn’t eat anything the day before the championship in order to make weight.
On the wrestling day he got up at 4:30 a.m., and put on a T-shirt he won from a previous tournament. He packed a red canteen, with a spiderman picture on it, and a new pair of white wrestling shoes in his bag.
Hundreds of young wrestlers from schools around Northern California crowded the Newark Memorial High School Gym. Six yellow wrestling mats glared under strong lights in the middle of the gym, surrounded by hundreds of rows of blue seats.
Six wrestling matches were going on at the same time. The gym was a beehive of sounds — referees blowing whistles, audience cheering, coaches shouting to their wrestlers, and constant announcements from loudspeakers, .
Taylor put on his new shoes, flexed his biceps, and walked to his assigned mat.
He pinned his first opponent a minute into the match, and pinned the second one within two minutes. He won the third match by an overwhelming score of 16:0.
The audience cheered. His coaches and teammates hugged him.
Taylor smiled after he won the first three wrestling matches at North Coast Section Championship.
Taylor talked to a newspaper reporter shortly after he finished a wrestling match.
He imagined himself winning the fourth match, competing in the final one, and heading to the state championship.
He might even become the state champion. He planned to do a back flip in the center of the gym when he won. He had taught himself how to do it while he was studying Chinese martial arts many years ago.
He could hardly hold back his excitement when he sat outside the gym after his matches.
“I am the No. 1 seed, baby, ” he said to a girl who walked by.
When he crossed a street on his way home, he repeated the statement to vehicles driving by.
“I am the No. 1 seed in NCS (North Coast Section), ” he said.
When he came back to the gym for the fourth match the next day, Taylor didn’t feel much pressure at his opponent, a boy named Aaron Westphal, who was much shorter than him.
After the referee blew a whistle, Taylor kept a distance from Aaron, and adjusted his stance according to Aaron’s movements. But Aaron suddenly squatted down and took Taylor’s right leg.
Taylor faced his opponent and adjusted his positions at the beginning of a match at Newark Memorial High School Gym.
Taylor was taken down before he could do anything. Shortly afterwards Aaron took him down again, and again. During the six-minute match, Taylor was taken down five times. He lost the match at 15:6.
He walked out of the stadium and sat on the ground outside. It was drizzling.
He used to cry every time he lost a match in the past. But he didn’t feel like crying anymore. It wouldn’t help him to win the next match.
He did a couple of stretches and warmed up his body. He had one more match. If he did well, he could still make it to the state championship. He wanted to win. He wanted to wrestle in the state meet.
At the fifth match, Taylor’s opponent was Erik Jameson from Clear Lake High School.
Erik touched Taylor’s neck and legs in the first few seconds, but failed to grab them. Taylor dashed over, and grabbed his left leg. Erik tried to keep his balance, but Taylor took his right leg, and slammed him down.
Taylor continued to fight hard in the second round, grasped the left side of Erik’s body and turned him over on the mat. With a second take-down and then a turn-over, Taylor won the match.
He got up from the mat, clenched his fists, and looked toward the audience like a victorious general. His muscles bulged. Sweat streamed down his face.
He walked to shake hands with his opponent’s coach, and then ran to his two coaches, Kermit Bankson and Tyrone Rose, who had been nervously standing by the mat.
Taylor’s father, who had taken a day off from his job at Stanford University, smiled in the audience and called back home on his cell phone to announce the good news.
At the awarding ceremony a few hours later, Taylor walked up red-carpeted steps to the winner’s platform. He had come a long way from the first day he walked up the concrete stairs of MacGregor.
He received his medal with both hands, and solemnly hung it in front of his chest. He stood straight and smiled towards flashing cameras.
After stepping down the platform, he caressed the medal, and gently rolled up a paper sheet, on which there was a bracket of all his opponents’ names and the scores of each of his matches at the championship.
At home that night, he hung the medal in his bedroom cabinet, and posted the bracket on the wall beside his bed.
He friends might call later. There would be many more choices for him to make and battles to fight. But he knew that he’d learned something he would hold dear for the rest of his life.
Taylor looked at the NCS bracket in his bedroom.
Watch the video below for Taylor Raphael’s performance at the North Coast Section Wrestling Championship:
*It took me several months to get to know Taylor and finish this story — the longest story I’ve ever written. I am thankful to Taylor for openning his life for me to do the reporting; to my two instructors, Joan Ryan and David Lewis of San Francisco Chronicle, who taught me a class on narrative writing and helped to shape the story along the way; to Mr. Barry Shapiro, who introduced Taylor to me and gave me opportunities to sit in Taylor’s classes; to Coach Kermit Bankson and Tyrone Rose, who gave me beginner lessons on wrestling . Thanks! — Linda (Linjun)