There is tough, there is Bakersfield tough and then there was Joe Seay.
When guys like Joe Seay die, you know it’s pretty much a lock for the rest of us.
Joe Seay was a PE teacher and wrestling coach at South High. When I arrived as a freshman, Seay was already a legend as a world-class wrestler and soon to become one as a coach. Had it not been for Dan Gable (“Gable was crazier than he was,” said wrestler Craig Tobin), Seay would have wrestled in the Olympics and probably won the gold medal in the 148 class.
Seay walked the halls at South like athletic royalty. He was quiet and intense. It seemed best to give him plenty of room lest he surprise you with a double leg takedown.
Seay was my PE teacher for a year. During the '60s and '70s, South was full of hard, no-nonsense, don’t-give- me-any-guff teachers, especially PE teachers.
They looked like drill sergeants, fresh out of the Marines. Impervious to pain but not impervious to handing it out.
As tough as they were, Seay seemed a level above. The PE teachers gathered on the second floor of the gym, where they looked down at their charges as if they were undersized pencil necks and a disgrace to men and physical fitness everywhere. I imagined that up in the inner sanctum, Seay ruled and if he had told his fellow PE teachers to drop down and give him 20, that they would have hit the floor like they were searching for loose change.
With Seay as your PE teacher, you dreaded rainy days. When it was dry, we would play flag football, basketball and softball but it seemed to rain every day that year.
When it was wet, Seay would order his students into the gym or the wrestling room. I’m not sure which was worse.
In the gym, it was dodgeball, the game where half the students would line up on one side of the court and the other half on the opposing line and we would hurl volleyballs at one another. If you were blessed with dragonfly-like quickness and had 360-degree vision, you were at no risk of being hit. Otherwise, you could expect to take several head shots that would probably lead to concussions, dementia and, if nothing else, leave you dingy and confused during World History.
Dodgeball was like a flying saucer cookie compared to what happened when Seay herded us onto the mats in the wrestling room. Seay would usually pit you against somebody who was bigger and stronger and had wrestled in the Junior Olympics. Right before your opponent put you in a half nelson where you could neither see, hear nor speak, Seay would impart some wrestling wisdom which might have helped had your leg not been wrapped around your neck cutting off normal blood flow through your jugular vein.
He wanted to give his students a taste of what wrestling was like. I got a taste and it tasted mostly like sweat, fear, and rubber mats.
Rainy day PE was nothing compared to what he put his wrestlers through. Seay would wrestle anybody. That included Bill Van Worth, who was the heavyweight at South at the time.
“When Joe moved on to Cal State, he’d recruit wrestlers by putting them in a front headlock,” said Tobin, who wrestled for him there. “He’d see how long you could take it before you succumbed.”
Seay tested your mettle but he was fair in his mettle testing as long as your metal was forged from steel rather than tin.
“Joe was color blind,” Tobin said. “All he cared about was that you were tough and wouldn’t quit. If you did quit, he’d look in your eyes and say, 'If you quit on me again, I’ll break your arm.'”
Seay was an epic figure in early Bakersfield sports in the same way Denny Ralston and Rick Mears were. Bigger than life. Bigger than Bakersfield. Destined to make an impact on a much larger stage, stages that included coaching at Oklahoma State and then in the Olympics.
Seay made you proud that you were from Bakersfield. He was tough, even for around here. Joe Seay tough.