For Airline senior wrestler Tucker Almond, the Riot on the Red at Parkway has always been simply another regular-season tournament to help him prepare for the main event — the state tournament in February.
But this year it was different. In all likelihood, it was the final tournament of his high school career.
To know why you have to go back to Nov. 6, election day.
School was out. Almond decided to use the rare time off during wrestling season to go to his deer hunting spot to check his cameras and put out some corn.
But first he bought a new ground blind at Wal-Mart. While still at the store, he got in the bed of his pickup and began to set the blind up. That required cutting some zip ties on the poles.
“The first zip tie that I cut, I pulled my knife out,” he said. “I thought to myself, it might be better to use a pair of scissors, it might be a little bit easier.
“But I was being lazy, and was like, you know it will be fine. I grabbed the pole and stuck my knife underneath the zip tie and I started cutting. I pulled it up and whenever I did it cut through the zip tie. My hand was right there and it stabbed my hand. It went pretty deep.”
The knife cut an inch-and-a-half into the palm of his left hand and came out in the web of his thumb.
“Immediately, I pulled the knife out and I looked down at my hand and I saw how bad it was and immediately it started pooling up with blood,” he said.
Almond got out of his truck and headed back into the store. But he had to go back to his truck and get his phone so he could call his mother, Sharon.
“I had blood dripping down my hand,” he said. “It was dripping all over my clothes and people were looking at me and I was just talking to my mom and I told her I cut my hand pretty bad and I was probably going to need some stitches.”
Almond went to customer service and was given some paper towels to press on the cut. He then walked back to his truck with a store employee — he thinks it was a manager — to retrieve his keys.
“He walked out there with me, just to make sure,” Almond said. “He kept on insisting that I needed to sit down because I was bleeding so much and I kept telling him I need to go get my stuff.”
As they were heading back to the store, Almond said he “got pretty lightheaded and almost passed out.”
“They finished walking me inside and sat me down in front on the bench and I was sweating,” he said. “It wasn’t even a really hot day. But I was just dripping sweat.”
Paramedics showed up a few minutes later as Almond was assuring his mother on the phone he was going to be OK.
The paramedics talked to his mother and they decided not to transport him to the hospital. Almond said his mother was thinking to herself that it was just a cut and that it couldn’t be that bad.
When his mother arrived, his hand was wrapped. She took him to the ER. The wound was cleaned. He got a couple of shots to numb the cuts followed by seven stitches and was sent on his way.
That’s the way things stayed until later in the month. As time passed he was unable to bend his middle finger very much and his pointer finger became numb from the web of his thumb all the way up to the tip of it.
The decision was made to go see a specialist, Dr. Diego Miranda, an orthopaedic hand and microsurgeon at Bossier Orthpedics, on Thursday, Nov. 29, two days before the Riot on the Red.
Almond said Miranda told him and his mom that the cut severed the nerve in the web of his thumb and completely cut the tendon in the palm of his hand to his middle finger.
He also told them that if Tucker didn’t get the surgery immediately, he wouldn’t be able to fix it. Recovery time would be three months. The state wrestling tournament is Feb. 8-9, two months away.
“Going into the (Riot on the Red) I had a pretty rough day because it was Thursday that I found out I was going to be having surgery during the next week and a half,” Almond said.
He knew he could still compete in the Riot on the Red even if he had little use of his left hand. But he also realized that it could be his last high school tournament.
“I got to practice and I talked to all my coaches and I let them know what the doctor said and I asked for their opinion,” Almond said. “They said they want what’s best for me and they believed I should get the surgery just because it’s not my last year.”
Almond plans to wrestle in college at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. Former Airline wrestler Thomas Barringer, a good friend of his, is on the team there now.
“They gave me their opinion that I should get the surgery so I regain everything back and my hand is not permanently messed up and so whenever I was at practice I decided I was going to go ahead and do the surgery,” he said.
The surgery will take place Monday (Dec. 10).
Almond was determined to go out in style. He went through his normal routine Friday, the day before the Riot on the Red, working hard at practice and then going home and cutting weight.
On Saturday at Parkway, with two of his fingers on the cut hand taped together, he won his first match in the 152-pound weight class by fall and his second by technical fall. Just before the finals, it hit him like a ton of bricks.
“I was warming up,” he said. “My mind had ben pretty clear throughout whole day. I was going about it as I normally do. And then I started thinking about it. It was going to be the last time I was going to go out there and put an ankle band on and wrestle for Airline. And it hurt.”
He won the championship match by a 14-3 major decision.
“He dominated everyone in the tournament in his weight class with pretty much one hand,” Airline coach Chase Cox said.
Cox says Almond is one of the “toughest young men” he’s ever been around who excels both on the mat and in the classroom.
“His work ethic is something that’s hard to find these days,” Cox said. “The ability to work and push through pain. That’s something that’s super rare these days is for kids to have this toughness — not just mental toughness, but physical toughness — to be able to perform, wrestle when you’re not 100 percent.
“And sometimes in Tucker’s case he’s not even 50 percent. He doesn’t get discouraged. He keeps fighting through any circumstance.”
Cox recalled a tournament in Grapevine, Texas, last season. Two of Almond’s teeth were knocked loose by a head butt to the mouth. Cox figured the match had to be stopped.
“Tucker got extremely upset with me that I was stopping this match because he wanted to wrestle,” Cox said. “He wrestled the very next weekend and he couldn’t even hardly talk. He was not going to quit.”
Almond has been wrestling since he was in the second grade. He started competing in tournaments a year later.
When he was in the sixth grade, he started going to Airline and practicing with the team. Joey Burton, the Airline head coach at the time, was also his youth team coach.
He wrestled in exhibition matches with the high school team. In his eighth-grade year, he had to cut back doing that because of some LHSAA eligibility issues, he said.
Almond has been a key member of the Airline varsity since his freshman year. His primary goal until this year has been to place (finish in the top six) at the state meet. His first two years, he came up one round short.
Last May at the state tournament at the CenturyLink Center, he accomplished the goal, finishing fourth in the Division I 145-pound class.
He wasn’t satisfied, though. As soon as the tournament was over, he started preparing for this season.
“I started working out this summer,” he said. “Really took to it. Working out two or three times a day, every day, getting my strength up, getting my conditioning up.”
At the beginning of October practice for the 2018-19 season got underway in earnest.
“I just started working hard every day in the room, pressing myself, pressing my teammates, because I had one goal in mind and that was to win a state title this year,” he said “And whenever I realized I couldn’t do that it broke my heart. It just sucks because I put so much time and so much effort into everything just for it to be taken away because I was stupid.”
Almond isn’t sitting around feeling sorry for himself, though.
He’s been going to practice every day and helping coach. His brother, Tyler, a former Airline wrestler, is in his first season as an assistant coach after serving in the Air Force.
His younger brother, Tanner, is in the eighth grade and will be wrestling at Airline next season.
“Tucker is right there coaching with the other coaches, “ Cox said. “He’s on the mat. He’s helping young kids. He’s helping the new wrestlers. He’s helping the experienced wrestlers on technique and getting better just because he cares. He wants to see his teammates succeed. That just tells you right there what kind of person Tucker Almond is. He really is just an outstanding young man.”
His teammates have also been there for him, just as they were when his father passed away in May.
“They know what’s going on in my life and they’re all there for me and I appreciate everything that they do,” Almond said. “They know how bad I wanted it and they knew that every day in the room while I was in there pushing them.
“If they were doing something they weren’t supposed to do and I yelled at them they knew it wasn’t because I didn’t like them or something. They knew I just wanted the best for them and I know they want the best for me. They supported me this summer, helped me get through that. I love the team.”
Almond had planned to quit wrestling after his senior season. He wasn’t even sure he was going to go to college.
But last year he and his mother went to Wisconsin-Stevens Point with Barringer and his parents for a visit and met some of the wrestlers.
“Just being in the (wrestling) room motivated me a lot to get there,” he said. “It just looks like a lot of fun. Everybody in that room wants to be there. They’re serious about it and so am I and that’s what I wanted to do.”
The school offers a natural resources program which Almond says is perfect for him. Eventually, he wants to become a game warden.
For now, though, it’ll be a matter of recovering from the surgery and finishing his senior year.
It’s a long shot, but if Almond recovers faster than expected, the Riot on the Red just may not have been his final high school tournament.
“Chances are his season is done,” Cox said. “But I’m never going to rule out anything when it comes to Tucker because this kid is one of the toughest kids I’ve ever been around.
“I know he’s going to want to wrestle at the state championship. We’ll see. We’re not going to do anything to hurt him or put him in harm’s way. But if he’s 100 percent and healed up by then I’m going to cut him loose and let him get after it.”