Coming off a loss in the 195-pound state finals as a sophomore, Henry Clay wrestler Ray-Karl Irving was motivated as ever to improve himself heading into the new school year. A freak accident on the football field did nothing to dispel his drive.
Irving broke the tibia and fibula in his left leg in a football scrimmage against Fairdale in August. While trying to make a tackle, someone clipped his leg from behind and he fell straight down.
“I didn’t know it was broke,” said Irving. “There were six dudes on top of me and I’m trying to get up and I’m like, “Why can’t I get up?” I’m looking around like, ‘Why am I not getting up like normal?’”
He looked down and saw blood and ligaments amidst twitching skin.
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“And I let out one good scream,” he said. “You know you’re in pain when you start screaming food. I was naming any food I could think of. Snickerdoodles, noodles, pastries. I was going ham with them. It started back in sophomore year, when I realized I needed to be a role model. I couldn’t be saying bad words and stuff. So I changed my cuss words into food items.”
They cut off Irving’s shoe – one half to his favorite pair — and carted him off the field. Before he was taken to UK’s hospital, his dad rushed to the field and told him, “You can cry if you need to.” The physical pain was tolerable, Irving said, but when his mind turned to his future on the mat he couldn’t contain himself.
“That’s when my tears started falling,” Irving said. “I worked so hard last year to get to where I was and it’s just taken away now.”
Irving, ranked No. 1 in KentuckyWrestling.com’s initial rankings, was de-ranked before being cleared to wrestle in January. He’s now ranked No. 3 behind state favorite Matt Steven (LaRue County) and Johnson Central’s Brady Taylor, both seniors. Irving went 2-2 in his first meet of the season and is 13-3 entering this weekend’s Fayette County meet.
Henry Clay Coach Andy Critchfield said Irving is making progress not just with his technique, but in learning to trust his own body again. The coaching staff is helping him adapt his style so he can wrestle at an optimal level despite not being back to full strength. Sparring partners Will Lawson, a senior who’s wrestling for the first time this season, and assistant coach Casey Delong have been instrumental during team practices.
Irving still doesn’t have feeling in the front part of his left leg, which now has a rod inserted within (it was either that or six months in a full-body cast, he said). He was receiving college interest before but that went “downhill after I broke it,” he said. Irving knows he’s not as fast as he once but but said his upper body is stronger than before and he’s getting his speed back gradually. He estimated that he’s about at 50 percent of his potential.
That’s when my tears started falling. I worked so hard last year to get to where I was and it’s just taken away now.
Ray-Karl Irving, Henry Clay wrestler
“This is like wrestling for the first time,” said Irving, who picked up the sport in seventh grade. He didn’t want to play basketball, as was his dad’s wish, but he misled him into thinking he was at hoop practice while he was really launching a career on the mat.
His dad didn’t initially believe him at first when he told him he was winning tournaments in middle school.
“That was just the launch of it,” said Irving. “My first year I got third in state.”
Teammate Tyler Storck, a junior ranked fourth in the 120-pound weight class, thinks Irving can not just make the state tournament again, but win it all once he gets there “if he stays positive” on the way.
“He gets pretty sad sometimes because he knows he’s not wrestling to the caliber that he can, but we just gotta remind him to take it day by day,” Storck said.
Irving’s in his own corner, too.
“I think I can get back to state,” Irving said. “I can do anything if I believe it. I just have to have my mind set on it.”
Fayette County City Meet
When: 10 a.m. Saturday
Where: Henry Clay High School gymnasium